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Pursuing the Beloved Community in Salisbury St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Salisbury, North Carolina

1 Jun 2023 12:00 AM | HSEC Director of Operations (Administrator)

Established by the Colonial Assembly in 1753, St. Luke’s Parish has been a part of the history of Salisbury, North Carolina since its very beginning. Our historic church building was constructed in 1828 and expanded in 1883 and 1909. More than being a historic parish, we strive to be a community where all people can come and see the difference Christ makes.

One barrier to this mission is the legacy of race and racism that infects our society and reduces the full scope of the Beloved Com- munity to which the church is called. St. Luke’s is located in the heart of downtown Salisbury and shares a block with the Rowan Museum (the former courthouse), the county courthouse, and the county jail. Surrounding this block are many attorney offices. When our current rector, Robert Black, was called to St. Luke’s in 2014, he led us on an exploration of the biblical question “who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29).

As we began to answer this question, we quickly realized that our neighbor is the criminal justice system. We began to learn more about this system by watching TED Talks with a neighboring congregation, Soldiers Memorial AME-Zion Church. In watching lectures by people like Civil Rights activist Michelle Alexander and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson and having conversations about them, we grappled with the realities of racism that are embedded within the criminal justice system to which we are a neighbor. During this time, the Episcopal Church, under the leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, launched its “Becoming Beloved Community” framework and initiative. Sensing the movement of the Spirit, we adopted this framework in the parish and began with the first step of “telling the truth.” In order to tell the true story of race at St. Luke’s, we knew we would have to engage our history. This initial phase of truth-telling had three components to it. The first was the creation of an oral history documentary. There are members of our community who grew up in the Jim Crow South. These are important stories to be told by the voices who experienced such prejudice and discrimination. St. Luke’s hired a video production company to interview several members of our parish and community, as well as the Presiding Bishop and our diocesan bishop, Samuel Rodman. The video was debuted to a standing-room only crowd in our parish hall in October 2019 (and is available at The video has over 1,400 views and has been used by several churches and organizations in our community to further the conversation about the legacy of racism.

The second part of this work was inviting a United Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, and Catherine Meeks, the director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, to St. Luke’s for a week- end in November 2019. Having considered the recent past in the documentary, this weekend was about having the issues of racism, and its modern manifestations, discussed and dissected within a theological framework. The wider Salisbury community was invited to these lectures to further demonstrate that we are a congregation that is committed to engaging with important issues.

The third thing that we did during this phase of the work was to commission a local historian, Gary Freeze, who was a history professor at local Catawba College, to research and document our parish’s connection to slavery. We could assume that the labor of enslaved people was involved in the building of our 1828 church, but we did not want to act on an assumption. Freeze’s research clearly demonstrated that the wealth of the congregation was derived from slavery, and he further showed that the bricks used in the construction of the church were manufactured by enslaved people. This truth is now named in a plaque in the church. Freeze presented his findings in a public lecture on Marth Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2020. St. Luke’s has a well-documented history book, but the issue of slavery and the membership of enslaved people is ignored. Freeze’s research was written in a report that is now considered an official addendum to our history book. This report is available online (along with information about work related to Becoming Beloved Community at

These three projects were driven by a committee of dedicated church members led by our rector. In February 2020, these members met to discuss what the next phase of our work might be. We sketched some initial plans before COVID-19. Those plans were all based on people gathering for further dialogue and learning. Given the chaotic nature of spring 2020, when churches had to switch to online worship and gatherings, none of the initial plans came to fruition. But the Spirit was still leading us into a second phase of this work.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers, which set off a series of protests, demonstrations, marches, and conversations around race unlike any other. In the weeks that followed, our rector and another church member met with a prominent black pastor and the president of the local NAACP chapter. The topic of conversation was the Confederate monument in downtown Salisbury which stood a block away from St. Luke’s; a St. Luke’s member advocated to place it there in 1909. Robert Black, rector of St. Luke’s, realized through his con- versations with local leaders in the African American community, as they were discussing the messages sent by a public statue, that upon entering into St. Luke’s, African Americans would take one look at the stained-glass windows and think “Oh, this is a white church.”

The stained-glass windows at St. Luke’s are historic, lovely, and a product of their time. Biblical characters are portrayed not as they might have looked, but rather as nineteenth-century Europeans. The rector led a fourteen-week study on Zoom exploring the his- tory of the stained-glass windows, as well as the biblical subjects portrayed there. In the culminating session, he prepared a graphic that showed all the faces depicted in the stained glass on one side and all those that are inaccurate on the other side. The visual messages were stark – the only “correct” depictions were the English saints, such as Hilda, Alphege, and William of York. The disciples, Jesus, and Mary were all “white-washed.” Given that none of the depictions were overtly offensive, we realized that we had no desire to replace the windows. However, we decided to find ways to correct the lack of visual diversity.

When it comes to the topic of engaged history, that is precisely what we sought out to do – to engage our history and make it clear that we are part of a living and ongoing tradition. Due to a relationship with a church in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1990s, St. Luke’s was gifted a Russian Orthodox icon that is displayed in our chapel. This icon’s presence contributed to the idea of adding more icons to our space. The rector put together a committee made up of those who were interested in art and our work around Beloved Community. This group met to discuss the number, size, location, and subjects of the icons, as well as the iconographers who would write them.

