Epiphany Spirituality, Black History, and Teachers

Unlike the ubiquitously celebrated seasons of Advent and Christmas, the Epiphany season contains some of the greatest but least utilized spiritual resources available to Episcopal schools. To kick off Epiphany, I normally arrange for students or teachers disguised as magi to come bursting into the chapel mid-service, startling everyone and asking if this where the Christ child is to be found. Given that the magi come from radically different backgrounds than Jesus, I love emphasizing the fact that the international, interreligious, and inter-ethnic dimension of their presence is not accidental to Jesus’s story but an essential point: God’s plan for human fullness is achieved, in key part, by Christian fellowship and reciprocity with a diversity of cultures, ethnicities, races, nations, and religions—all united around the incarnation of love, the promise of justice, and the sharing of our individual gifts and collective wealth. The type of fellowship and reciprocity revealed at the heart of Epiphany—an ‘Epiphany spirituality,’ one could say—is particularly relevant during February’s celebration of Black History because this spirituality gave birth to the civil rights movement. 

In This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement, Sarah Azaransky of Union Theological Seminary tells the story of Black Christian intellectuals and activists who, in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, followed the star of freedom by looking abroad to foreign peoples (especially the wisdom, practices, and religious traditions of Gandhi’s India) to help transform American Christianity and democracy. Three important trends stand out among the Black Christians on whom the book is centered (Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays, William Stuart Nelson, Bayard Rustin, and Pauli Murray). First, they recognized a crisis and contradiction within American Christianity. White supremacy, nationalism, and imperialism had invaded the Christianity of most white Americans, making them overwhelmingly resistant to understanding Jesus’ message and recognizing that Jesus is found firstly among the disinherited and oppressed. Clinging to whiteness and nationalism also made Christians incapable of recognizing or receiving the humanity and gifts of others not like themselves—incapable of Epiphany. Second, Gandhi’s actions helped these Black Christians understand how religion could decisively motivate a modern freedom movement in America if there was an organized religious commitment to nonviolent love as a way of life and democratic liberation. Third, each of these Black Christians was either a key influence or an intimate teacher, chaplain, or mentor to Martin Luther King—perhaps the best-known embodiment of Epiphany spirituality of the 20th century.

The Epiphany spirituality of King and the Black educators who shaped him begs certain questions of educators in Episcopal schools in this season after Epiphany: Are we seeking wisdom and fellowship from circles beyond our own? Are we purging our traditions, institutions, and minds of the supremacy that prevents us from discovering Christ in our midst? Is our faith helping to create a more just and loving American democracy? Do we see ourselves engaged in a worldwide struggle for justice? Are we helping develop each student’s gifts and asking them to actively share these? If, with God’s help, we are intentionally cultivating an Epiphany spirituality, then we have every reason to believe that a new generation of prophets will emerge and insist, along with inaugural poet Amanda Gorman,

There is always light
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

The Rev. Timothy J.S. Seamans is the Associate Chaplain for Service and Justice at the Episcopal School of Los Angeles and co-author (along with Jenifer Gamber) of Common Prayer for Children and Families. Outside of school, he is currently working with the Episcopal Church’s Faith Formation Department’s Office of Youth Ministry as a Chaplain for the new Racial Healing Affinity Groups initiative.