Author Archive for Bishopfisher

Jonathan Daniels: Following Jesus all the way to the cross

There will be a pilgrimage commemorating the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels on Saturday, August 12. Click here for more information.

Do you know that a saint was born and raised in nearby Keene, New Hampshire?

His name is Jonathan Daniels. He is recognized as a “martyr” by the Episcopal Church and he is memorialized in A Great Cloud of Witnesses with his own “day” – August 20. That was the day he suffered martyrdom in 1965. Here is a brief summary of a short but remarkable life.

Jonathan was born March 20, 1939 in Keene. His family attended St. James Church. He left Keene to go to college at the Virginia Military Institute where he was valedictorian. After a brief time in graduate school at Harvard, Jonathan felt called to the priesthood and studied at the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, MA. It was the 1960s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited northern clergy to come to the South and work in the Civil Rights Movement. Jonathan went with several other seminarians for a short three-day visit. In that brief time in Selma, Jonathan was not particularly inspired but he missed the bus taking his group back home. He had to stay another week and in that week he recognized the sin of racism and made a commitment to address it.

In the summer of 1965, Jonathan lived in Alabama where he worked to integrate the Sunday school of an Episcopal Church (his efforts were not well received), tutored children, worked to register voters and protested outside “whites only” businesses. It was during one of those protests that he was arrested along with 20 others. They were taken to a jail in Haynesville. The conditions in the jail were horrific. Overcrowded, no running water.

After six days, Jonathan was in the last group to be set free. They went around the corner to a store that served all people – regardless of color – to get a soda. But Tom Coleman, a volunteer deputy, stopped them at the door, threatening them with a shotgun. He pointed the gun at Ruby Sales, a seventeen year-old black girl. Jonathan sensed he was about to pull the trigger. As he pushed Ruby out of the way, Coleman fired, killing Jonathan.

Photo: Former Varner’s Cash Store – where Jonathan was murdered.

When Martin Luther King was told what happened, he said,

“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

At Coleman’s trial, an all white jury declared him “not guilty.”

Ruby Sales went on to seminary and many years of service among the poor.

In 2015, I went on a pilgrimage to the places Jonathan worked in the Selma area. The last stop was the jail in Haynesville and the exact place where he died. With other pilgrims I knelt there to pray. And as I did I felt the spirit of one who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross.

Photo: Montgomery Advertiser

The work of the Civil Rights Movement is far from done. The attempts to roll back voting rights, the mass incarceration of black men (The New Jim Crow), income inequality are just a few examples of the work that remains. We all know this is a national injustice, not simply a southern problem.

The Episcopal Church is committed to addressing the sin of racism.  Our Church has put vast resources behind an initiative called, “Becoming Beloved Community”– a set of commitments around which Episcopalians may organize our many efforts to respond to racial injustice and grow a community of reconcilers, justice-makers, and healers. A group called Bishops United Against Gun Violence speak about the “Unholy Trinity” – poverty, racism and gun violence.

Maybe, if you and I can grow in awareness, and hang on to the idealism of our saintly neighbor, Jonathan Daniels, who remains forever young, a path of action for justice will be revealed to us in the “beloved community” he described in a Bible he gave to friends on Easter Sunday 1965:

“We dream of a beloved community in which white men and black men, old men and young men, whole men and sick men, will join hands in the way of the Cross and find there the life broken, shared and renewed for them all, the unspeakable glory of God.”


There will be a pilgrimage commemorating the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels on Saturday, August 12. Click here for more information.

Everything we do matters.

I was abundantly blessed to spend six days on the Connecticut River with my son and a couple of other pilgrims as part of the 40-day River of Life Pilgrimage. Those days were marked by inner peace, deep connection to the Spirit that breathes in God’s creation, and a keen awareness of the beauty and dynamic grace of nature. In my last blog I wrote that one hymn was the soundtrack of this trip for me.

“The River is flowing…Holy Spirit guide me, your child I will always be”

That sense of peace and being “the Holy Spirit’s child” was there even on the one stressful day. After massive rain storms in New Hampshire which left many without power, the river in Massachusetts and Connecticut rose dramatically and the current was very fast. There were downed trees and large limbs floating in the water. Our guides gave paddlers the option to sit out that day if they were worried about handling these conditions. My son Geoff and I (and most other pilgrims) decided to “go for it.” I did not feel stressed. I felt “alert” and trusting. After a few early challenges, everything went smoothly.

Within that sense of peace and trust, another reality surfaced. During one of our breaks, sitting on the bank of this beautiful river, Lisa, one of our chaplains, read this poem:

It’s 3:23 in the morning

And I’m awake

because my great great great grandchildren won’t let me sleep my great great great grandchildren ask me in dreams what did you do while the Planet was plundered?

what did you do when the Earth was unraveling?

Surely you did something when the seasons started failing?

As mammals, reptiles, birds were dying?

Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?

What did you do once you knew?

What did you do…once…you knew?

