I love Kwanzaa. Yesterday, I got to spend time with a group of friends who have become like family at our 5th annual Kwanzaa karamu. It’s a potluck dinner filled with kids, and adults, and elders, and lighting candles and good food…and spontaneous moments of drumming, and singing, and chanting, and remembering our ancestors. It reminds me so much of my own childhood, which was filled with poets, and musicians, and non-profit folks, and community leaders; people who would get together once a year to just be, and celebrate, and remember. As a teen, we jokingly called it the Annual Tofufest, because, you know, Black conscious folk always care about eating right. And now this teen has grown up, and it is such an honor to carry on the tradition today to a new group of children who will one day carry on the tradition in their community.

So, I’m feeling full this weekend. But let’s get to why we’re here: the sermon.

You know that I always include the lyrics of a song in my writing and sermons. Usually, they are the lyrics of a Negro Spiritual, but today I decided to do something a little different. We’re going meditate on song that came much later, still being born out of that spiritual tradition. As always, this is an interactive experience and not a performance. When I was younger I was told that singing is such an important part of the African American church tradition because singing is an African means of prayer, that songs are a way to let our prayers and thoughts find their way up to God, and we know that God had heard and answered our prayers when our bodies begin to move, and dance. So it’d be wrong of me to stop you from communicating with God. So, sing with me. Join in on the chorus or the verse, hum or ooh if you don’t know the words. And definitely, clap and tap along.

Grandma’s hands
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Grandma’s hands
Played a tambourine so well
Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
“Might be snakes there in that grass”
Grandma’s hands

Today is December 31. It’s a special day. On our church calendar, it’s the First Sunday after Christmas. On our American calendar, it’s the last day of our calendar year, New Year’s Eve. On our family and community calendar, it’s the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba, the day of creativity. On our faith calendar, our Black Church calendar, it’s the morning of a very special night: Watch Night.

This is really rich and potent and powerful day. It’s filled with so many traditions. There are people right now scrubbing every inch of their homes to make sure no old dirt comes into the new year. There are pots of greens being prepped to bring good luck. There are candles being lit and libations being poured. And tonight, we tell stories of men, women, and children praying unceasingly on their knees while a night watchman stood over them woke and awake, eyes carefully peeled as they waited for midnight to come calling in the new year and new law; the Emancipation Proclamation which legally ended slavery on paper. And brought in a new era in our ancestors’ right and fight for freedom.

Today’s Gospel reading John 1:1-18 focuses on the light of the world that John came to testify about.

Verses 6 through 8 say, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

When I first read the verses, I thought “Am I hallucinating? We just had this sermon. Didn’t Rev Janice just give a sermon on John being witness to the light from this same book?” A quick skim through the Episcopal Church’s lectionary calendar allayed my fears. Yes, we had read about John bearing witness to the light on Dec 17, the third Sunday in Advent. We read John 1:6-8, 19-28.

So now I’m confused. I’m wondering why we retell this story?

Then I remembered my then 80 year old sociology professor Chuck Willie. Professor Willie was born in Dallas in 1927, was a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr during their Morehouse days, is an extremely active and noted lay member of the Episcopal Church, a scholar, an author, and a longtime fighter for civil rights and desegregation. Every week at Harvard, Professor Willie told the same stories over and over again in class. This fact annoyed many graduate students. Me, at first I found them charming. I love storytellers. Then it dawned on me that Professor Willie wasn’t forgetful or senile or whatever attributes people like to assign to octogenarians. He was repetitive for a reason: he wanted us to remember the stories.

His favorite story is the Noah story. He’d say something like “You know the story of Noah? It is one of the Bible’s creation stories. God called Noah to build an arc to prepare for a mighty flood. Noah brought his wife and children, and 2 of every animal onboard, then the rains came. Noah and all the inhabitants of the boat were the only survivors of that 40 day storm. They in turn, repopulated the earth.” Professor Willie often asked us to take stock of who was on the boat. We’d say “Noah, his wife, his children, and the animals. We know this story.” “Exactly,” he’d say. And then he’d end his classroom homily with this, “The world can start over without the best and the brightest.”

I heard him tell that story a lot of times. And like anytime you hear a story again and again, you may hear something different. That story kept us humble. (The world started over without the best and the brightest.) It also kept encouraged.(The world can start over without the best and the brightest.)

This time of year is filled with moments when we try to remember the story.

We grab our chins with folded arms and focused eyes staring off into space trying to recall exactly how to make that sweet potato pie crust the way our late grandmother did.

We listen with glazed eyes and burning ears to countless living room sofa lectures, I mean conversations, that start with the phrase, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” and we listen.

We scour bookshelves, attics, and closets to find that book from childhood as we nestle our favorite littles and retell our treasured stories to new ears and eyes.

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Grandma’s hands
Used to lift her face and tell her,
She’d say “Baby, Grandma understands
That you really love that man
Put yourself in Jesus hands”
Grandma’s hands

We tell the stories in the Bible within a cultural context of what was happening at the time. It’s why so much of the story surrounding Jesus’s birth is about the men. The shepherds. John. The wise men. These are the stories that were important at the time to put on paper. We argue about what’s missing from the story. Sometimes we’re ready to throw the story out. I’m no different. With the stories of Mary and Jesus, I wonder who taught Mary how to nurse her baby; where were the shepherds wives who showed up to feed her, change her and her baby then slip away, unspoken. What else was stashed for the baby and the mom in the travel packs of the wise men? But, as this story of John reminds us, the details are important; a fully colored story is amazing, but John also reminds us that the heart of the story–the main point is most important. Let’s refocus on the light.

That brings me to today, the context of celebrating Kwanzaa at St James Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by activist and then UCLA doctoral student Dr Maulana Karenga.

Reflecting on the holiday’s 50th Anniversary, Time magazine’s Olivia Waxman writes, “The fact that Kwanzaa was conceived in 1966 is no coincidence. The festival of lights, which is rich with symbolism, was conceived during one of darkest periods in Los Angeles’ history, during a key moment in the civil rights movement.

A key event that sparked the idea began in August of 1965, after the Watts riots, a series of clashes between police and African-Americans in the L.A. neighborhood, which left 34 dead, 1,000 injured, and $40 million worth of property damaged.”

It was a time when Los Angeles was dealing with high levels of unemployment and segregation, cuts to federal anti-poverty programs, and a lack of affordable housing. Tensions were high.

It was a time when our nation was dealing with 4 Little Black Girls killed at a church in Birmingham, the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This idea of openly celebrating Black pride after generations of having every attempt of exhibiting and celebrating pride in Africaness was stripped away. Hundreds of years of enslavement and Jim Crow laws had taken away the tribal diversity of our cousins across the water in West Africa, who speak different languages, argue over whose Joloff rice is better, and know by a glance or a name if someone is, say, Igbo or Yoruba, and instead, in the US, fused us into one tribe: Negro. Black.

The foundations of Kwanzaa were an attempt to get some of that back and also to recognize what still was there. Like our food traditions, our ways of worshiping, our music, the rhythm of our language, our childhood games, even some of our words, like “Mmm, hmm, uh-huh, and okay,” are examples of Africanness that is still here.

The 7 principles of Kwanzaa were recognized and born:
Collective Work and Responsibility.
Cooperative Economics.

To make a connection to our diverse African ancestry, the 7 principles were named in Swahili: Umoja, Kujichagulia. Ujima. Ujamaa. Nia. Kuumba. Imani. (As a people who were descendants of slaves who lost many languages, they decided to reclaim at least one, Swahili.)

Kwanzaa is a good time to dust off our stories. This is the season to get more details surrounding the light. Stories of 1941 when our founders couldn’t join the Episcopal Church in Austin because they were Black. Stories like the one Joan Khabele told in an episode of KLRU’s Austin Revealed, when she shares about not being allowed to swim in Barton Springs. This is the season to ask about the faces on the walls of St James, like Father Hugh, who’d tell stories about how he went being a privileged white son of the south to what he’d like to call himself, “a recovering racist,” who gave many years of service to this historical Black church. Now is our booster shot, to inoculate us with stories that will sustain us and keep us healthy for years to come, and our reminder that we need to make the time to sit and listen and remember.

Grandma’s hands
Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy
She’d say, “Matty don’ you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core”
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

If I get to heaven I’ll look for
Grandma’s hands

So what are we called to do during this time of year? John 1:16-17 reads as follows, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Each generation is open to experience both new and old things. It’s important that we keep traditions, knowing that we are not bound by them.

We know Jesus was more likely to have been born in the spring closer to when the census was taken, yet we celebrate every year in December because it fit in better in our cultural context of celebrations around this time of year. We can choose to argue about the history and semantics of the date, and trees, and Santa. Or we can focus on the light. A child was born during extreme adversity, and grew up to be someone who forever changed the world as we knew it. And there are those who to told the story.

Focus on the light.

We can argue about what tradition looks like, for example, whether or not we should put salt or sugar in grits–the correct answer is salt.

We put ham hocks in the pot to season our greens. Or we change it to smoked turkey wings. Or evolve to a generation that keeps things meat free. What’s important is telling the story of our ancestors who turned limited, throwaway rations like ham bones with little meat into a culinary feat that fed many. What’s important, is that during Kwanzaa we are encouraged to reach further back and make the connection that greens and black eye peas are a foodways that we began eating on the other side of the Atlantic well before the Middle Passage.

Focus on the light.

Kwanzaa may or may not be a part of our individual context. We are a diverse congregation, in ethnicity, race, and places of origin. And lest we forget, that while some in the world, due to so many years of trying erase details, may see one color as they look in: Black, we, who are looking out into the world, see a myriad of shades of brown and black, and tones and experiences rich and diverse. What I mean is our Blackness is celebrated and lived in many different ways. We don’t all celebrate Kwanzaa.

And yes, there are some painful stories that go along with the beautiful ones that make up the legacy of Dr Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa.

But whether we formally light the candles symbolizing the Nguzo Saba, or attend a public ceremony, or eschew the practice altogether, the seven principles of Kwanzaa stand on their own and are things that we should strive to live (repeat after me):

Collective Work and Responsibility.
Cooperative Economics.

Focus on the light.

We may chose to change our church or church traditions. With music. Without. Contemporary. Traditional. But Bill Withers‘ song reminds us of the beauty of old hands that “played the tambourine so well,” and we picture the pew and sound and the joy and passion and heartache and prayers that went into every hit, and strike, and shake, and we recall this is why we came to church. It is for that feeling and light that fills us.

Focus on the light.

One day soon soon, we will walk into the narthex of St James and see pieces of artwork, hand carved, and hand stamped by our own Arleen Polite; artwork that will embody the seven principles of Kwanzaa. They will be hung adjacent to the photos of our founders of St James. But donating money for the artwork to be installed, or being here to celebrate it is not the end of your to do list. Your job is to be able to tell the stories behind those images.

Tell the stories of this church. Tell the stories of East Austin. Tell the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Tell the stories of your family. Tell the stories of your neighbor.

Tell those stories, seek those stories, read those stories, and listen to those stories, again and again.

And when we ask ourselves “why are we reading or listening to this story again?” we will remember that some things bear repeating.



Simone Monique Barnes
St James Episcopal Church, Austin TX
Sunday, December 31, 2017, 11am

Join Simone and friends for this East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) event:


Saturday, November 18, 2017, 11am to 6pm, featuring the art and craft of Simone Monique Barnes, Cindy Elizabeth, Mahealani, Hermanitas, Arleen Polite, and more, at M-Station, Foundation Communities, 2906 E MLK Jr Blvd, Austin TX, 78702 (2nd floor, red building).

Artists, art (on view and on sale), storytime, and hands on art making activities throughout the day.

Inclusive, kid, senior, and wheel friendly experience. FREE admission.

Art of Community EAST #94

Please note: Simone’s home studio will be CLOSED during the first weekend of EAST. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Rev Alexander Crummell (sepia photo)

Honoring Our Saint: The Reverend Alexander Crummell

UBE Sunday – Sunday, September 17, 2017, 8am and 10:15am

St James Episcopal Church, Austin TX, USA

Sermon by Simone Monique Barnes


I want Jesus to walk with me

I want Jesus to walk with me

All along my pilgrim journey

I want Jesus to walk with me


Let us pray. Eternal Spirit, Earth maker, Pain bearer, Life giver. Creator. Light. Lord. God. Love. You are known by many names, and seen in many images, and felt and experienced in many ways… I come before you today, asking, like every day, that there more of thee and less of me in my words and deeds. Let these meditations of my heart scatter in the wind, and fall down where they are needed. In you and to you, we pray. Amen.


African American opera singers have a tradition that is passed down from singer to singer, generation to generation. In every solo concert that is given, be it arias in Italian, German, French, or Broadway show tunes by Gershwin or Sondheim, they will always, always end with a Negro Spiritual in order to give honor, honor unto the mentors, role models, ancestors who have come before. They do not forget where they came from. I don’t sing very much anymore. Years ago, I transitioned my creativity into writing, and teaching, and curating. But my time spent at the “Fame” school in NYC, in the Harlem Girls Ensemble/Girls’ Choir of Harlem, and later in conservatory, laid a foundation for who I am today. Most of my writing, speeches, and just about every college and graduate school essay I have ever written, have started with the lyrics of a song, usual a negro spiritual, as a way of bridging past and present, and acknowledging that my life is but a moment on this continuous thread of time, giving honor to those who came before, and to gird me with their strength.


