AUSTIN - After 16 African-American students and faculty from Huston-Tillotson College in Austin could not find a hospitable Episcopal church in which to worship during the 1940s, they decided to start their own.
Sixty-some years later, several parishioners shared stories of how St. James' Episcopal Church grew for an oral history/video project envisioned by the Rev. Reggie Payne-Wiens, rector. Karen Hartwell, an active member of the 450-member East Austin church in the Diocese of Texas, organized the video project.
"At St. James' it is important for us to share our heritage with all who come after us," Payne-Wiens said. "We believe this is one of the primary ways that we can extend our mission of being a church community that will always welcome those who are not welcomed anywhere else."
The interviewees recalled stories stretching back to the 1950s, shared how they feel about their parish and recapped what they have done over the years to grow their church.
Remembering the discrimination they once experienced, parishioners opened their church doors to all from the beginning. "We who were once rejected will reject no one, not even those who have rejected us," recalled Ora Houston, who first joined St. James' in 1959. "Here at St. James' we have a four-legged Episcopal stool -- hospitality, ministry, liturgy/music and healing," said Houston, who has been active in parish, diocesan and General Convention work for decades.
"At St. James' there are very rich people and there are very poor people and there are people of all colors and all languages. There are gay, straight, Republicans and Democrats. It is not a very stable mix of people, but somehow the thing that brings us there is very sticky, and so we stay," said Steven Tomlinson, a graduate school professor and playwright. When Tomlinson first came to St. James' in 1991, he describes that sticky force he felt: "This feels like the gospel to me. This feels like God's love in action. I want to be part of this."
St. James' members "have reached out to all because they have been touched. The African-American roots of their church are a source of compassion, welcome and fellowship. Above all, it provides a sense of home to share with all," said Dr. Reuben McDaniel, University of Texas professor and chair of health care management. He credited his spouse Myra, who died earlier this year, with being the family member who contributed mightily to her parish for 35 years.
Wishing to honor the work and worship spaces of those who came before them, St. James' parishioners built on this covenant heritage by deliberately taking history with them when they moved -- from the church's first home at 1624 East Seventh Street in Austin, to its second site on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and now its three-year-old campus about one mile further east.
The baptismal font in the center entrance of the new sanctuary on Webberville Road rests on bricks from the original church building on Seventh Street. Stained-glass windows and altar planks from the second site are now part of the new church.
Georgetta Maderas-Bryant -- who has worshipped at all three sites -- epitomizes both the nature of covenant and its joy of sharing. She found people to be "very cordial, nice and caring" when she first came to the Seventh Street church as a grade school student in the mid-1950s. She remembers the late Hortense Lawson as "the mother hen -- the glue that kept the church all together." Now retired, Bryant actively contributes to St. James' by welcoming new guests on Sundays and carefully cleaning sanctuary plants and floral arrangements every week -- just like Lawson did for decades. Many of the plants remain from Myra McDaniel's funeral earlier this year.
Catherine Thomas-Petite, a retired teacher, shares Sunday service welcoming with Bryant after developing children's ministry at St. James' for two-plus decades and serving on the vestry. She recalls with joy one of her former students assuming leadership of the Sunday school when she retired. Thomas-Petite helped to draft the church's first mission statement and views paying off the debt from the new church construction as an immediate parish goal -- something Dr. Mary Lou Adams, present St. James' warden, agrees with.
"Our current goal is raise enough money in tough times to pay off the new church building," said Adams, who is associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas.
"People talk about the spirit of St. James'. For me, it's like I know when the Holy Spirit arrives during the service. I know that's a strange thing to say, but I do," she said. Linda Mayo, of Mayo Media, and Walter Bell, a St. James' parishioner and co-founder of Can-do Entertainment, filmed each interview that took place at home, the workplace or St. James'. The videos will become part of the archives of St. James' and will be shared with the African American Library in Houston.