An interview with Br. Lee Hughes, Vice President of the Union of Black Episcopalians, Phoenix Chapter
“What we do for the African American community benefits everybody. Anything that knocks down barriers is a good thing.” This is the central message from Br. Lee Hughes, the Vice President of the Karl and Virginia Washington chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) in Phoenix. Historically, African Americans have been “outcasts” – both in wider society and, sadly, even within the Episcopal Church itself. The UBE was formed in 1968 to combat the ongoing marginalization of African Americans. Named after two long-time congregants, the formation of the UBE’s Phoenix chapter aims to address historical colonial inequality, in order to ensure equality, fairness, and representation for all people in the Church.
As a white man, Br. Lee came to be affiliated with the Union as an ally. Having advocated extensively for the LGBTQIA+ community, Br. Lee is passionate about providing voice and support for historically underrepresented and oppressed groups. “There’s always room for allies,” Br. Lee notes. He works to promote equality throughout the church and to ensure no stonewalling against anyone who wishes to participate.
Just a few of the UBE’s main aims include advocating for entry into ordained ministry for Black Episcopalians, promoting active lay ministries, minimizing limits on any individuals’ callings and extending opportunity, and agitating for positive change. As Br. Lee puts it, “We strive to apply the healing that God gives to this broken world.” Part of this ongoing effort includes commemorating the annual Episcopal Feast Day of Absalom Jones.
Absalom Jones was the first African American to be ordained into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. Born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, Jones was eventually able to purchase freedom for both his wife and himself, and consequently their children, and the family made their home in Pennsylvania. The St. George’s Methodist Episcopal congregation in which Jones served as a lay minister was, nominally, an interracial congregation. However, one Sunday, African American congregants were asked to move from their seats on the first floor to the upper balcony – where they would not be seen. Following this request, Jones and numerous other African American parishioners left that congregation. Absalom Jones, however, remained part of the Episcopal Church, going on to become a Deacon in 1795 and eventually ordained as the first African-American priest of the Episcopal Church.
Since his death on February 13, 1818, Jones’s Feast Day has been added to the Episcopal calendar. This year’s Diocesan celebrations will take place at Saint Barnabas on Saturday, February 18 at 2pm – a date which, Br. Lee points out, allows for the widest possible welcome to be extended, as more clergy will be able to attend. The offering for the Feast Day will be given to two Episcopal-affiliated Historically Black Colleges and Universities: St. Augustine’s and Voorhees. The Reverend Vanessa Makenzie, who grew up in Johannesburg under apartheid, will be the speaker.
Discussing why it’s so important to commemorate and celebrate this milestone of a Black leader being ordained in the Church, Br. Lee points out that such significant advancements in the Church’s commitment to equity and fairness must be celebrated, in order to ensure that forward progress continues to be made. Of racism, Br. Lee observes, “If we don’t know it’s there, explore it, celebrate successes and shine God’s grace upon it, it stays hidden – and evil thrives when it’s hidden.” It’s important, he emphasizes, that we don’t stagnate or risk becoming too comfortable with the status quo – especially when a long journey remains on the path to becoming truly fair and equitable for all people. Recognizing and remembering the adversity encountered by African Americans in the early Church is an essential step.
Today, commemorating the Feast Day of Absalom Jones is one symbolic step we can take as a community toward ensuring that such treatment of African Americans – or any “other” group – is not only never repeated but that we proactively and continuously course-correct to avoid it, extending Christ’s welcome to all people.
– Amber Leima
Commemorating the Life of a Civil Liberty Pioneer
Saturday, February 18 at 2pm in the Sanctuary
A celebration of Jones’s Feast Day will take place in the Sanctuary. The service of liturgy and Holy Eucharist is hosted by The Karl and Virginia Washington Arizona Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, in partnership with the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Arizona.
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer A. Reddall, sixth Bishop of the Diocese of Arizona, will preside over the service, with a message from guest preacher the Rev. Vanessa MacKenzie, who grew up in Johannesburg under apartheid. Music by Saint Barnabas featuring Ms. Jackie Island of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Phoenix who will sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
This event will be open to all. Questions? Contact Br. Lee Hughes, OP.
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