Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
During this time of increasingly virulent racism, it is well that we pause and remember the martyrs.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was, in some ways, an unremarkable young man. He was born on 20 March 1939, and lived in a small New Hampshire town, where his father was a physician. He was raised a Congregationalist, but while in high school underwent a conversion to the Episcopal Church. At Virginia Military Institute, he was valedictorian for the Class of 1961. He attended Harvard for a year, where he majored in English. He then entered an Episcopal seminary. He did exhibit an openness to change, New England to Virginia, military school to English major to seminary. He even changed religions. He was smart. He went to good schools. But really there was not that much about his life that anyone would term extraordinary – until 1965.
That year, Martin Luther King, jr., asked that students and clergy join him for his march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama. During Evensong on Monday, March the 8th, Jon, as he was known to his friends, prayed the “Magnificat”. “Then it came. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things. I knew then that I must go to Selma.” He went, intending to stay for a weekend. He stayed for the rest of his life.
After the march to Montgomery, Daniels lived in Selma with a Black family, the Wests. He tried to integrate a local parish, something that enraged the congregants. Nonetheless, he requested his seminary’s permission to remain in Selma for the rest of the semester. Permission was granted, so he continued his work. Among other projects, he tutored Black children, and he developed a list of federal, state and local agencies that helped persons in need.
On Saturday, August the 14th, he and others were arrested as they picketed local whites-only businesses in Fort Deposit. They were held, in miserable conditions, for six days. Upon release on the 20th, Daniels, a white Catholic priest, and two Black female protesters went to buy a soft drink at a store. Tom Coleman, an armed special deputy, barred their entry, probably because he viewed them as mixed race couples. Coleman then leveled his shotgun at seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels rushed to Sales. He pushed her away, and was killed by the shotgun blast intended for her. He died instantly. Father Richard F. Morrisroe grabbed activist Joyce Bailey and ran with her. Coleman shot Morrisroe, severely wounding the priest’s lower back. It is worth noting that Fr. Morrisroe was running from Coleman, and that he was shot in the back. Jon Daniels was twenty-six.
Coleman was indicted for manslaughter. He claimed self-defense, and was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Dr. King said, “[O]ne of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.” In 1991, the Episcopal Church raised Jon Daniels to the status of a martyr. Usually, the feast of a martyr is celebrated on the anniversary of his death. But, because the 20th of August is the feast day of St. Bernard Of Clairvaux, Daniels is remembered on the day of his arrest, the 14th. On March the 20th of this year, he would have been eighty.
Daniels’ story is a history of becoming, of process. He was open to change and growth. He once said in a sermon, “You are a child of God, and I am a child of God. Because you suffer, I must suffer, too.” How far has a person grown in order to act upon that?
Ours is a time of racist incidents no less virulent than his day. The murder of Jews. Charlottesville. Mosques desecrated. Latino children separated from their parents at the border. The number of reported incidents of white supremacist propaganda nearly tripled in 2018. This list can go on and on, this litany of heartache that can be recited from any pulpit.
What does Jon Daniels bring to our time, to our discussion of racism? It is well that we pause and remember this martyr, an ordinary man, a student, who saw great evil and responded with love. “Because you suffer, I must suffer, too.” Jon Daniels’ journey took him to a place where, for the sake of a suffering people, he suffered death. But he doesn’t ask anyone to be a martyr. He asks us to join him on the journey toward the greater love.