Dead Sinners Revised and Edited
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon
at Christ Church Savannah on All Saints Day 2015
Dead Sinners Revised and Edited
How do you define a saint? Would you know a real life saint if you met one?
Try this definition: “A saint is a dead dinner, revised and edited.” The early 20th century satirist Ambrose Bierce in his 1906 work, The Cynic’s Word Book, defined a saint as “a dead sinner, revised and edited” presumably because if we knew the truth of the saint’s life, we would find a truth more complicated and less holy than the legend.
Yet on this All Saints Day as we sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true we recall that while one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast, another one was a teacher–a deaconess who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord she loved and knew here in the Diocese of Georgia. I want to put Ambrose Bierce definition to the test: Are saints really just dead sinners who we revised and edited after the fact, or do saints still walk among us.
First, for us as Episcopalians, you should know that we don’t require proof of miracles after death to recognize someone as a saint. What we do insist on for inclusion in our calendar of saints is evidence of heroic faith, love, goodness of life, joyousness, service to others for Christ’s sake, and devotion. My test case is Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander, who the Episcopal Church this summer recognized with churchwide acceptance that this Saint of Georgia is an example of holiness of life worthy of celebration.
No one but God could have predicted that Anna would grow to gain nationwide notoriety. She was the 11th of 11 children born to Aleck and Daphne Alexander shortly after Emancipation set her family free from their owner, Pierce Butler. The Alexanders joined a group of other recently enslaved persons in establishing a community in Pennick, Georgia, just west of Brunswick. Her father, Aleck had served as a personal assistant to his owner, traveling with him to Savannah and Charleston on business. He was also a skilled carpenter who helped his neighbors build sturdy houses on their own small farms after they gained their freedom. Aleck had taught himself to read after his owner’s wife, Fanny Kemble, defied Georgia law in teaching Aleck the alphabet during her brief stay in the lowcountry. Aleck instilled a passion for education in his family and Anna along with two of her sisters, Mary and Dora, became teachers.
The Alexander Family were confirmed Episcopalians who loved the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. They did not, however, enjoy teaching public school and so joined the faculty of the parochial school at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Darien. The sisters preferred teaching using scripture and the prayer book as texts. During this time, Anna commuted by boat from Pennick to teach in Darien. Then on a visit to St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Brunswick, she had what she would call a coincidence that you know is the work of the Holy Spirit. Anna fell into conversation with a lay reader, Charles A. Shaw. The two began to dream of a new Episcopal church for her home community of Pennick.
In 1894, she planted a new Episcopal church together with Hattie Forester Stafford and Pierce Butler Alexander. They met first in a Baptist Church in the area, but within two weeks Anna presented six children for baptism and the other congregation’s leaders grew jealous. Losing the use of the Baptist Church led to an ongoing effort to secure a permanent home for the fledgling congregation. Anna talked a landowner into letting them use a dilapidated house. Anna would later recall that even though they worked on repairs, when it rained they had to hold umbrellas over the priest during the liturgy to protect the vestments. Then they moved to an abandoned saloon where they converted the bar into an altar.
Throughout the ongoing struggle to find a home for the church, Anna continued to teach in Darien, with a roundtrip of forty miles by foot and boat. In 1897, Anna moved to Virginia to attend St. Paul’s College. During her three year absence, the mission church floundered. She returned to start anew a mission they named The Church of the Good Shepherd. Two years later, in 1902, Anna founded the Good Shepherd Parochial School.
Then in 1907, Anna became the only African American woman ever to serve as a deaconess in the Episcopal Church. Not technically ordained, and that technicality mattered at the time, a Deaconess-Candidate was “set aside” in a service of consecration by the solemn laying on of hands of the Bishop. From 1885 through 1970 the Episcopal Church consecrated almost five hundred Episcopal women as deaconesses to care for “the sick, the afflicted, and the poor.” This life of service was very much like deacons today, so much so that in 1970 deaconesses were made part of the Sacred Order of Deacons.
Anna’s service took place on the other side of the state as a part of the Convention for Colored Episcopalians. Then Bishop of Georgia, C.K. Nelson, wrote in his diary for May 3, 1907 “Admitted as Deaconess Anna E. B. Alexander, a devout, godly and respected colored woman, to serve as teacher and helper in the Mission of the Good Shepherd, Pennick, Ga.”
The Deaconess’ ministry took place solely in a segregated church. The Diocese of Georgia had segregated its convention in 1906, creating the Council of Colored Churchmen the year before Anna became a deaconess. Then the white and colored conventions reunited in 1947, the year of Deaconess Alexander’s death. During the segregated conventions, work of colored congregations largely went unremarked. In his 1930 convention address, Bishop F.F. Reese, the longest serving Bishop of Georgia, to tell the convention of the work of Deaconess Alexander. He said, “She has been school teacher, friend, and helper of the poor and ignorant, and a witness to the whole neighborhood, of the truth and love of God, as she has learned of Him through the Church.”
