African American History Month – reflection 6

Continuing my commemorative pilgrimage through African American History Month remembering those whose life witness and tutelage formed and shaped me…

All Saints' Episcopal Church, St. LouisThe Reverend Joseph W. Nicholson, Ph.D. (1901-1990). Rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis (1949-1972). The priest who baptized me, presented me for Confirmation, and, through his incomparable intellect and surpassing pastoral presence, planted within my soul the earliest and, for me, at the time, secreted seed of what would bear fruit years later as a call to ordained ministry.

Dr. Nicholson, before arriving at All Saints’, had served as the professor of Pastoral Theology (1945-1949) at the Bishop Payne Divinity School, founded in Petersburg, VA, in 1878 to train African Americans for ministry in the Episcopal Church. Earlier in his career, Dr. Nicholson co-authored with Benjamin Mays, a Baptist minister and later professor, then president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, a study, The Negro’s Church (1933), the first sociological treatment of the black church in the United States.

I have marvelous memories of this influential man (who, in his post-retirement years, often encouraged me to call him Joseph; something, out of respect, I never could do, for he was and always will be Doctor or Father Nicholson). One among many…

I was, am an inveterate and, at times, intemperate questioner. Mrs. Beryl Stuart, my 5th grade Sunday School teacher, one morning, charged me with being “disruptive,” dismissing me from the class and directing me to the rector’s office. There, the great man awaited sitting imperiously behind his massive desk. Sure to receive a reprimand, one which I knew would be reviewed and reinforced by my parents, I hurried across the floor, quickly slumping with hunched shoulders into an overstuffed wingchair. What happened next surprised, stunned me. Dr. Nicholson asked me to tell him why I was there. I recounted that the class had been reading the Genesis creation stories, quite familiar to me from Bible studies with my grandmother, and I had wondered aloud and repeatedly, “Why are there no dinosaurs?” Hearing Dr. Nicholson’s chuckle, timidly I looked up into his smiling countenance, his large hands folded, seemingly in prayer. He said, “That’s a good question. I want you to do some study on that and come back and tell me what you find. Now, go back to class.” With wide-eyed relief, I rose, moving to the door. “Paul,” he called out in his stentorian baritone, “keep asking your questions. It’s one of the best ways we learn.”

Hmmm, over 50 years later, I offered similar counsel to a 10-year old who had reminded me of the power of inquiry (January 7 blog post: fair enough: a 10-year old reminds me how we learn – a personal reflection). Verily, contra Santayana, there are some historical lessons that, in our remembrance, we are encouraged, even blessed to repeat.

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2 thoughts on “African American History Month – reflection 6

  1. One of the many, many things I’ve learned from you Paul is to question. I’ve always questioned my students over the years, that’s a given…. But I’ve never really questioned myself and my beliefs, thoughts and feelings. Doing so over the last few years has opened up a new world for me and have helped me to become the person I am today!! So I thank you!

    It’s exciting that you had so many Different people in your lives who helped to mold you. I wish I had had a Rector like that when I was growing up. I feel like I got a really late start on questioning and finding answers. But I guess late is better than not at all. It’s been more than worth it for me!!

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  2. Yes, “late is better than not at all.” Your revelation, for me, falls under that blessed category of we know what we know when we know it – and not before. So, my dear sister, be good and kind to your marvelous self!

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