— by Drew Dellinger

That poem would have haunted me anytime, anywhere; but read in the context of this sacred journey down the river, it touched my soul deeply.

“What did you do once you knew?” I wrote a lot of letters with Massachusetts bishops and UCC leader Jim Antal.

I followed the lead of our Creation Care Missioner, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and participated in public prayer witnesses in several venues.

I tried to reduce my own carbon footprint.

Is that enough to respond with integrity when my great great great grandchildren keep me awake at 3:23 am? No, not even close.

“Guide me Holy Spirit, your child I will always be.” We are not in charge…and everything we do matters.


On the river I can breathe Spirit.

“The River is flowing,

Flowing and growing.

The River is flowing,

Back to the Sea.”

Holy Spirit carry me.

Your child I will always be.

Holy Spirit carry me

Back to the Sea.”

Those words were sung by an angelic voice as my son Geoff and I were paddling with 16 other pilgrims down the Connecticut River. It was the 30th day of a 40 day journey, but was our first.

The first hour of each day on the river is spent in silence. This hymn breaks that silence. We have all had the experience of a song that stays in our heads and keeps repeating itself. That is true for me with this hymn. It has been the sound track for my blessed time in this journey which is as spiritual as it is physical. (And that might be the same thing.)

Sure, we have been doing a lot of paddling – 19 miles the first day, 17 the next and 10 for a half day on Saturday. But even without paddling, the river would move us – just as the Spirit moves us, carries us. “Your child I will always be.” We are connected to the Living God and will be forever. Being on this river makes that seem so obvious. I don’t have to think my way to Spirit. I can breathe Spirit.

More times than Jesus said,  “love one another”, he said, “look”, “wake up”, “see.” It is amazing what you see on a river when you take time to look. I have traveled over this river hundreds of times in the last five years. This is the first time I have been on it and seen eagles, hawks, ducks, and fish that jump out of the water. Here you can experience what theologian Walter Brueggeman calls, the “aliveness of God.”

Here, on the river,  the opening words of the Prayer of St. Patrick take on special meaning:

“I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun,

Radiance of the moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of the wind,

Depth of the sea,

Stability of the earth,

Firmness of the rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me.”

Another big part of this pilgrimage is being in community. It is a special blessing to have Geoff with me. We have never spent this long a stretch of time together in his adult life.

But it is also a great gift to be with other pilgrims and experience the river with them.

A challenging and fun thing to do was attempt to enter the city of Springfield by creating a formation of our canoes and kayaks that resembled a cross. “Resemble” is the key word.

It was a wonderful exercise in teamwork. There are probably a few sermons in that one, as there is in paddling against an adverse wind. But that is for another blog. We have three more days of paddling and praying. “The River is flowing, Back to the Sea. Holy Spirit carry me, Your child I will always be.”


A brief video recording of the hymn can be heard here.

The Fast That I Choose

Fasting, as a spiritual practice, has long been with the Church. But depriving ourselves of food is no gift to God unless it yields some good. Spiritually, fasting can “clear the deck,” make space for God in our normally fast-paced, hunger-driven lives. Many of the holy ones in our rich tradition fasted regularly and found the practice nurtured gratitude and contemplation.

But human beings can always find a way to make something “all about me.” Jesus warned us not to advertise our fasts by looking grim and hungry. He challenged us to fast with joy. Even more important is the idea that a fast should be a blessing for the world, for God’s people. The prophet Isaiah, Jesus’ go-to prophet,  gave us a profound insight into God’s heart. In a passage, that we usually proclaim at the very beginning of Lent, we get a deeper understanding of the relationship of fasting to the work of justice.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah 58:6-7

Yesterday, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, invited the Church to begin a regular fast on the 21st day of every month.

We fast to fortify our advocacy in solidarity with families who are struggling with hunger. We fast to be in solidarity with neighbors who suffer famine, who have been displaced, and who are vulnerable to conflict and climate change. We fast with immigrants who are trying to make a better future for their families and now face the risk of deportation. We fast in solidarity with families on SNAP, who often run out of food by the last week of the month.”

Watch the full video here.

Michael believes that the Church was made for “a time such as this.” A fast of this nature places us in relationship with strangers whose lives are lacking the things we often take for granted. Learn more about the causes of, and fight against, hunger here. But know that the 21st of the month is very significant for persons who live in poverty. That’s when families receiving SNAP benefits begin to struggle with food security. We will be in solidarity with hungry families. And, with God’s help, our fasting will move us to some concrete action. We won’t know what that looks like until we open our hearts in prayer.

Read more about For Such a Time as This: A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Advocacy.

While this is clearly an individual practice, we will be united with Episcopalians and Lutherans all over the country. The fast will be on the  21st of every month – beginning this Sunday, May 21 – through the end of the 2018 legislative session. I hope you will consider joining the fast. I know that you will be blessed. And that blessing will find its way into the nightmare so many live.

Fast with prayer.

