Jesus Can’t Breathe

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In Colonial America some pews were set aside as general seating for special groups. Details varied according to town, location, date and circumstances but they included reserving seats for adolescents, Native Americans, the poor, widows, the hard-of-hearing, prisoners, and black people, whether enslaved or free. In most churches, even here in New England, the last pews were commonly called Negro Pews and often labelled “free” or “Negro.”

New Hampshire was no exception to this custom. Negro Pews were features of the old North Meetinghouse, which stood on Market Square Portsmouth from 1711 to 1854. The Negro pews there were high above the front door in the upper balcony, as far as possible from the pulpit. And slave owners had to purchase pew space for their slaves just as they had to for themselves. Negro pews were found in other churches and continued in 1807 when St. John’s Church was built. The pews in a church that is the oldest today in our Episcopal Church of New Hampshire were properly identified with brass labels engraved “Negro Pews.”

You see our ancestral Episcopalians in New Hampshire followed a hierarchical system which expressed “dignity” in terms of proximity to the pulpit. The placement of Negro Pews against the back wall of the balcony declared black people’s status as the lowest order of a hierarchical white society. I bet it was hard to breathe up there after climbing all those stairs.

There were a few New England churches that placed Negro Pews in the side balconies, a highly-visible location usually reserved for adolescents and unmarried young adults. Placing blacks here gave physical expression to the white perception of black people as childlike, untrustworthy, or given to inappropriate behavior. This attitude became an enduring fixture of white culture. It was expressed as recently as the mid-20th-century when the term “boy” was used to exclude grown black, gay or Jewish men from mainstream culture or to imply their place at the bottom of society among children.

Black people left Portsmouth Churches in the 1890’s when the first black church was established. But this was just a different, out of sight, out of mind form of segregation, you’ve heard the term “separate but equal.” Some churches gradually left behind segregation practices but the brass “Negro” labels remained in St. John’s until long after the practice of separate seating had long lapsed. Their disappearance reflected our societies growing white embarrassment about past sins. [http://www.seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/slaves3.html#1]

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But Pastor Bill, what does this have to do with All Saints’ or our texts? Well repentance about past segregation we didn’t participate in, doesn’t mean that racism wrongs have been righted, or that you and I are not called to reflect and repent for those thoughts and actions known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do around power, privilege and prejudice, the sin that perpetuates oppression based on race. Repentance is what John calls us to this day. John called people to repent, to clean-up the practices of our lives and to completely reorder our thoughts so that nothing will get in the way of the Lord’s coming. The reading from Isaiah gives the context for this radical call:

  • the assurance of forgiveness that encourages us to repent; and
  • the promise that the coming one will be gentle with all His people, especially those who suffer and are oppressed.

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