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Lifting Our Voices: Jersey City Episcopalians launch oral history project

Tapestry honoring the late Sidney King.
The Rev. Thomas Murphy, Rector, St. Paul's, Jersey City
Tapestry honoring the late Sidney King.

Many of you know that Sidney King was a longtime leader of the Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City, as well as a faithful member of many diocesan committees, and a fixture at diocesan events. Sidney’s death last year was an incalculable loss for his family and our church. Even after all these months, his absence still feels somehow unthinkable. Maybe the reality of his death will only sink in after we can gather again in person, only when we can properly mourn and comfort one another. Like many other Jersey City Episcopalians, I often remember him, drawing lessons from his life and death.

Of course, Sidney was a deeply faithful Christian disciple, always open to new ways of sharing the Gospel through loving service. He never said “no” to ministry. He also cherished the institutional church, loving it more than anyone I have ever met. He was willing to put in long hours at church meetings, usually after a full day at his "day job." (When I start to feel irritated at tedious meetings, I try to recall Sidney's example of dedication and patience!) Because Sidney said "yes" to so much, he amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge.

Since there was so much that only Sidney knew, losing him has meant losing a deep reservoir of memory about the Episcopal Church in Jersey City. Sidney knew all the many twists and turns of our history during the past few decades: the closing and consolidation of churches; the creation of the Jersey City Area Ministries (JCAM); the birth of what became Garden State Episcopal CDC; and, most of all, Incarnation's fight for respect and survival. He never forgot the hard truth that the Church of the Incarnation had been founded in 1910 as a haven for Black people who were not welcome at the other Episcopal churches in town.

I remember being at many meetings when Sidney would speak up, drawing on his vast knowledge and unparalleled memory, lifting his voice in defense of his church and its future. Now, with him gone, I so wish I had paid closer attention or had even set up a time to talk about this precious history, taking detailed notes to pass on our story to the future. In an effort to not repeat this mistake, the Rev. Laurie Wurm, Rector of Grace Church Van Vorst, and I have invited our parishioners to participate in an oral history project: "Lifting Our Voices: Uncovering the Story of the Episcopal Churches in Jersey City."

In the months ahead, some of us will be reading written historical records while others will be talking with parishioners who have lived through our history. Although we are particularly interested in how racism has shaped our story, we want to get a sense of what life was like for Jersey City Episcopalians in the past. How did our parishioners celebrate together? What were especially important traditions and ministries? What were the blessings and challenges of those days? What were the hopes for the future? Although we will present initial findings on Pentecost (May 23), "Lifting Our Voices" will be an ongoing effort to understand our past and to be an even more faithful church in the present and future.

I know that Sidney would be pleased.