“Ministry is Not For Sissies”: The Faithfulness of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

Readings for the Feast Day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

This reflection was shared at Sacred Saunter Outdoor Eucharist on Saturday August 14, 2021 at Sequoia Park in Eureka CA.

Yesterday, my clergy coach the Rev. Dr. Mark Anschutz said, “Ministry is not for sissies.” And these words are appropriate for us today as we reflect upon the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan Daniels was born in Keene, New Hampshire in 1939 and, as an enormously gifted young man, tried to discern his vocation in life. He attended Virginia Military Institute, where he honed and developed his sense of discipline, order, organization, as well as the virtues of self-giving love.

And then he studied English literature at Harvard University, when he thought he might want to be a writer. And then he experienced the beauty of Episcopal worship at Church of the Advent in Boston, which convinced him of his calling to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. He started seminary at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge MA and during his second year as a seminarian, he heard the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to clergy and seminarians to become more actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

He was also deeply moved by the words of the Magnificat (which we just heard), the words of Mary, who listened and responded faithfully to God’s call. As he travelled from Massachusetts to Alabama, he said, “The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”

For several months in Alabama, he tutored youth, invited young people to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, and developed deep relationships with people of color.

One day, while he was engaged in this work of justice, he walked by a convenient store in Hayneville with a white Catholic priest and two black girls, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales. They had just come out of prison after being arrested for participating in a protest. So, they had just spent hours, if not days, in a hot jail cell in Alabama with no food or water and they simply wanted to buy a soda at the convenient store called Varner’s Cash Store. As they were walking up the steps to the store, a man named Tom Coleman started yelling obscenities at them and cursing them. Tom Coleman them aimed a shotgun at sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales and pulled the trigger, but not before Jonathan Myrick Daniels jumped in front of Ruby and was instantly killed by the bullet in his abdomen. He was 26 years old. If he hadn’t been shot, he would be 82 years old today.

I’m wearing a red stole today because Jonathan Daniels was a martyr. He’s one of the two American martyrs commemorated at Canterbury Cathedral’s Chapel of Martyrs: Martin Luther King Jr. and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Dr. King was still alive when Jonathan Daniels was shot and he said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

Every year, on August 14th, Episcopalians gather for a Jonathan Daniels pilgrimage which involves a walk to the convenient store and the courthouse, where Tom Coleman was acquitted by an all-white and all-male jury.

The last two years, they have offered this pilgrimage online. I just watched the program this morning and the guest speaker this year was Dr. Catherine Meeks, the Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. (Absalom Jones was the first African American Episcopal priest). This morning, Catherine said that Jonathan Daniels did not seek to be a martyr. He sought to listen and be faithful and obedient to God’s call, just like Mary.

And that’s what we are called to do, to be faithful and to listen, and to cultivate virtues of self-giving love so that if we are ever in that same situation, we don’t have to think about it – we don’t have to form an ethics committee – before putting ourselves in harm’s way to protect someone else.

I had the privilege of meeting Ruby Sales, who is a nationally recognized social justice activist, scholar, and public theologian. She continues to work for social justice as well as voting rights for people of color, which was the primary objective that Jonathan Daniels and others were pursuing in the 1960s. Sadly, this story of Jonathan Daniels still feels painfully relevant and poignant for us today in the 2020s, when voting rights remain elusive for communities of color.

So may we be faithful, may we be obedient, may we listen, and may we have the courage to go where we are called to go, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, knowing that the ministry to which we are called “is not for sissies.”


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