Social Justice in the time of Faulkner and Sydnor

Social justice at St. George’s didn’t begin the time of Faulkner and Sydnor:

1795 – The Male Charity school created for the education of poor males

1802 – The Female Charity School was established by the women of St. George’s in 1802 and was the first school established by the church and was the education of poor females

1815 -The second church would reserve the seats on the “right and left of each door of the galleries” for the “People of Colour.”

1834 – Rev. Edward McGuire reported to the Diocesan Council that “much work has been done for the spiritual improvement of our colored population.”

1855 – Two of Five Sunday Schools supported by St. George’s  were for black children

1874 – St. George’s Benevolent Society is incorporated “for the purpose of benefiting the poor of Fredericksburg and assisting needy widows and orphans.”

1879 – The Vestry passed a resolution in which they “cordially invite all classes and colors of our citizens to join us in public worship and participation in all the benefits and sacraments of the church.” This was after disparaging remarks had been used again them.

St. George’s was led in the 57 year post World War II period from 1946 to 2003 by only two rectors, the Rev. Thomas Faulkner and the Rev. Charles Sydnor.  Both advanced the social agenda at St. George’s more than at any time in its history.  Both helped to bring the word “love” back into St. George’s vocabulary. Charles Sydnor in a talk at St. George’s in 2009 used the following quote which fit both his time and Faulkner’s: “Micah puts it so simply and clearly, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’”

From the Civil War until the early 1950’s St. George’s segregated blacks that attended the Church. In March, 1878 the Vestry decided entire block of seats in the gallery at the extreme and next to the pulpit on the south side be set apart for the Colored people”. The 1930’s Vestry Minutes reviewed the race issue again but felt it was a moot point since few people of color attended St. George’s.  

Faulkner had felt the contradictions at an early when he realized his grandfather on his mother’s side had made his wealth on the “backs of numerous slaves.” His immediate family employed a black maid at a low wage. Faulkner writes in his book Gospel for the 21st Century about two events that caused him to rethink his past.                          

“From a spiritual standpoint, two particular incidents occurred in 1942 that would determine the direction of my ministry in the years to come. On the day before Thanksgiving I stepped in front of an African-American lady as I entered the local post office. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I realized what I was doing and stepped back and let her pass through the door first. She turned and thanked me. At that moment all of my unconscious conventional behavior of the past loomed up before me and I swore to myself that all person entering the church of which I was rector should be treated exactly the same. Later that year, a blood drive was held in Manassas for those fighting the Axis powers in World War II. An African-American gentleman, who was principal of the local all African-American Industrial Institute, quietly walked over to me and confided that it broke his heart that he was not permitted to give blood because of his race at the Red Cross blood donor center in my church’s parish hall. He said he didn’t have time to travel to Washington, D. C. where his blood would have been accepted. I never forgot that conversation.”

Faulkner’s time at St. George’s paralleled the rise and maturing of the Civil Rights movement.  Even before Brown vs. Board of Education which stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” in May, 1954, St. George’s had confronted the race issue. Faulkner would prevail against an intolerant Vestry and through his example, leadership and work turned the issue around. 

Faulkner wrote  “As a Southerner, therefore, I know that I must forever fight not to let my attitude toward Negros control me, otherwise, I cannot call myself a Christian.  This applies in general, but it especially applies to the fellowship of Christians as a congregation in God’s House, where I believe Christ, my God and Savior, opposes segregation in any form.” 

His wife Mary Faulkner wrote the following in her memoirs:

“In 1954 at the April 2nd meeting of the Vestry, the Rector reported that the Fredericksburg Area Ministerial Association had invited the ministers of the local Negro churches with their congregations to participate in their Holy Week and Good Friday services which were held annually in St. George’s Church.  Upon hearing this plan of the Ministerial Association, although integrated World Day of Prayer services had been held in St. George’s Church, a number of times in the past, some of the Vestrymen became quite agitated.

“The Vestry passed a resolution to control the rector’s conduct with Blacks:

  1. He is permitted to baptize Negro children in St. George’s Church.
  2. He is not to present any Negros for Confirmation.
  3. He is not to receive any Negro as a communicant of St. George’s Church.
  4. Whenever he observes a Negro Episcopalian in Fredericksburg he is to inform him or her that they are not wanted at St. George’s Church.
  5.  He is not to permit any unsegregated services to be held in St. George’s nor is he to be allowed to conduct such services himself.