He told the all white congregation of “the faith and courage and persistency of this good woman.” He added, “I think that it is proper and just that I should make this notice, because this woman is entitled to it, and because her example is a good and encouraging one to all of us.”
In speaking with the former students who survive, I have found an even greater appreciation that their teacher was a true saint. One student told me of how The Deaconess found him. She came to the house where he was growing up wearing the immaculate black dress and headdress of a deaconess, Anna was imposing. She told the aunt and uncle raising him, “You need to teach these young ones their ABC’s.” After she left, he said Auntie told his uncle “What she mean ABCs.” He said he didn’t know what she was talking about. When the Deaconess returned she asked if they had learned their ABCs. When she heard they had not, she told the preschool aged children. “ABC. Can you remember that?”
“Yes m’aam” they answered.
“Say it for me.”
“That’s right. ABC. Remember that.”
She later returned and asked if the children remembered what she taught them. “Yes M’amm. You taught us ABC.”
“Good. Now remember DEF.”
“Yes, DEF. Say it.”
“That’s good. Now ABCDEF.”
“I’ll be back” The Deaconess said and went on visiting everyone in the community. She continued until they learned their ABCs and then to recognize the shapes and to sound out the words. Walter Holmes told me that he had no idea that she was opening the door on a whole world of opportunity for him and it started with her coming to his aunt and uncle’s home to make the children learned their ABCs.
Anna’s single-minded determination to lift up her community went well beyond the confines of the one-room school house that still stands today in Pennick with The Deaconess’ small apartment perched on the second floor. Anna secured a place in technical schools and colleges for her students. Then she put her graduates in her car and drove them to a new life. Fort Valley State here in Georgia, Vorhees College in South Carolina, St. Augustine’s University in North Carolina, and her own St. Paul’s College in Virginia received the children, grandchildren and then great grandchildren of the formerly enslaved Africans.
When I visit Good Shepherd today, the area no longer contains a thriving African American community. Deaconess Alexander depopulated the community of Pennick one child at a time and she drove them away in her own car to lives they could not have imagined. Some have returned to work in Glynn County and they share a passion when they speak with a gleam in their eyes about the miracle that happened there.
The poor white residents of Glynn County also trusted Deaconess Alexander. When the Depression hit the rural poor hard Anna became the agent for government and private aid and Good Shepherd Mission served as the distribution center. Locals remember that no one ever questioned The Deaconess as she served the needs of both races in a segregated south. Strictly religious. Strictly business. Deaconess Alexander commanded respect. White men took off their hats when she passed.
Deaconess Alexander wrote, “I am to see everyone gets what they need…some folk don’t need help now and I know who they are. The old people and the children, they need the most…when I tell some they can’t get help just now…that others come first, they get mad, a little, but I don’t pay no mind and soon they forget to be mad.”
A few years ago I spoke with another former student Alfred Nobles Jr., who was then the patriarch of Good Shepherd Church. As Mr. Nobles looked through the register of the Parochial School he said, “All of them I can remember and I can remember way back to some who were grown men when I was a boy, and all of them tried to better their lives.” These were, he said, students who would have gone to the wayside if not for The Deaconess.
The Episcopal Church requires of its saints evidence of heroic faith, love, goodness of life, service to others for Christ’s sake, and devotion. These are the marks of Deaconess Alexander. And while she rises to the level of getting September 24 in the lesser feasts of the church, she is not alone in bettering the world with a devotion to others that grows out of faith in Jesus Christ. Saints have worshipped among you here at Christ Church as well from the short and flawed Georgia years of John Wesley to Juliet Gordon Low bettering young girls in creating the Girl Scout movement. This is, after all the same pulpit from which Bland Tucker preached and Mayor MacLean went out to love and serve the Lord through guiding this city in a troubled transition from segregation to integration, along with the work and encouragement of Bishop Stuart.
In looking for saints among us, I find the snarky definition offered by Ambrose Bierce to be oddly accurate and scriptural. Bierce defined a saint as “A dead sinner, revised and edited.” I find the same in scripture and in my own life. All of us are sinners. Not one of us is pure. Though I never met her, I know that Deaconess Alexander too was a sinner, and the same holds for Bland Tucker and Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. What makes someone a saint is not that they are holy, but that God is holy. Every one of us in baptism is buried with Christ in his death to rise with him in resurrection. We are all called to be dead to sin and alive to God. We are all called to be saints—dead sinners revised and edited by the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. We don’t define saints. God does.
Dead sinners that we are, we too find our vocation as Deaconess Alexander did and Juliet Gordon Low and Malcolm MacLean. We are to serve Christ by serving others, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are to go out from this worship so nurtured by the presence of our Lord in Word and Sacrament that this city is changed and the world with it. For there are many other dead sinners who need to know that God loves them as they are, but would like to work on revising and editing. That work of redemption will continue until that day when we join Deaconess Anna Alexander and all the saints as the Lord GOD wipes away the tears from all faces and we cry Holy, Holy, Holy.