Kansas church repents treatment of its only black member

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Sep 30, 2015
Members of St. Paul’s and guests gather at the grave of Mai DeKonza for the blessing and dedication of a stone on her previously unmarked grave, 56 years after her death.

Members of St. Paul’s and guests gather at the grave of Mai DeKonza for the blessing and dedication of a stone on her previously unmarked grave, 56 years after her death. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

[Episcopal Diocese of Kansas] On a recent Sunday afternoon, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Clay Center, Kansas, was packed with worshippers, including half a dozen guests from the Ward Chapel AME Church in nearby Junction City.

They had gathered Sept. 20 for a service of repentance, healing and reconciliation to acknowledge the mistreatment of the only African-American member in the church’s 134-year history, Mai DeKonza, who died in 1959.

Over and over again, the people prayed, “Forgive us our sins. Forgive us our sins. Forgive us our sins.”

DeKonza, who was confirmed in 1900 in the small church in north-central Kansas, was a poet, musician, playwright and prolific letter writer who mostly was ignored by her fellow church members during her 59-year membership. Her separation from them was even more complete by their use of a designated chalice to administer communion only to her.

Parishioners and guests sing a hymn that was written by Mai DeKonza during the service of repentance. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

Parishioners and guests sing a hymn that was written by Mai DeKonza during the service of repentance. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

Now, to help give her a voice in the church that she didn’t have in life, the service included excerpts from letters she had written to Bishop James Wise, the fourth bishop of Kansas who served from 1916 to 1939, as well as a hymn she wrote that had been arranged by parish organist Sandra Carlson to the tune Finlandia.

And when it came time for communion, the only chalice on the altar was the one that had been reserved for DeKonza.

In her sermon, the Rev. Lavonne Seifert, the church’s priest-in-charge, said that the service was to address twofold sorrow. “Today, we express our sorrow for the actions and inactions of those good Christian people who worshipped in the era of ‘Jim Crow church,’ as Mai described it,” Seifert said. “But I am most sorry that those who came before us missed the opportunity to really know Mai DeKonza and to hear her wisdom, benefit from her insights and enjoy her company.”

Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe sent remarks that were included in the worship bulletin: “Today, let us repent of the sins of prejudice and racism and strive to be the inviting, loving people God has called us to be. Today let us say ‘thank you’ to a woman we did not know, yet who is teaching us still, long after she has joined the saints in light.”

Hazel Washington, an African-American woman who was among those who came from the AME church in Junction City, said she thought the service “brought a lot of healing.” She added, “I felt God here.”

DeKonza: Musician, poet, committed Episcopalian 

The church’s attitude toward DeKonza had been acknowledged in a history written for the parish’s centennial in 1981. That account called the church’s treatment of her “a blot on the glorious history of St. Paul’s” and noted that for years “she was tolerated but not accepted.”

Hazel Washington lays flowers at the grave of Mai DeKonza. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

Hazel Washington lays flowers at the grave of Mai DeKonza. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

But the depth of this alienation, and the talents DeKonza possessed, remained hidden until Jim Beck and his wife Ginny moved to Clay Center when they retired in 2013. After he read the 1981 account, he said his background in psychology – he holds a doctorate in the subject – prompted him to ask, “How did this happen?”

With a college degree in history and research experience honed through a hobby in genealogy, he began to dig. He found information in the local museum and census records, as well as in the archives of the Diocese of Kansas.

Beck learned that DeKonza was born in 1870, the daughter of a white man from England and a black woman who was freed from slavery by being brought into free-state Kansas from Missouri by Union General and U.S. Senator James Lane.

Her given name was Elizabeth May Lawton, and when she was 21 she legally changed her last name to DeKonza, an acknowledgment of her beloved home state. It isn’t known when she started to use Mai, an adaptation of her middle name, as her first name.

As a child DeKonza contracted typhoid fever that left her disabled and required the use of crutches to walk. Although she had only an eighth-grade education, she worked as a music teacher, stenographer, seamstress and light housekeeper.

She also composed and performed music, and wrote poetry and dramas, some of which were published. She gave speeches and lectures about race, and she became active in politics, including support of Prohibition.

Later in life she mostly was homebound after being run over by a car.

