If you visit 310 South Quince Street in Philadelphia, you’ll find yourself at a building called the Mask & Wig Club. Outside there is a historical marker which says: Rev. Jehu Jones, Jr., 1786-1852: First African American Lutheran pastor in the US.
The story of Pastor Jones is an American story; it is also a Lutheran story, a chapter of our history that we often forget while we are busy making jokes about casseroles, Norwegians, and Minnesota.
Jehu Jones was born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786. His father bought the family’s freedom during Jehu’s childhood. It was not easy to be free and black in Charleston in the early 1800s, but the Jones family did their best. Jehu’s father invested in real estate and opened an inn. The family joined an Episcopal church, then a Lutheran one. Jehu was ready to take over his father’s business, but the Holy Spirit had other plans. His Lutheran pastor noticed that Jehu had gifts for ministry. Free African Americans had recently begun a movement to return to Africa by settling in Liberia, and Liberia was in need of pastors. Jehu was trained for Liberian missionary work and ordained in New York City in 1832, the very first African American Lutheran pastor. But to get to Liberia, he had to pay his own way. And he couldn’t raise the money.
State law prevented Pastor Jones, a free black man, from returning to South Carolina without being imprisoned, so he set his sights on a different mission field: the free black people living in Philadelphia. These people needed a pastor to minister to their particular challenges as they struggled with poverty and discrimination. Pastor Jones saw an opportunity to share a Lutheran word of God’s loving grace while helping them improve the quality of their lives. In 1834, Pastor Jones founded St. Paul’s Evangelical Colored Lutheran Church in downtown Philadelphia. At first, the congregation wasn’t much larger than ours, but they needed a building to call their own. Pastor Jones secured sponsorship from the surrounding white and mixed-race Lutheran congregations, purchased land on Quince Street, and built the church. The congregation moved in and worshipped God with joy.
Then the first bills came due, and the sponsoring congregations declined to pay, one by one. Many of St. Paul’s congregants were poor, and there was no way the congregation could settle their debts alone. The church went into foreclosure, and the congregation survived for a few more years before closing.
Pastor Jones went on to found mixed-race congregations elsewhere. Some succeeded. But some were doomed from the start by the failure of St. Paul’s in Philadelphia, as Lutheran synods blamed Jones himself for financial mismanagement.
For the next few weeks, our lectionary is focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We imagine that we are standing right there with Jesus, as though he is speaking directly to us. We have a lot of company in that crowd. At the end of chapter 4, Matthew describes the many people who have followed Jesus to the mountain: “crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan;” in other words, the poor and the rich, locals and foreigners, some from as far away as Syria. It’s a diverse group.
To this group, Jesus speaks of his followers as two precious commodities: salt and light. Salt required considerable labor to be produced and refined, and it was a necessary preservative for food in the hot climate. Because it was so expensive, salt was rarely sold in pure form. It was usually mixed with other minerals to stretch it further, and over time, it really could lose its saltiness.
Light was valuable too. In a world without electricity, daylight limited the length of the workday. Having a lamp at home might mean that people could work after sunset, perhaps spinning or producing other handcrafts for extra income. Of course, it took money to fill lamps with oil. To cover a lamp with a bushel basket was sheer economic foolishness — never mind the fire hazard and darkness.
Even though Jesus knows that we humans are imperfect people, he is convinced that we also carry within us the capacity to be like precious salt, preserving the world around us and rendering it deliciously life-giving, or to be like valuable light, shining radiance into places in need of illumination.
We usually read Jesus’ words about salt and light as though they are intended for us: to make sure that we let nothing restrict our own talents and abilities to share Jesus’ love and mercy. But today, on this day when we are worshiping in the sometimes-forgotten music and words of African American writers, pastors, and musicians, this day when we remember that our northern European heritage is not the only way to be Lutheran, I’d like to offer another reading of Jesus’ words. Perhaps we are not called to tend our own saltiness and light alone. Maybe Jesus is calling us to nurture the saltiness and light of other people, to be humble enough to assist others in bringing Jesus’ love to people and places in need.
I’m telling the story of Pastor Jehu Jones this morning because it is the story of someone who had a lot of salt and light to share. As a black man born into slavery and trained for missionary work, he had many gifts to share with the black Philadelphians to whom he ministered and to the Liberian settlers he never got to meet. But Pastor Jones’ circumstances effectively tossed a bushel basket right over the lamp of his efforts by way of racism and indifference. It was hard for a former slave to rely on charity to raise money for a trip to Liberia, and although Pastor Jones tried, he did not succeed. It was hard for a black pastor to build a church for a black congregation in the nineteenth century, and as the sponsors of St. Paul’s withdrew their financial support from a congregation that could never have afforded to survive without them, they allowed it to fall into financial ruin just a few years after it was created. And though the closure of St. Paul’s was no fault of his own, Pastor Jones found that the largely white Lutheran synods continued to blame him personally for the rest of his career.
Pastor Jones still accomplished a lot. He successfully started other congregations, and he played a role in Philadelphia’s civil rights history by becoming a social and political advocate for the poor black Philadelphians who had been part of his congregation. His historical marker is downtown, and he is even on our calendar of saints’ commemorations on November 24. But I wonder what he could have done had he traveled to Liberia as a missionary. I wonder what God could have done through him had St. Paul’s stayed open.
It is good and right to nurture your own salt and light, to focus on the ways that you show Christ to a world in need. But today, I invite you to look beyond your own efforts for places in the world where the light is flickering, fighting to stay lit under a stifling bushel basket. I invite you to look for places where the vibrant flavor of salt is going bland. Find places that have potential to share God’s love and God’s hospitality with a hurting world. Then, do what you can to lift off that bushel basket so the lamp can burn brightly, to add salt to blandness so that God can nourish the world. You might do this with your hands and feet and labor, with your advocacy, with your dollars, or even with your prayers alone.
Sometimes, the project can seem impossible, but even a small group of people can make a difference. You may recall that last year, St. John’s resolved to help alleviate the global refugee crisis. With our New Generation Fund, we raised more than three thousand dollars and shared the funds between Lutheran World Relief and Welcome Home, a local congregation’s refugee resettlement ministry. Three thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money when you consider the 50 million refugees around the world. But it makes a big difference to families like the one Jack Saarela is working with right now, families who just needed some help finding an apartment, furnishing their home, and learning how to work and bank and shop for groceries in America. Even when we think we are powerless, we can accomplish amazing things together as workers in the reign of heaven on earth.
May Jesus’ love sustain you as you discern how to be salt, to be light, to be disciples in a world in need of healing.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING