Sunday was the feast day honoring the legacies of Edward Thomas Demby and Henry Beard Delany, but someone else was in the spotlight on April 14.
Supply priest Father Peter Kuria sat in a chair on the epistle side of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mason while bishop-elect Phoebe Roaf delivered her sermon.
Over Kuria’s right shoulder was an open doorway, a calendar illustrated by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham featuring a white priest and an all-white congregation hung in full view. The church’s promotional materials don’t always represent congregations like St. Paul’s.
“I’m listening and I’m learning and I truly believe that God is calling us into a season, brothers and sisters, a new way of being Episcopalian,” Roaf said, “holding onto the best things we have from our tradition and moving into the future with some new energy and new ideas.”
That Roaf – an African-American woman who grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and was only ordained a decade ago – was standing before the congregation as their bishop-elect symbolized the new future of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee.
Called in November to succeed Bishop Don Johnson, in two weeks Roaf will be consecrated and will officially become the first African-American and first woman to oversee the Episcopal churches from Jackson to the Mississippi River, from Memphis to Dyersburg.
Breaking these boundaries is nothing new for Roaf. She has been the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Diocese of Louisiana in 2008, the first person of color to serve as priest at Trinity New Orleans, the first woman to serve as rector of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.
“Whenever a new bishop is elected in our Episcopal denomination there are always high expectations and I understand that I am stepping into a role for which our ancestors probably could never have imagined, certainly back when we were enslaved that a daughter of Africa, an African-American woman, would serve this diocese as your fourth bishop,” she said. “I know that I am standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.”
At St. Paul’s, those shoulders include those of Bishop Edward Thomas Demby, an African-American priest whose first assignment was at the same small church where, 62 years to the day after he died, a full circle moment was in progress.
Demby was ordained in 1899 and serve St. Paul’s for a short time before moving on. In 1907 he returned to West Tennessee, to Emmanuel Church in Memphis, and helped the congregation build a church and its first boarding and industrial schools.
He was the first suffragan bishop of Arkansas, though he had salary and no residence provided by the diocese. Today he is lauded for his contributions toward recognition and inclusion of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church.
That Roaf visited on his feast day was likely coincidence; that the day was named Phoebe Roaf Day in Mason was poetic.
And while she knows her election was historic, that standing before the only African-American Episcopal Church in Tipton County as the first bishop who understands the struggle of being a person of color in the South, she doesn’t want that to be her focus.
“I want to resonate with everyone,” Roaf said. “I don’t want people to focus on the exterior; I hope they see my heart.”