St. Paul’s, Clay Center, placed this marker on the grave of Mai DeKonza, the only black member in the church’s history, as a mark of repentance for her lack of acceptance by the congregation during her life. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

St. Paul’s, Clay Center, placed this marker on the grave of Mai DeKonza, the only black member in the church’s history, as a mark of repentance for her lack of acceptance by the congregation during her life. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

Beck wasn’t able to learn what drew DeKonza to The Episcopal Church, but in the diocesan archives he found what he called a treasure trove of 20 letters from DeKonza to Bishop Wise, and copies of some letters from him to her. In those letters “she described her own experiences,” Beck said. “They were like a diary.”

In them she shared the depth of her commitment to her faith and The Episcopal Church, in spite of her treatment by fellow parishioners.

On April 11, 1934, she wrote to Wise that in spite of her sense of alienation from the church, she had tried to attend Easter service, making the 11-block walk on her crutches. She discovered that the church had changed the service time from 8 a.m. to 6 a.m., and she arrived just as people were finishing breakfast.

She wrote, “And I thought, as I saw them enjoying themselves so merrily, Easter morning, that if the church had requested them to make up an Easter box for African heathen, how gladly they would have given to it; but nobody in St. Paul’s thought of me, of the African race, right at hand, with an Easter egg, or card, or message of cheer, nor of suggesting that a bite of their fine Easter breakfast be sent to me. They simply forgot me.”

Later, when she heard that all black Episcopalians might be put under the jurisdiction of Rt. Rev. Edward Demby, suffragan bishop for colored work, she said she simply would not comply; she was sticking with the bishop of Kansas. He had been a pastor to her when her local clergy had not.

She wrote, “Please let me stress this fact, dear Bishop, that all the Bishops in the Episcopal Church, of the entire American continent, backed by all the Bishops of the Church of England, could not have the power to change me from Bishop Wise to Bishop Demby. I am small and weak in body, but have you ever seen my spirit?”

Beck also learned that when she died in 1959, her funeral took place at a local mortuary, not at St. Paul’s, and she was buried in an unmarked grave in the paupers’ section of the local cemetery.

Making amends through repentance and a gravestone

It took Beck about six months to complete his research and compile it into what became a 19-page history. When members of the congregation read it, they knew they had to do something. They needed to make amends of some kind for how the church – their beloved church – had treated DeKonza. And they had to get a marker on her grave.

Seifert suggested they have a service to publicly acknowledge St. Paul’s poor treatment of its only black member.

Carolyn Garwood, the church’ senior warden, said it was painful to learn the depth of DeKonza’s story. A lifelong member of the parish, Garwood realized her grandmother would have been a contemporary of DeKonza’s. “My grandmother was pretty accepting – at least I thought she was – and taught us to respect people who were disabled,” Garwood said. “I learned tolerance from her. I would hope that she would have been accepting of Mai. It scares me because I know all these people who I wouldn’t have expected to ignore her. It upsets me.”

The Rev. Lavonne Seifert, St. Paul’s priest-in-charge, consecrates wine in a chalice that previously had been set apart for use solely by Mai DeKonza. At the service of repentance, the entire congregation received communion from it. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

The Rev. Lavonne Seifert, St. Paul’s priest-in-charge, consecrates wine in a chalice that previously had been set apart for use solely by Mai DeKonza. At the service of repentance, the entire congregation received communion from it. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Diocese of Kansas

Beck wondered what had happened to the chalice reserved for DeKonza’s use. After some searching, two old chalices turned up in the church basement. He then turned to the Rev. Frank Holtz, retired priest at St. John’s in nearby Abilene, for help. Holtz had grown up at St. Paul’s and as a teenager had been the church’s sexton. He told Beck that he once had asked about a chalice he saw in the basement and was told, “That’s for the colored lady.” Beck took both old chalices to Abilene, and Holtz pointed out the one he remembered.

Seifert said she knew that in the service she was planning, that chalice would be the only one used.

Church members also donated money toward a marker for her grave, and a committee worked with the local monument company to create a design. It includes the outline of a chalice, with an Episcopal shield forming its bowl. It is surrounded by ivy, which the monument company told them was a symbol of strength.

Seifert received permission from the Diocese of Southern Virginia to adapt the diocese’s service of repentance for slavery. The service in Clay Center was called a “Service of Repentance, Healing and Reconciliation” and featured a variety of hymns and music with the theme of reconciliation, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn of longing and deep meaning for the African-American community.