And in that tradition of giving honor, we are here to pay tribute to the late Reverend Alexander Crummell, a giant whose footsteps we walk in and whose shoulders we stand on. You may hear this refrain from time to time in this sermon. Feel free to join in if you feel so moved.

I want Jesus to walk with me

I want Jesus to walk with me

All along my pilgrim journey

I want Jesus to walk with me


Today’s reading from Mark is on the parable of the sower. Discussion of this parable often focuses on our response to the gospels. How do we receive God’s word and love? Are our hearts hardened, unchanged, distracted, or open? Are we or the fertile soil ready to receive, nurture, and grow? The metaphor is a moment to reflect on what kind of ground are we.


But today I’d like us to turn our attention to the sower. We don’t know a lot about this particular sower. The sower in this story is imagined; a fictitious character. So like actors, we have to imagine ourselves into the story.


It is interesting that this story focuses not on the farmer, who sees things through from start to finish, not the tiller and cultivator of the soil, who checks and balances the nutrients of the ground’s health, but specifically on the sower. They don’t prepare the ground.


This sower seemed to throw seed everywhere. Not the meticulous planter who digs a hole, and carefully places a single seed into the dirt, pats it gently, and watches it grow. But the sower scatters seeds everywhere, with some falling on the path, some on rocky ground, some in the thorns (bushes), and some into good soil.


This sower went out: didn’t stay home. Who are the sowers? They are the sojourners, the travelers. The go to places like Cambridge. Liberia. Like Texas.


They change jobs often. They are the bees and the butterflies. They are the immigrants. The migrators. The risk takers. They often do not have their names on buildings.


I went to a conference once, where the leader gave an introductory talk about the conference sessions and workshops. He ended with a request for us to be sure to leave room for the bees and the butterflies. The bees are the ones who go to one room for a few minutes, then they leave and visit several conference sessions never staying long enough to get the full impact of a workshop or talk. They are the cross pollinators. And then there are the butterflies. You see them in the elevator, you see them sitting at the bar. They are hanging out in the lobby. But they are never where they are supposed to be. Never. But you sit next to them and they say something so insightful, so impactful…that one key thought that suddenly puts all of the puzzle pieces of that project you’ve been working on together. And then they float off, often not even knowing how much they have changed your life. They are the sowers who change our lives.

And, in this parable, we see that the sower is alone, a solo traveling worker who walks amongst us. They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They spend a lot of time alone in their heads. The sower plants the seed and often leaves it for us to find and experience, away from their eyes and ears.

So why do we tell this story when remembering Reverend Alexander Crummell? To acknowledge that the seeds he sowed we harvest today. WEB Dubois wrote of him in his work The Souls of Black Folks: “He did his work,–he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name to-day, in this broad land, means little…” (362)

In my troubles, Lord walk with me

In my troubles, Lord walk with me

When my life becomes a burden,

Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me


How does a sower survive and thrive?

By finding other sowers who see them. I live the legacy of Rev Alexander Crummell. It was him with his Black skin being rejected by white members of the school community in New Hampshire in the 1800s that allowed me to be accepted by an elementary school community in the Bronx during the New York City’s first attempts at school desegregation. I live the legacy of Rev Crummell when I think of a time when in graduate school at Harvard, when each of us knew firsthand the experience of being rejected, and being in foreign spaces, planting seeds. There is an empathy that only other sowers can see.


What can you do for the sowers in your life? Cook for them. Feed them. They long for home, but know that this earth is not their home. See value in their work. You can remember them. Write their stories. Tell their tales.


I’m sure there were times in his life when Rev Crummell wondered if the work he was doing was in vain. He was rejected by godly men, rejected by his church. But the seeds he planted gave us WEB Dubois (who counted him among his greatest heroes). The seeds he sowed gave us Arturo Schomburg, whose namesake, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a research library of the New York Public Library and an archive repository for information on people of African descent worldwide…and it holds the legacy of our history and scholarship. The seeds he sowed gave us Langston Hughes, whose ashes are interred in the floor of the lobby of the Schomburg Center, and whose words have inspired us, from childhood to adulthood, for generations. The seeds he sowed became the Union of Black Episcopalians, which gave to all of us here today.


In my sorrow, Lord walk with me

In my sorrows, Lord walk with me

When my heart is aching

Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me