We ultimately decided that, given the goal of diversity behind this project, we would approach several artists about commissioning works. The result was a two-phase project that included seven icons being added to our church and three icon panels for our chapel. The church icons fit perfectly in our worship space, both aesthetically and theologically. The first icon added was that of our patron, St. Luke, and was placed in our baptistry. This icon was written by Dorothy Perez. The stained-glass windows in the nave all depict saints from scripture and tradition, and so the four icons added to the nave follow this pattern. We commissioned and dedicated icons of four important figures in the faith. The first is Manteo, the first person baptized in the Church of England in the “new world.” The plaque for this icon names the fact that St. Luke’s was built on land that belonged to native peoples prior to the arrival of English settlers. The icon is placed at the end of a line of windows that begins with Augustine of Canterbury and concludes with William of York. This series of windows demonstrates the robustness of our Anglican tradition from Canterbury to York.

Nave, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Salisbury, NC
The nave of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, NC, originally constructed in 1828 and expanded in 1909. Shown with icons dedicated in 2021 and 2022.
Photo: Robert Black, reprinted with permission.

Including Manteo in this line shows how the faith that was nurtured in the British Isles has made its way to this side of the Atlantic.

There is also an icon of William Wilberforce who was a cham- pion for justice and the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Wilberforce is a holy example of what people with privilege can do to advance justice through perseverance. This icon is placed next to a window of Wulfstan, the bishop of Worcester from 1062 to 1095, who fought against the slave trade (debtor’s slavery) in his day. The next icon portrays Henry Beard Delany (1858–1928), the first African American bishop in the Diocese of North Carolina, and first African American elected suffragan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Delany was elected in 1918 during the diocesan convention of North Carolina, held at St. Luke’s. The icon is fitting given both Delany’s role in our diocese and his election in our worship space. This icon is placed next to a window depicting another strong bishop, Alphege, an eleventh-century Archbishop of Canter- bury, who sought to protect his flock against evil.

The final icon along the side walls of the nave is of Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, a local saint. Koontz was a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, an Episcopal mission for African Americans in Salisbury. St. Philip’s was closed and merged into St. Luke’s in 1970, thereby making Koontz a St. Luke’s member until her death in 1989. She was an educator and Civil Rights champion. Her icon is found next to a window of another woman leader who prioritized education, Hilda of Whitby. The nave icons were all written by Suzanne Schleck.

Icon of St. Luke by Dorothy Perez.
Photo: Robert Black, reprinted with permission.

Icon of Pentecost by Kelly Latimore.
Photo: Robert Black, reprinted with permission.

The Chapel of St. Luke’s was built in 1895 as a chapter house for the Daughters of the King and converted into a chapel in 1948, shown here are icon panels dedicated in 2022.
Photo: Robert Black, reprinted with permission.

The back wall of St. Luke’s features our largest and most prominent window: the Ascension of Jesus. It is flanked on side walls by windows of Easter morning and the Nativity. Two icons were added to that section of the church, keeping with the theme of salvation through Jesus Christ; both were written by Kelly Latimore. Next to the Ascension window, on the Easter window side, there is now a large (5’x7’) icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which seeks to portray this important biblical event. The inclusion of Moses and Elijah highlights the importance of the Jewish roots of our faith. They, along with Jesus and the disciples, are portrayed more accurately, as people of Middle Eastern descent.

On the other side of the Ascension window is, perhaps, the crown jewel of the icon project. The biblical event portrayed is the day of Pentecost, but many see it as an icon of the Beloved Community. As described in Acts 2, the people who gathered at Pentecost were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” This is a diverse list of peoples, and it is noteworthy that both the Medes and Elamites were extinct by the day of Pentecost. Luke, the author of Acts, knew this. By including them, he is demonstrating that the gifts of the Spirit transcend time, space, ethnicity, and language. When we offered this commission to Latimore, we asked him to “get creative and do some iconic midrash.” We asked him to create an icon that would represent the Beloved Community on the day of Pentecost so that anyone who walks through the doors of our church will find someone in that icon they can identify with. The fruit of this commission is stunning – as it includes people of different shapes, sizes, ages, genders, races, and abilities all gathered around a table and receiving the gift of the Spirit. Several people of color have been in our space to view this icon and have been moved to tears, often saying, “I’ve never seen anyone like me portrayed in art like this.”

Phase two of the icon project was to add three icon panels that mimic the style and size of the three stained glass windows that were already in the chapel. These icons add the diversity that was missing from the original chapel windows. One panel depicts female heroes of the Hebrew Bible; one portrays scenes of grace from the New Testament and features marginalized biblical characters; and one shows a blessed diversity of saints throughout the ages such as Phoebe, Alban, Patrick, Julian, Harriet Tubman, Jonathan Daniels, and Desmond Tutu.

This icon project was undertaken because, as Episcopalians, we know the power of liturgy and space to form and shape us. By going to church with these new icons, people will be sur- rounded by an even greater and more diverse cloud of witnesses. As people gaze around the space in worship, they will see saints who are not only white, but also black and brown. In the Pentecost icon, they will see the hope of Revelation, that one day people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will gather around the throne of God in beloved community. That hope will shape us now, calling us to pursue the dignity of all people, as the Baptismal Covenant guides us to do. Part of the Episcopal Church’s Beloved Community paradigm includes “proclaiming the dream” and this is something we have sought to do through these icons.

All the work described above was in response to God’s call to us and in the hope that our efforts might be an example to other congregations, encouraging them to engage their own past so they can guide their future toward greater inclusion and diversity. This work makes it clear that history is not finished; it is ongoing, and by engaging history we join the Holy Spirit who seeks to bring us all more fully into the Beloved Community of faith, hope, and love.

Robert Black Salisbury, North Carolina

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