Homily Commemorating Bishop James Holly
I sometimes am a bit uncomfortable when the Church or society at large put the focus on “firsts”. Specifically when that “first” can become a false sense of security for ongoing oppression and violence.
Four firsts, though, worth noting in the Episcopal Church are Absalom Jones, the first black person ordained a priest in our church; James Theodore Holly, the first black person ordained a bishop in our church; Pauli Murray, the first black woman ordained a priest in our church, and Barbara Harris, the first woman and black woman ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion.
Understood together, these four are able to whisper to us about the ghosts of a racist past and present, the barriers the Church has placed on people due to race and gender, and the ongoing need for the people of God to examine systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
While firsts are often lauded for the groundbreaking nature of their place in history, we often forget how lonely that place might also be. To be first is to be alone. It is usually to be the only one in the room. It usually means a long fight to even get in the room. It means, in the case of Bishop Holly - whose feast we commemorate today - lobbying and challenging the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to take a position against the enslavement of people of African descent. It meant being ordained a bishop under “irregular circumstances”. It meant being a part of a church that did not always honor or recognize his gifts or inherent humanity.
It meant repeating the words of Christ, “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to complete God’s work.” It is to see the injustice surrounding us, but also beyond it. It is to be sustained by a different source of nutrition. Not the food of enslavement, oppression, and racism, but by the food of the God who sets people free, who favors the impoverished, whose throne is encompassed by people from every language, tribe, and nation.
To be a first, like Bishop Holly, is to ask, “How do I bring others into the room with me? How do I remove the walls that kept me out?” To be a First is to trust the absurd idea that you belong right where you are, that if you’re in the room, you’re supposed to be there. God wants you there. That no, everything isn’t okay, but we’re a little bit closer than we might have been had you not been the first.
So, Bishop Holly, we ask that you continue to pray for all firsts, those who know they’re the first and those who don’t. The woman sitting in that board room, the LGBT couple having their children baptized, the Asian actor on a prime time show. Cheer them on. Offer them the strength that enabled you to be our Church’s first black bishop. Grant them courage. Grant them wisdom for the facing of lonely and exhilarating days.