By Father Casey Shobe
The Christian Church honored two of the greatest saints of the 20th century on Wednesday. Though members of different churches, citizens of different countries, and separated by several decades, Jonathan Myrick Daniels and Maximilian Kolbe are bound together by the nature of their deaths. I’ve been thinking about them both quite a lot this week.
Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who traveled to Alabama in 1965 in response to Martin Luther King’s call for participants in the Selma to Montgomery march. After the march, rather than returning to his studies in Massachusetts, Daniels felt called by God to remain in Selma. He lived with a local black family, worked to integrate the local Episcopal Church, fostered dialogue about racial equity among local white leadership, and worked to register black citizens to vote.
In August 1965, he and several others were arrested and jailed without bail or arraignment for nearly a week. When they were finally released a week later from the Hayneville Jail, they walked up the street to get a drink and find a phone. As they began to enter a small store, a local white supremacist and unpaid special deputy named Tom Coleman stepped out bearing a shotgun. When he leveled his gun at a young black woman in the group named Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way and took the fully blast of Coleman’s blast in his chest. He saved Ruby Sales’ life by sacrificing his own.
Although Tom Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, Jonathan Daniels’ sacrifice was one of the major events in the civil rights movement. His steadfast devotion inspired the courage of countless others who had not yet chosen to engage in the fight. He gave up his life battling for the truly just and peaceful vision of the kingdom of God. As Dr. King wrote about Jonathan Daniels, “The meaning of his life was so fulfilled in his death that few people in our time will know such fulfillment or meaning though they live to be a hundred.”
A few decades earlier in 1941, the Polish Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned at Auschwitz for sheltering thousands of Jews in his friary. When a fellow prisoner escaped from the camp, the guards selected ten other prisoners to be killed in reprisal. As they were lined up to die, one of the ten began to cry, “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this, Maximilian stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted, and he led the other men in song and prayer as they awaited their deaths.
As I said, Jonathan Daniels and Maximilian Kolbe are two of the greatest saints of recent history. They died in defense of the principle that all human beings are known and loved by God, and they also understood, better than most, that God has a special allegiance for the poor, abused, and oppressed. They exemplified in their lives the famous lines of the poem “The New Colossus” that adorn the side of the Statue of Liberty, and are as Christlike a statement as any outside of Scripture:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Instead of inventing caveats to modify these righteous ideas, Daniels and Kolbe pursued their fulfillment until their very last breaths.
As Christians, we are guided not only by the example of Saints Jonathan Daniels and Maximilian Kolbe, but we believe they, and a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1-2) like them, are near to us all the time. They surround us and pray for us and exhort us to faithfulness in our own day. For the terrible evil that fueled the powers that killed them are still loose in our world, propagating racism, stoking xenophobia, and breeding white nationalism. It is an evil that urges us to fear and hate and complacency. But it will not win. It will not win, because just as he was in World War 2 and the Jim Crow South, Jesus is on the side of the poor, abused, and oppressed. It will not win, because just as he was in all the strange dark days of history, Jesus is on the side of justice and peace. So, as his followers, let’s be sure we’re on his side, the side with the great cloud of witnesses, the side of the Kingdom of God.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.