Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
This painting depicts the first troupe of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. This portrait commemorates their performance before Queen Victoria. Painted in 1873 by Edmund Havel, Queen Victoria's court painter, it depicts, left to right (men): Benjamin Holmes, Isaac Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins; Left to right (women): Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Julia Jackson, Maggie Porter, Georgia Gordon. George L. White was the director of this group. Image credit: http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/shades/id/172
A Bird's Life- Matthew 6:24-34
In 1854, a desperate mother named Sarah Sheppard stood on the edge of the a river in Tennessee and considered doing the unthinkable. Her daughter, Ella, was only three and the woman who owned them both was already using the child as an informant, encouraging her to spy on the adults around her. The woman had come to Sarah, sharing some terrible and false report of unsavory activity that Ella supposedly told her, and threatened Sarah's safety. Sarah, knowing full well the horror of a life of slavery, anticipating a lifetime of manipulation and cruelty for both her and her daughter, grew despondent. She decided to end both her and her daughter's lives by jumping in a river. At the last moment, an elderly woman called out and stopped her. Three versions of what happened in their encounter have survived history.
In one version, a woman named Mammy Viney called to her and said, "Don't you do it, Honey. Don't you take that that you cannot give back. Look, Honey, don’t you see the clouds of the Lord as they pass by? The Lord has got need of this child." Another version of the story credits a woman called Aunt Cherry with the intervention. It also describes her as a prophet, speaking clearly of child's mission in life. She said, "God's got great work for this baby to do. She's going to stand before kings and queens." There is yet a third version of the story, Aunt Cherry, calling upon images from the familiar spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," says, "Wait! Let the chariot of the Lord sing low and let me take one of the Lord's scrolls and read it too you." She then held out her hands as though she was rolling open a scroll, and commenced to convince Sarah not to proceed with her plan. She told Sarah that God had a great future in store for Ella. Given that we have three versions of what happened, we probably won't ever know exactly what transpired between these two women. What we do know is that Sarah was changed. She walked away from the river and back to her life. We know that she saved her daughter for God's mission.
I read this story in a book called On The Heels of Freedom, written by Bates College graduate and UCC minister, Joyce Hollyday. The book is about the mission of the American Missionary Society, known as the AMA, to provide education and uplift to formerly enslaved people and their descendants in the South. Ella Sheppards's own life would be deeply entwined with the work of the AMA due to her connection to Fisk University, a university that had been founded by the AMA in 1866. Ms. Sheppard attended Fisk during a period when the school was in dire financial straits (the AMA was having financial trouble, too).
Ella Sheppard was one of the students who had been meeting in the apartment of the school treasurer, George L. White, to sing. Mr. White was an experienced choir director and taught them all kinds of songs. Some of these same students also gathered to sing spirituals from their own cultural and religious heritage. Hollyday writes, according to Sheppard, the students mostly did not share these songs in public. They were understood to be sacred but private testimonies of how to survive horrific oppression, testimonies you didn't necessarily share with white folks who had participated in your oppression. Sheppard once called them crystallized tears. Eventually, though, Mr. White would hear and learn these songs. His students, including Ms. Sheppard, would help him record them. To his credit, Mr. White, who was white, understood these song as great gifts from the culture of his students and treated them with respect. He soon incorporated them in the choir's repertoire.
The choir became strong enough that Mr. White wondered if they could tour and help raise money to save the University. When he made this proposal to the officials from the AMA, they were not at all convinced that it would work. In fact, they called the tour a "wild goose chase" and refused to officially sanction the trip. Hollyday reports that Mr. White wrote them back and said, "I'm depending on God, not you," and, with the support of Fisk's trustees, went about planning the tour anyway. After much convincing, he was able to get permission from parents for twelve singers to travel. The choir set out in 1871, with Mr. White leading and Ms. Sheppard serving as his assistant and the group's pianist. The choir face racist rioters and non-sympathetic audiences from the very beginning of their tour. Even supposedly supportive communities with abolitionist history seemed reluctant to support the choir, and, in turn, their university. At a National Congregationalist Council meeting in Oberlin, Ohio, the people gathered initially completely ignored the choir as they began to sing during a recess. People only stopped to pay attention when they heard the choir sing, "Steal Away to Jesus," the song that our choir sang today as their anthem. The beautiful music filled the sanctuary and drew in the reluctant crowd. It was in Ohio that the choir became known as the Jubilee Singers. And, it was in Ohio that they finally got a break.
