Jefferson City church celebrates first black priest, former member

Grace Episcopal Church pastor, the Rev. Ian Lasch, leads Sunday's service, which, in conjunction with celebrating Black History Month, commemorated the lives of two African Americans who helped shape the church

Grace Episcopal Church on Sunday commemorated the lives of two African Americans whose contributions shaped both the Episcopal Church in general and Grace Episcopal specifically.

Sunday's special service honored Absalom Jones, the first black ordained priest of the Episcopal Church, and Julia Cooper, a former member of Grace Episcopal Church.

Jones, who was disappointed with racism/discrimination at Methodist Church in 1787, founded the Free African Society - a mutual aid society for blacks - with Richard Allen. Jones went on the found the first black Episcopal congregation in 1794, and in 1802, he became the first priest to become ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

"He (Jones) and another gentleman, who ended up starting the African Methodist Episcopal Church, were both in Philadelphia at the time and involved in lay leadership of the congregation that was, at the time, black and white together," said the Rev. Ian Lasch, pastor of Grace Episcopal, in an interview before the service. "The church ended up splitting because they forced the black parishioners to sit in the back and forced them up into a balcony and then eventually they were made to feel unwelcome entirely. So, unfortunately, it was not a success story. But this led to Absalom Jones being ordained in the Episcopal Church, him taking more leadership of what came to be a black congregation."

Cooper was a black educator and black liberationist who was a parishioner at Grace, Lasch said. For a brief time, she also worked at Lincoln University. The feast days of both Jones and Cooper are in February, so they're celebrated together each year on one day, during Black History Month.

Much of the music for the service was written by Robert Mitchell, a former choir director at the church who also was involved with Lincoln University.

During the sermon, Lasch said: "We are uncomfortable when we realize that our own beloved church chose death for a great many years by not realizing the gifts that Absalom Jones had for ministry, that Anna Julie Cooper had for ministry, by not allowing them and other African Americans to be full members of our church."

He said the church forced them to start other denominations and congregations.

"To this day, we choose death every time that we assume the specter of racism is something that we have conquered as a church, as a community, as a society," he said. "That we no longer need to worry about racism because we have done such a good job with it, rather than seeing it as something we constantly have to fight against, constantly have to seek to overcome."

Bernard Collier, a black member of the church, has been a parishioner of Grace Episcopal for about 26 years. He said the church has always commemorated the contributions of Jones and Cooper since he came. Mitchell's musical arrangements have always been a part of the celebration, he said.

"It's kind of part of the Black History Month that we do," Collier said. "As African Americans, we can appreciate that they do that. We've always enjoyed it.