In addition to these instructions to the Rector the Vestry agreed:

  1. Negroes who attend St. George’s in ignorance of the fact that they are not wanted shall be seated as a part of the congregation and be allowed to make their communion.
  2. Permission may be given to local groups such as the Red Cross to hold unsegregated meetings in the Sunday School Room on the first floor of the church building. Unsegregated Convocational and Diocesan meetings may be held in St. George’s” 

Faulkner’s strategy was to let the matter rest, continue discussing his ideas and waiting it out. There the issue rested until 1955 . Vestry elections for 1955 resulted in what  Thomas Faulkner called  a “more open minded vestry, more sensitive to the issues I had attempted to present. As a result it was now safe to defy the previous Vestry’s directives.”  

He presented an insert  the following into the July 17, 1955 bulletin .   “As native-born Southerners with their own race-prejudices the Episcopal ministers in the South have dedicated their lives to  the task of understanding and interpreting the Mind and Will of Christ.  At their ordination they promised to follow Christ as their Lord and Master and to abide not only by His Will but by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, which recognize no segregation within the Church.” 

He handled the confirmation and baptism  and conduct of meeting issues by asserting the Canons of the Episcopal Church provide the rector’s authority over baptism and confirmation , the conduct of the  services of worship, the control of Church use and buildings by others.  As far as Blacks,  “as Episcopalians they are entitled to the same privileges and care as any other Episcopalians.”   The Vestry went along with Faulkner’s understandings. 

Faulkner provided a firm stand with a gentle rather than  combative approach to issues involving  race .  “What I was really fighting for was Christian principles. One cannot believe in segregation if they believe in the “brotherhood of man.”   

Mary and Tom Faulkner acted as a team on certain social issues.  She developed the Ann Hamrick house, a day-care program for children.  Through their work and other parishioners, the Rappahannock  Big Brothers and Sisters was started.   St. George’s moved into education through the  New School,  a private school for learning disabled children and operated at St. George’s.  They helped to start Interfaith Community Council which is still  active to this day with “School Dressing Days.” 

It is through the work and example of  Tom Faulkner that  “race” was added to St. George’s welcoming statement. 

Charles Sydnor became an assistant in 1973 and full rector upon Thomas Faulkner’s retirement in 1976.

Charles commitment to social justice was ground in the baptismal covenant but he recognized the accomplishments of his predecessor. “So the soil for social justice ministries was already well plowed by word and deed when I began as Rector, and I was pleased to continue to support many of those programs 

In the 1980’s, the church bought the property that became Hope House, a home for women and children. It helped start Building Bridges, which brings black and white worshippers together. And it provided seed money for the city’s first hospice.  

In 2009 to an Adult forum at St. George’s he said the following “I served with Dr. George Van Sant and others on the Fredericksburg Area Community Relations Council (FACRO) as we continued to seek racial justice. We did things like writing area banks asking why there were no minority persons in management and then publishing an article on their replies in the FLS. Some bankers didn’t like us very much, but minorities began to have management positions. We challenged the School Board and Superintendent on why more minorities were not in teaching positions; when they responded they did not have many minority persons applying, we suggested they go recruit at black colleges and thing began to change.” 

He opened St. George’s to community discussions on topics such as AIDS, school shootings and the wars in Iraq.   St. George’s hosted the mourning for Dr. King at his assassination in 1968. 

In the 1990’s he shifted attention to the plight of medical care for the poor. “In 1992 we were able to start the Moss Free Clinic in the former Health Dept. Building with doctors like Jeppe and nurses volunteering their time to provide free care.” 

In 1992, St. George’s hosted a World AIDS Day observance in Fredericksburg. During the vigil, Sydnor said, he told the crowd that all in attendance were welcome to worship at St. George’s.

In 1997, Sydnor attended a service in a small Episcopal church in Philadelphia. Two men sitting behind him were gay, and afterward Sydnor talked to them. They hadn’t been to church in years.

“We talked about the unwelcome feeling they had felt in churches,” Sydnor said. “I came back [to St. George’s] and I said, ‘I think it’s time for us to be intentional about letting people of various sexual orientations know they’re welcome here.'”

Not long after, the parish agreed to add sexual orientation to its statement welcoming people to the church regardless of race, nationality or denomination.   This was a fitting conclusion to the work that both Faulkner and Sydnor had done over their years at St. George’s.

Social justice at St. George’s didn’t begin in the time of Faulkner and Sydnor, However, they took St. George’s church in new directions involving racial integration in the church and how social issues, such as housing, plight of medical care for the poor and sexual orientation. were handled. Their leadership provided the foundation for later work at St. George’s involving Micah Ministries and the Table ministries.