Tom Beecher, brother to famed Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, as well as writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, was present in Ohio to hear the Jubilee Singers and he was deeply moved. Tom spoke with his brother, who immediately found a way to bring the choir to his church in New York. At this point, Ella Sheppard had worn out her shoes and was wearing only cloth slippers on her feet. She developed bronchitis. In fact, few of the choir members had any appropriate clothes for winter travel and they surely didn't have the money to purchase more. But, as Joyce Hollyday wrote, they did have faith, so they traveled on. The AMA still wouldn't officially endorse the tour, but some officials did bring warm clothes to students and welcomed them into their homes once they arrived in New York.
Just like in Ohio, the choir began their performance with "Steal Away to Jesus." Descriptions of the event detail weeping audience members and people waving their handkerchiefs to express appreciation. After days and days of traveling and singing, days when they could barely raise $50, on this night, they raised $1300. Beecher helped organize another concert and they raised more money. Upon seeing such success in New York, the AMA finally endorsed their tour and work in earnest with them to save Fisk. By the end of their first tour, they had raised the $20,000 they needed for a new site and building for their school, and they had also raised awareness about the inequality of racial segregation in the venues where they sang. For example, in a city in New Jersey where a hotel had refused to house them, influential citizens helped pass a resolution to condemn the owner of the hotel. A neighboring city, inspired by their work, soon voted to integrate their schools. According to Hollyday, they also insisted at many of their venues that African American cooks, maids, waiters, launderers, and bellboys get front row seats.
The Jubilee Singers, a choir that continues to be active at Fisk University to this day, went on to sing for American presidents and European royalty. In seven years, they would raise $150,000 for the university and helped teach the world the power of music that had risen from African American culture. Unfortunately, though, none of the original singers graduated due to their intensive touring schedule. And, money would continue to be an issue at Fisk, as it would for many institutions dedicated to serving the needs of African-American students. And, in a what seems a great breach of trust, sometimes the AMA would use money intended to help Fisk to fill their own coffers. However, despite these issues, the school would still managed to develop world renown social science programs, and would count many leading American academics and activists among it's graduates.
Ella Sheppard is credited as a primary organizing force for the original Jubilee singers. Her tenacious faith helped carry them through the most difficult times of their first several tours. She and her husband would go on the cultivate a loving environment in Howard Congregational United Church of Christ, where he served as pastor. She would also serve as president of the Tennessee Women's Missionary Union, speaking up as a strong advocate for African American women. Her unexpected death in 1914 from an infection was quite a blow to her whole community. At Fisk, there still hangs an oil painting commissioned by Queen Victoria of Great Britain of the first class of the choir, of which Ms. Sheppard was a part. The Queen had been deeply moved by the choir's rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." According to Hollyday, when the Queen asked where the song had originated, representatives of the choir told her a story of a desperate mother and a prophetic older woman who helped her. They told her how the woman spoke of God's chariots sweeping down to save a child for a great mission and they told her about the mother's recovery of hope. They stood before the Queen as living testimonies of that mission. And they sang. And, they helped change their world.
"Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Strive first for the God's kindom and you, too, may have all that you need.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Joyce Hollyday, On The Heels of Freedom: The American Missionary Association's Bold Campaign to Educate Minds, Open Hearts, and Heal the Soul of a Divided Nation (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.