Fast with hope.

Fast with joy.


After Chicago: Reflections on Racism, Poverty & Violence

The week after Easter four of us from the WMA Social Justice Commission went to Chicago to an event organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence. It was a gathering to study the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and gun violence. My friends will share their reflections and wisdom from those remarkable days here in this blog. I’ll save my thoughts for the last.

Alexizendria Link

I left the conference with a spiritual understanding that garnered the urgency for Church reflection, movement and support for action against injustice in society.  A call for Christians to return to moral leadership and service by partnering with oppressed communities rather than serving ourselves within church communities was highlighted.

The Rev. Julian DeShazier, adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and McCormick Theological Seminary and University Church senior pastor reminded us poverty, racism and gun violence are moral issues and the church needs to be a moral voice. He says,

“We have turned our churches into think tanks but not action centers and consider our pastors as theologians rather than community leaders.”

He reminded us the church once represented a moral center in the community and as a result provided a moral compass in our cities and towns.  Now it appears as if the church has shifted to primarily condemning.  The Church condemns racism, injustice, poverty, gun violence, climate issues and etc. but rarely are we physically doing anything in and with oppressed communities.

I believe we need to intellectually revisit, spiritually reflect and physically return to moral leadership while partnering with communities outside our church walls.

Jane G. Tillman

Attending the conference “The Unholy Trinity:  The Intersection of Racism, Poverty, and Gun Violence” in Chicago was an amazing experience of listening, learning, singing, praying, weeping, and marching.  The conference included three contextual bible study sessions which began in a large group led by Dr. Dora Mbuwayesango, a professor of Old Testament and Languages at Hood Theological Seminary.  We then went to small groups each day, to study a selected biblical text, trying to understand the characters in the story, the relationship of the characters to one another and to God, and the role of violence and conflict in the story of God’s people.  Moving from understanding the biblical text within an historical framework, we then explored how the ancient story of God’s people is like the pain we face in our current time with intergroup conflict, violence, murder, child sacrifice, political scheming, and the ongoing sin of racism, violence, and poverty.

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop Diocesan of Indianapolis, speaking at the public witness of prayer. Photo: Lee Cheek

I felt fortunate that the facilitator of my bible study group was the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, an African-American-Indian priest, who was attending the conference the week before her ordination and consecration as the Bishop of Indianapolis and the first African American woman to be a diocesan bishop.  There were moments of deep sadness as well, such has when the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton announced that the State of Arkansas would execute one of their prisoners that first evening of the conference.  The death penalty is where racism, poverty, gun violence, and state-sanctioned murder all intersect and this was a powerful moment for me.

Lee Cheek

Two common narratives about guns emerged: (1) gun violence is mainly a problem with blacks (2) unrestricted white gun ownership and “stand your ground “is God-ordained.  We were called to challenge these narratives from a faith-based perspective.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. Photo: Lee Cheek

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian for the Diocese of Maryland, challenged a mostly white church to give up resting in the comfort of believing that the problem of gun violence lies only within the black urban community. She asked us to get to know their stories and see their humanity. The violence there is a legacy of a system of unjust privilege and penalty.  The inequalities of racism and poverty are something each of us is on the hook for.  Eliminating these systems is “not a work of choice for us but what is necessary to be Christian.”

The Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical pastor from Washington, D.C., who was featured in the 2015 documentary, The Armour of Light, declared that unrestricted white gun ownership and violence against what is perceived as threat is “a theological problem” with which many evangelicals struggle. He urged us to build relationships that help them disentangle their theology from the culture of “ferocious autonomy” and individualism.

Lee Cheek, Alexizendria Link and Jane G. Tillman. PHOTO: J.G. Tillman

My thoughts on the “Unholy Trinity” event…

For me, the quote I will remember most came from Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor at University Chapel and a hip hop artist. He said, “Too many Christian churches have become ‘think tanks’ when they should be ‘action centers’.” I’m challenged and inspired by that line.

Part of being an “action center” is to take our faith to the streets in liturgies of witness. I have shared many times in this blog and in Abundant TIMES about the value and indeed, the necessity of public prayer witness. These are not demonstrations. They are not marches. They are prayer. They are processions. As one speaker put it: “We impoverish ourselves if we limit our symbols and sacraments to just what is possible in the walls of the church.” Liturgy is a strength of the Episcopal Church, so why not take that gift and bring it to the streets? We did that in Chicago.

Photo: Bishop Ian Douglas

Two hundred of us processed through a section of Chicago’s South Side. Drums loudly announced our presence. Bishops wore vestments. Dozens of crosses were carried high.  Banners clearly stated why we were doing this. We sang hymns. We chanted.

People joined us along the way. Some stood and watched. Many took out their cell phones and recorded it. Why? Because the Church was in the streets. We were not a think tank. We were a moving “action center”, witnessing against the Unholy Trinity and witnessing for Jesus mission of mercy, compassion and hope.