Remembering Jonathan Daniels

Remembering Jonathan Daniels

This is the sermon preached by Corrie Cabes, a postulant for Holy Orders in the diocese, at the Jonathan Daniels Evensong Service at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. The sermon was based on a conversation she had with the Rev. Judy Upham, a friend and colleague of Daniels, and a priest resident in the diocese.


A Conversation with The Rev. Judy Upham
(Sunday, January 12, 2019 at St. Martin-in-Fields Episcopal Church)
Sermon for Jonathan Daniels Evensong Service at Seminary of the Southwest
February 5, 2019

Sometimes what makes a conversation special is when it happens by chance. When I visited my home parish, in Keller, Texas recently, I had no idea that I would see Judy, actually, the Rev. Judy Upham, who I know as a retired priest in my diocese, sitting right there in the pews.  If you are familiar with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s in Selma, Alabama, you may have learned that Judy was a close friend of Jonathan Daniels, a fellow seminary student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary. Judy worked alongside Jonathan, marched, protested, and even helped to try to integrate St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They found great difficulties together at St. Paul’s in Selma, and in a singe-ing letter to the Bishop of Alabama, Jonathan and Judy wrote that “surely, the Gospel as it is delivered to this church and proclaimed at her altars and pulpits calls for a charity, a witness, and a living reconciliation that the racial policy of St. Paul’s church currently negates. “ Their work together helped shape Judy to become an amazing servant leader and priest. And so, I was amazed to be in her presence at my church that Sunday, sitting right there a few feet away from me.

In helping Drew [Andrew Brislin, Diocese of Alabama] plan this service, I offered that I might be able to talk to Judy and ask her to share her remembrances of Jonathan, and their shared mission of seeking an end to segregation and discrimination of African Americans living in the South. I tried to catch her a couple of months ago at my Diocesan Convention, but it didn’t work out. I’d tried to reach out to a mutual friend that promised to stop by and chat with her, but, again, I seemed to hit a wall–I couldn’t connect with her in the way I wanted to. And so, as I saw her in the stream of people exiting the sanctuary, I told some folks that I was trying to reach her—“don’t let her get away I said!”

Luckily, one of my good friends snagged Judy and told her that I was desperate to talk to her. So, when I found her in the parish hall, I thought—finally. We smiled at each other and she told me that she was having a hard time hearing, as there were many people in the busy parish hall. We gathered close together, almost like friends about to share a secret. I put my hand on her shoulder and she leaned in, and we spoke in an embrace. I told her that I was working on a worship service with a friend to celebrate the life of Jonathan Daniels. I asked her what she might say about him– what that time was like for her, and what it means for all of us today.

Judy instantly smiled warmly and the conversation just bubbled up. Judy said Jonathan developed a habit of caring about others, even at a young age. He looked out for his sister, he cared for his family. His concern for others continued at Viriginia Military Institute (VMI)—the structure, order, physical and mental drills—all of this continued to only strengthen Jonathan’s identity as someone who constantly practiced caring for others. Jonathan did not like the hazing that went on at VMI and Judy shared that he “cared for the rats”—those first year students who had it tough. He knew what it was like to be in that position so he and a few of his fellow students watched out for lower classmates, those so-called “rats.” Jonathan could have just looked the other way as he moved up the ranks as a student, or thought, “well, that’s just how things are.” But he didn’t. Jonathan and his group of friends helped change the culture by combatting bullying norms at VMI.

Judy continued by speaking of Jonathan’s life of faith—he truly practiced his faith, it became ingrained in him, similarly like his military life became a part of him. His true self would shine through, no matter what situation he was in. Judy believes this is because he had daily habits of faith. Prayer, worship, study, and service made all of life’s ups and downs, all of life’s uncertainties seem like part of a journey with Jesus leading him along the way. No matter what he was not alone; his faith gave him strength.

When Judy began to speak of the Civil Rights movement, responding to the call to go to Selma, Alabama, as young seminary students, she became a bit more reflective. “I don’t think either one of us thought it would cost a life.” She continued by explaining that Jonathan was simply living his life and following Jesus. Throughout our conversation, Judy stressed that Jonathan is proof that “one person can make a difference.”

As Christians, we are called to listen and respond to that holy something that is already resounding in our ears, sometimes very loud, sometimes it may be a hint of a whisper—but it resounds from the heartbeat of God to be a part of the divine healing of a wounded and embattled creation, where violence is too common, and compassion too scarce. Where separation, fear, indifference, poverty, lack of education, and resources creates a scowling cloud of despair that masks and shrouds the real goodness of humanity and the possibilities that God continues to offer this world. Our work may be to patiently, lovingly peel back oppression and humble ourselves, to understand and serve those whose voices are stifled, those who are overlooked, exploited, their value greatly underestimated. Our work may be to call attention to injustice and then fight for it. Our work may be to bear witness to suffering. Our work may simply begin by adopting spiritual practices…until they become a part of us, just like freckles or laugh lines on our face. Until we can claim our role as reconcilers, as poets, preachers, teachers, as peacemakers, as lovers of humanity and the earth– we practice. We become more, fuller, beautiful expressions of our true selves.

In my own way, through Judy, I was able to meet Jonathan as the young, bright, seminarian that she knew—whose practiced life of faith led him to instinctively shield 17-year-old Ruby Sales from  buckshot spray on a hot August day in 1965. Jonathan died that day. But he is living more fully each day. Jonathan’s amplified life, his sense of purpose, justice, and faith pulsates through each sharing of his story. He lives when we follow in his footsteps, in simple rituals of prayer and worship. He lives when we ask hard questions, and risk stepping outside our comfort zones for other’s benefit. He lives when we speak up, speak out, and work for those who continue to suffer today.

And yet, there is always the chance that we may find ourselves on the receiving end of hate and fear and violence. It may result in us being in harm’s way. When we follow the path of the martyrs, and the footsteps of Jesus, we are not walking in safety. We are walking in very dangerous places.

If we do this work diligently, we may find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death, yet we will fear no evil.  If we are practicing our faith boldly, bravely, lovingly—making space for others—every fiber of our body will be trained, our responses and actions will become second nature to us, and we will speak a language that is simply called love. We all know how to speak it; we are all hungry for the words that heal, comfort, encourage, and transform and challenge us to be people, just like Jonathan, just like Judy—to be ones who make a difference. AMEN.