Have faith: Reviving the Burgess Committee

Taking a look at black history through the eyes of Grace Church.

Rt. Rev. John Burgess depicted in stained glass window at Grace Church. —Gabrielle Mannino

If you saw the documentary “Passage at St. Augustine” when it came to the Island last summer, you’ll recognize the Rt. Rev. John Burgess, the first African American diocesan bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church. It happens that Bishop Burgess retired to the Vineyard with his wife Esther, who was arrested while trying to integrate a St. Augustine motel in 1964 along with another Boston woman, Mary Peabody, mother of then Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody. The Burgesses attended Grace Church after moving to the Island full-time in 1989. Grace Church honored Bishop Burgess with the dedication of a stained-glass window with his likeness in 1999. Placed next to that window is another depicting the Rev. Absalom Jones, an African American abolitionist and the first ordained African American priest for the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

Downstairs in the parish center of the church is a mural painted by the revered African American artist Allan Crite in the church’s children’s chapel. Crite was famous for depicting blacks living in Boston in a representational style, and that’s also reflected in the mural. The artist was a friend of one of the former rectors at Grace Church, the Rev. Thomas Lehman, who commissioned the mural.

The extraordinary history of the Island church hasn’t been lost on one of its longtime members, Betty Rawlins. Mrs. Rawlins and her late husband Keith knew the Burgesses well, and said that Esther approached her after the window was installed, saying that one of the things needed at Grace Church was to have a broader experience of more black priests of the Episcopal Church.

“She did mean she felt our experience was limited, and I agreed with that,” Mrs. Rawlins told me on the telephone Monday morning. The idea of the Burgess Committee was formed.

Mrs. Rawlins headed up the committee at Grace Church in order to address the congregation, and likely the community’s, lack of understanding of the African American civil rights movement. Today’s interim rector at Grace Church, the Rev. Susan Eibner, said it’s her job to try to empower the lay people to invigorate some of the committees and programs that may have taken a backseat at the congregation over the past few years. So the Burgess Committee, Pastor Eibner explained, is “being resurrected.”

Mrs. Rawlins will kick off a series of Wednesday-evening events by talking about the significance and history of the committee and how it came to be. Her talk is on Feb. 7 at 6:30 pm. She spoke with me about some of the history at Grace Church.

“From the Burgess Committee we learned more about both Bishop Burgess and Absalom Jones, and more about the people of Grace Church over the years in the civil rights movement and the struggle,” Mrs. Rawlins said. “We had evensongs for several years, even after Bishop Burgess died. We held them at Trinity Church because it holds the most people and it was summertime, so you have a broader audience and more people of color who knew Rev. Burgess and the history.”

Like many good movements of experience, she said, the Burgess Committee had its highs and lows. “It was rather like a bell curve; the development of interest reaches a peak, and then falls off.”

Mrs. Rawlins and her husband regularly attended Trinity Episcopal in the summer, but when they began to attend Grace Church year-round, she saw the mural by Crite and the teacher in her prevailed.

“I was a professor and dean at Simmons College, and I grew up in Cambridge,” Mrs. Rawlins said. “So when I saw the mural I thought, here we have this fantastic piece of artwork from a world-renowned artist who was a good friend of the Rev. Tom Lehman [former rector of Grace Church] in the ’50s … from my perspective, this church has been sitting on a treasure of black history and has not been cognizant of it.”

The Burgess Committee then invited the artist to come to Grace Church to speak, which he did even though he was advanced in age at the time, the early 2000s. “We had a wonderful weekend, it was really great,” Mrs. Rawlins remembered.

She said she’s hoping this revival of the Burgess Committee this February takes hold. “Hopefully we’ll get a sense that we ought to be moving ahead,” Mrs. Rawlins said. “You can’t just have a black history week when there are all the rest of the weeks in the year. I’m hoping this time around it will be more long-lasting. People will see that every new thing you learn is supposed to enhance and enrich not only your life, but what you do in life.”

Grace Church was just added to the African American History Trail of Martha’s Vineyard a couple of weeks ago, Rev. Eibner said. The church will also host a series of conversations Wednesday evenings throughout March.

“We’re going to find a book to read throughout Lent and have those brave conversations that white people need to have,” Rev. Eibner said. “It’s not their [African Americans’] responsibility to help us understand white privilege.”

To find out more about Grace Church, call 508-693-0332.


The interfaith community presents a program of music, song, and meditations on Saturday, Feb. 3, in the M.V. Hospital chapel at 4 pm. The Rev. Susan Waldrop will lead a Healing Journey and Kimberly Cartwright will read from “A Course in Miracles.” The meditations are offered on the first Saturday of every other month. According to a press release, “Members of the Island community are invited to share their practices of movement, song, readings, and meditations.” For information, call 508-696-1839.


Join the Federated Church in Edgartown on Sunday morning, Feb. 11, when Leslie Clapp, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, will be a guest speaker at the church’s coffee hour at 11:30 am in the Parish House. The Federated Church is highlighting some of the Island’s nonprofit organizations by inviting them to speak.

Then it’s almost time to celebrate the Big Easy with a Mardi Gras potluck at the church on Tuesday, Feb. 13, from 5 to 7 pm. They invite the community to bring an appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, or dessert, and join them for a free dinner. You can bring your own beads, but if you need some, they’ll have them available. The whole family is invited. They ask that you sign up in advance by dropping by the church, calling 508-627-4421, or emailing admin@federatedchurchmv.org.


The February Neighborhood Convention gathering is at 11 am on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven. The topic is “The Summer Food Service Program — and Beyond” with speaker Noli Taylor. Everyone’s welcome.