Honoring the past, looking to the future

Grace Church named the 28th site on the African American Heritage Trail.

From left, the Rev. Susan Eibner, Elaine Weintraub, Julia Burgess, Leigh Ann Yuen, and DiAnna Ray unveil the plaque. — Gabrielle Mannino

Sodden skies on May 20 did nothing to dampen the spirit that filled Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven that morning. Worshippers celebrated not only the Feast of Pentecost but also the parish’s inclusion on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

The Heritage Trail designation honors groundbreaking priests depicted in two church windows, and the African American liturgical artist whose mural graces the Children’s Chapel.

Stained glass windows honor the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746–1818), first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church; and the Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess (1909–2003), first African American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Allan Rohan Crite (1910–2007) was a noted black liturgical artist in Boston. Thanks to a 1950s commission by the Rev. Thomas Lehman, he painted the vibrant mural.

After the final hymn, worshipers filed into the parish hall, joining a crowd of community members there to witness the occasion. Setting the tone, interim priest the Rev. Susan Eibner played a recording of “Stand By Me,” familiar from last Saturday’s royal wedding.

Leigh Ann Yuen, Grace Church Burgess Committee chair, offered thanks all around, especially to Betty Rawlins, who was instrumental in founding that committee some 20 years ago. Its aim was to broaden knowledge and understanding in the church and community of African American life, history, and the civil rights movement.

“How delighted we are to welcome Grace Church to the African American Heritage Trail as Site No. 28!” said Elaine Weintraub, who founded the trail with Carrie Tankard in 1998. “The Heritage Trail began as a dream. The dream began as a promise to a small boy who asked me, ‘Where were all the black people?’”

In the beginning Weintraub and Tankard hoped to designate a few locations marking the lives of African American Vineyarders, and have been overjoyed with the trail’s growth and recognition since then.

“We are the dreamers of dreams and the tellers of stories,” said Weintraub, noting that each of the three honorees began their lives with dreams they pursued despite obstacles.

Weintraub said the Heritage Trail tells the stories of sometimes little-known but significant African Americans, and the story of a diverse Island community

She said the trail organization is very pleased to honor Absalom Jones, John Burgess, and Allan Crite, as well as the people of Grace Church.

“We build community, and so do they,” she said of the parish. “We move on together to honor all people.”

Betty Rawlins, dean and professor emerita of Simmons College, recalled establishing the Burgess Committee at the insistence of Esther Burgess, the bishop’s wife.

“Betty, I have something for you to do. Grace Church needs to see some black priests,” was the command from Mrs. Burgess, a deeply spiritual woman and outspoken activist for civil rights and justice.

Rawlins described bringing African American priests to preach at Grace and summer Evensong services at Trinity Episcopal Church. She called the day’s honor “the next step in Grace Church’s recognition of the diversity of God’s people and the history of Grace Church in that regard.”

“Esther Burgess is the reason we are here today,” she added.

Grace senior warden DiAnn Ray said the parish is pleased to have more people know about the art treasures commemorating these important African Americans.

“This is not just our little secret; this is a secret we can share with everyone,” she said.

Dr. Reginald Jackson, professor emeritus at Simmons College and an artist himself, recalled days with Crite, his friend, colleague, and mentor. He spoke of the artist’s delight in his work, generosity in sharing his talent, and the vibrant productivity that led to his art being found in many churches and museum collections.

Yuen read from “The Beatitudes, from Slavery to Civil Rights” by Carole Boston Weatherford, a picture book evoking scenes from bondage and pain to hope and achievement in the long fight for equality.

Dozens trooped outdoors to see the newly minted plaque mounted on the parish hall wall.

Preparing to remove the red cloth covering the plaque, the bishop’s daughter, Julia Burgess,

reflected that her father became suffragan bishop of Massachusetts in 1962, and was diocesan bishop from 1970 to 1975.

“We’re facing those kinds of times now,” she said. “We should all be making a commitment to improve people’s lives. I think the church could have a much bigger role in helping out.”

“Amen!” the crowd responded. “Alleluia!”

Burgess read the plaque praising the honorees “who have courageously opened our eyes to the wholeness of God’s love in the church,” concluding with a line from the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Pastor Eibner offered blessings from the Africana Worship Book and Jan Richardson’s “This Grace That Scorches Us.”

After the unveiling, Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir performed two rousing songs from slavery days. Thomas said “Rise, Shine, for Thy Light Is a-Coming” celebrates the approach of the Union Army during the Civil War; “Done Made My Vow to the Lord” was the pledge by slaves on the Underground Railway.

“I think it’s wonderful that the church is recognizing diversity, meaning the commingling of different people,” commented a smiling Vera Shorter, now 95, a lifelong civil rights and community activist.

Many headed downstairs to view the striking Crite mural. Others stepped into the sanctuary to admire the glowing windows.

West Tisbury School eighth graders Sam Fetters, Graham Stearns, and Kahlil Dehaney, who

studied with Weintraub, watched in fascination.

“I loved being part of history, and being around so many other people who were also part of history,” said Sam.

Graham said Bishop Burgess’s life story, looking at the mural, and listening to the choir were favorite moments.

NAACP member Corinne Dorsey had come early to attend worship before the ceremony. “Grace Church has more outreach than just about anyone,” she said. “You can feel the love when you come in the sanctuary. I felt right at home.”