Honoring Jon Daniels’ life and love.

Pilgrims in Hayneville hold an icon of Jonathan Daniels on this year’s pilgrimage.

If you do a quick online search for the name “Jon Daniels”, you’ll find multiple links to the manager of a major sports team. What you probably won’t find, however, is a link to the “Jon Daniels” that made such a difference in the world as we have come to know it.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels (March 20, 1939 – August 20, 1965) was an Episcopal seminarian, killed for his work in the American civil rights movement. His death helped galvanize support for the civil rights movement within the Episcopal church. He is regarded as a martyr in the Episcopal church. The wikipedia entry offers more facts and details. Now I’ll offer my own shrivelled synposis.

While Jon was studying at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the spring of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call for students and clergy to come to Alabama and participate in a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. The students debated how to respond to a call from the dark- a darkness made more palpable by its social and intellectual distance. Tim Abbott shares his father’s own encounter with King’s call, as well as with Jon Daniels:

Thus Jon answered the call. And then he missed his bus back to Cambridge. Feeling pulled by the social breakdown he witnesses in Alabama, Jon stayed behind in Selma the rest of that semester to help the civil rights movement. He returned to Cambridge for his final exams, and then went back to Alabama in July. Because something unspeakable kept pulling this highly-disciplined, non-flamboyant, dedicated young seminarian back…

There was a moment, of course, when Jon’s commitment to the beloved community became clear. This moment came prior to his time in Selma at a time when he was working in Wilcox County, specifically in the town of Camden, where sharecropping remained the primary industry for blacks. In Camden, Jon first experienced tear gas and came to see the ribald fear of blacks to become a casualty of the march for their own freedom.

He found himself inhabiting his own “existential moment”. To have an existential moment is to become aware of the fact that our lives have signficance and that we exist within them- that we are responsible for them and to a spiritual sense of self characterized by a concern for integrity. An older man who lives on my street likes to call those moments “epiphanies”; I’m inclined to follow his judgement.

The impact of this epiphany on Jon’s faith was life-giving. He wrote:

On August 14th, Daniels was arrested for protesting against a “whites only” store, and he was sent to a county jail in Haynesville, Alabama, along with several others. After their release on August 20th, Daniels, along with a Catholic priest and two young African-Americans, went to a local store to get a soft drink. They were met at the door by the store’s owner, Tom Coleman, who was carrying a shotgun. When Coleman aimed the gun at 17 year old Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her away, and he caught the full impact of the blast in his chest, killing him instantly.

The story of his murder was reported nationally in the immediate aftermath of his death, and once again after his killer was acquitted by an all-white Alabama jury.

Jon completed his college education at Virginia Military Institute, where he was a valedictorian, before deciding to attend seminary. This is his VMI class photograph.

As a seminarian, Jon struggled to continue his studies while fulfilling his spiritual calling to serve the torn communities of our state. Soon, his experiences in Alabama began to inform and supplement his theological education; the abstractions of theory rubbed shoulders with the reality of love in an angry, selfish world. It became hard for Jon to separate the texts from the people he encountered along the way. For his theology Professor William J. Wolf, Jon submitted a paper he’d prepared during the summer entitled “Theological Reflections on My Experience in Selma”. In it, he described his experiences as the source of a “living theology”, a faith lived anew in each day of one’s life, a love lived with immanence and resolve:

This paper was read at Jon’s funeral as a eulogy. I read it now as a testament to the message of love he left behind. How many of us know the saints that live just down the street? How many times have we encountered a love so certain that we find our fears and anxieties dissipate as the urge to share this love becomes a central part of our lives.

The signs of the times- the signs Jon prayed would disappear, and take with them, the paralyzing fear felt by many blacks in Alabama.

Jon Daniels is a model for all of us who lose sight of the way in which love demands that we respond with unconditional love in the immediate, absolute present. Carpe diem is not a slogan that urges us to throw back as many beers as possible during a football game- it’s a slogan that reminds us no love and no faithful action can be postponed to a “better time” or a “better place”. The only time we can be sure of is this moment. The only acceptable time to do what is right- to honor the image of God in every life- is the present. Living in the moment means loving in the moment. Nothing is a greater, more worthy challenge.

The life and ministry of Jon Daniels is remembered on August 14th every year by the Episcopal Church. In this context, the role of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) played a pivotal role in eventually integrating southern public institutions. Members of ESCRU felt that Daniel’s alleged murderer, Tom Coleman, was acquitted wrongfully and that white juries would continue to fail to convict those that should be found guilty of race and hate crimes. In response to the acquittal, ESCRU launched Operation Southern Justice, a campaign and lawsuit undertaken in conjunction with the National Council of Churches and other groups to integrate southern juries.

The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama supports an annual pilgrimage to Hayneville to honor Jon Daniels’ sacrifice. 2013 marked the 15th annual Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage. Though we missed it this year, our calendars will keep this date open for August of next year. I was especially inspired by a 2010 pilgrim’s post about how the experience impacted her life and spirit….

For more on the life and death of Jon Daniels:

Outside Agitator, the wonderful biography written by Charles Eagles (and published by the University of Alabama Press) that led me to Jon Daniels’ life
“But My Heart Is Black,” an article by Jon published Oct. 29, 1965
“A Burning Bush”, an article by Jon written in April 1965
Jonathan Daniels lectionary
Jon Daniels (Encyclopedia of Alabama)
Daniels’ 1961 Valedictory Address (Virginia Military Institute)
Daniels’ Yearbook page (Virginia Military Institute)
Memorial plaque for Daniels in Hayneville, Alabama
White House tape transcripts of Pres. Johnson’s response to Daniels’ murder
Liturgical lesson plan for “A Love That Forgives”
Bishop Fisher’s blog post about Jon Daniels
“The Journey of Jonathan Daniels” (Sentinel Source)
“Memory and Denial Are Kissing Cousins” (Greensleeves)

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