The yoke that still hangs heavy

This lay sermon was delivered for Noonday Prayers at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Oklahoma, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, the feast day of The Right Reverend James Theodore Holly.


Today we remember Bishop and Missionary James Theodore Holly. The first black bishop in The Episcopal Church, Anglican missionary to Haiti and first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, Holly is worth reflecting on, simply for the value of his accomplishments for the Kingdom of God and his rightful place in history of breaking racial barriers within the church.

And, I do want to talk about all that. But, when we look at Bishop Holly and how his legacy relates to us today, I believe we cannot – must not – ignore the persistent effects of slavery.

Holly, born in 1829 in Washington, D.C., was a descendant of freed slaves and early in his life became an abolitionist. He was baptized and confirmed a Roman Catholic, but in a dispute over the ordination of black clergy, Holly left the Catholic Church and joined The Episcopal Church in 1851.

Holly was ordained a deacon in 1855, then a priest the following year at St. Luke’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. It was while living in New Haven that Holly began to advocate for black emigration to Haiti, where slaves had won independence in 1804. Holly saw Haiti as a land of opportunity for blacks, where they could govern themselves with equality and liberty, and he believed Anglicanism could provide both the spiritual foundation and order for a new society of free people.

In 1861 Holly led a group of 110 people to Haiti, many of them members of St. Luke’s parish. The group successfully established the first Anglican mission in Haiti, but the success of the mission came at a cost. Forty-three members of the mission died of yellow fever and malaria during the first year, including Holly’s mother, wife and two of his children. Many of the missionaries returned to the U.S., but Holly remained with a dedicated group of followers to establish schools, a church and rural medical services.

After 13 years at the mission, Holly was consecrated missionary bishop to Haiti, becoming the first African American bishop in the Episcopal Church. In 1878 he became bishop of the Orthodox Apostolic Church of Haiti — the former name for the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti. Holly died in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 13, 1911, but the diocese he founded survived, and today is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church with almost 85,000 members.

We should remember Bishop Holly, and the work he did both in the U.S. and Haiti to advance equality and open the doors of the church and the sacraments to all people. At the heart of his work was the drive to create a church and a society that looked more like the Kingdom of God, where no distinction is made at the altar between slave and free, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. He strove to bring to fruition St. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, that work wasn’t just for the church. Holly, and many more like him, strove and continue to strive for a church that spreads the equality we all share in Christ into society, to remake the world around us into the Kingdom of God. Holly worked to take us beyond equality at the altar rail, to equality and justice in every aspect of our lives, again echoing St. Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1

I think, as Americans, and as westerners in general, we hear those words from St. Paul, and we look back on the work of Bishop Holly, at the Antebellum South and the Slave Trade, and all the other things we were taught about slavery in grade school, and we say ‘Yes, slavery was horrible’ and ‘Aren’t we glad we overcame that injustice.’ And, we could leave it at that, and have ourselves a perfectly comfortable sermon and go about our day.

But, that would be dishonest, and incomplete. Because, unfortunately, the yoke of slavery still hangs heavy on humanity. The work of Bishop Holly remains incomplete. You see, slavery never really went away. It changed. It went underground in some areas, moved into others. But it didn’t end. In fact, since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery has grown in numbers worldwide. Today there are as many as 46 million people enslaved in the world, including an estimated 403,000 in the United States. That’s far more people living in bondage than the estimated 12 million souls brought to the Americas prior to Emancipation.

Who are these slaves? Some work as sex slaves and in forced labor right here in Oklahoma — likely right here in our community. But, most remain unseen to us, and yet touch almost everything we touch during the course of our day. Their work can be found no further than in our pockets. They mine the materials used to make our smart phones, laptops and TVs. They make a great deal of our clothing. They grow a lot of the raw products that go into our food and textiles. In one way or another, the links of almost every complex supply chain in our modern economy, at some point, include the hands of slaves.

As I was researching this I became curious how my daily life may be impacted by slavery. How am I supporting the slave trade? Well, the website has a calculator to help us sort that out. It asks you all kind of questions about how many rooms are in your house, how many electronics you own, what kinds of food you eat, how many suits and shirts you have hanging in the closet, etc., and it takes all that information and spits out an estimate of how many slaves it takes to support your lifestyle.

My number was 58. It takes 58 slaves to feed the supply chain that accommodates the way in which I live my life. Now, I’ve always suspected that somewhere, at some time, someone with my last name in the hills of Georgia probably owned slaves. It’s a possibility. It’s one I hoped to never really face, because it is an ugly fact that most of us in white America don’t want to face, if we’re being honest with ourselves. But, the fact is, we don’t have to look back into history to see how we benefit from slavery. Black or white, slavery isn’t just some distant branch in the family tree. It’s right here, today, in almost every aspect of our economy, and it encompasses all races, ethnicities and nationalities. 58 slaves. That is a swift punch to the gut. And, it is a gut punch, a wake-up call, I think is sorely needed.

So, why is this so? Why do we still live in a society plagued by slavery, two millennia after Paul and more than 150 years after Emancipation? For the answer, again, we need look no further than our pockets. Put simply, we love stuff and we love money. We want our things, and we don’t want to pay too much for them. And that, I think, raises a difficult question: As a society, do we love consumer goods, and the prices we pay for them, more than we love the image of God that can be seen in any of the children working in mines in Pakistan, or sweat shops in India, or in the hotel rooms, back kitchens and sex trade in our community?

This is not a new conundrum. More than 16 centuries ago, St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), whose feast the Church celebrated March 9, condemned the way humanity places money and material possessions above the image of God found in those we enslave or exploit to produce and provide the things we want. His words hold just as true for us today:

“What did you find among your possessions that you could trade for human beings? What price did you put on reason? How many obols (ancient Greek bronze or silver coins) did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how many staters (gold coins) have you sold the nature specially formed by God? … Of his own free will God called us into freedom when we were slaves to sin. In that case he would hardly reduce human beings to slavery. But if God does not enslave what is free, who dares put his own authority higher than God’s?”

Who dares put his own authority higher than God’s? Who dares to live in such a way that it enslaves our brothers and sisters? That’s a hard question. And, I’m not here to shame anyone — especially since that log is pretty heavy in my own eye. I don’t come here today with answers to how we solve a problem that’s been plaguing humanity for as long as there’s been humanity. I don’t know how we untangle our economy from the unintended consequence of God’s children being subjected to bondage and injustice.

But, I do know the answer begins with a higher consciousness of how connected we are with every other human on God’s earth. As Paul reminds us in Romans 12: “…We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We are members of one another. Our choices, our actions, our policies and the ways we interact in this world affect every other child of God. Perhaps, once we begin to live in a higher consciousness of that connection, inspired by the love Christ gives and commands, we may begin to live with and for each other, instead of simply living off each other. Perhaps we will begin to live in the world Bishop Holly, and Paul, and Jesus himself envisioned for us.

I pray it will be so, using the words of a prayer from our brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ:

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 thoughts on “The yoke that still hangs heavy

  1. I did the survey, James, and my number was 43. It was a good awareness exercise–I have thought a great deal about where the things I buy come from and who makes them, but jewelry and leather shoes were two things I had not considered as much as other things.

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