After the service, most of the 75 worshippers caravanned to the local cemetery to dedicate the new marker on DeKonza’s grave and place flowers around its base.

“You can’t heal something that hasn’t been revealed”

Heidi J. Kim, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for racial reconciliation, said that St. Paul’s efforts show that its members understand what reconciliation means. “The people of St. Paul’s have said, ‘This is a wound, and we are going to try to find out what happened.’ ”

(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business, and carries out mission.)

Taking an honest look at its history gave St. Paul’s the chance to experience “a mutuality of repentance and healing,” Kim said. “You can’t heal something that hasn’t been revealed.”

She said that the depth of love current members have for their church gave rise to their sense of pain and grief that the same love wasn’t extended to DeKonza.

Kim said that since she had learned what St. Paul’s has done, she has shared the story with others in The Episcopal Church, “and everyone I have told has been moved to tears,” she said. “This is remarkable, and I can’t wait to hold it up churchwide.”

Retired Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania, honorary chair of the board of directors of the Union of Black Episcopalians, said in an e-mail that what the people of St. Paul’s did was “an incredible story of grace.” He said that as bishop he’d heard about an occasional black member in small, scattered communities, but few people, including him, had stopped to ask about their stories.

He said St. Paul’s work to uncover the truth about its relationship to DeKonza shows “that it is never too late to heal our conscious or unconscious histories with truth, confession and heartfelt acts of corporate penance.” Such efforts, he said, “when blessed by sincerity, can become a liberating witness of Christian grace for us, and for the world around us.”

A start, not an end

Garwood, St. Pauls’ senior warden, called the Sept. 20 service an important start, but it can’t be the end. “We have to keep this going,” she said, “and encourage other parishes to tell their stories. This can’t just go on the back burner. We have to keep the momentum going.”

Beck said that his research into DeKonza’s life makes it pertinent for him and his fellow parishioners to find out “who are the Mai DeKonzas of 2015 who live in Clay Center but who have been brushed off.” He wondered what actions undertaken by people today will cause similar embarrassment to their community in 50 years.

In her sermon, Seifert said the church now has the opportunity and responsibility to better understand systemic racism and other forms of oppression that leave people with a sense of hopelessness. “This is the time,” she said, “to rededicate ourselves to noticing, caring for and walking with the Mai DeKonzas we meet here and now.”

Washington, of the Junction City AME church, said she would like to see congregations of different people come together, perhaps around Thanksgiving. She said more opportunities to share across racial lines should happen “not to right a wrong, but because it is right.”

Melodie Woerman is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.


Comments (25)

  1. Ann Fontaine says:

    If this had happened to Bp Curry’s mother — he would probably not be an Episcopalian.

  2. Phoebe Pettingell says:

    In a literal sense, no one is a “cradle” Episcopalian, or any other kind of Christian, since one becomes a Christian at baptism, not by birth. However, I grew up in an integrated Anglo-Catholic parish in the 1950s and ’60s where many of the Black families proudly identified themselves as “cradle,” and indeed their families had lived in this country many more generations than mine had and been members of the Episcopal Church much longer. The same pertains to some Native Americans, whose ancestors were Anglican since before the American Revolution. The Oneida Nation brought the Episcopal Church to Wisconsin. So one ought not to generalize about terms like “cradle.” The same goes for the Anglo-Catholic tradition, which is as much a part of the complex strain that makes up Anglicanism as any other. Generalizations are, in themselves, a form of pre-judgement in which we distance ourselves from one or another group or the representative of that group, as was so unfortunately done to Mai DeKonza. She stands as a Christlike witness, one who persevered, loving her Church and parish despite rejection as our Lord did.

    1. David Veal says:

      Well said, Phoebe! Thanks. As you know, most “Cradle Episcopalians” in the South are staunchly Protestant “Low Churchmen,”…”Virginia Churchmen” as we used to say.

  3. Susan Kay Miller says:

    My husband’s family went to St Pauls, Clay Center. By the time I was visiting there in the late ’90’s they were supporting marriage equality and had turned quite rational. This sort of sad behavior was probably not unique. Bless them for their atonement.

  4. The Rev. Blaine Hammond says:

    The most remarkable thing to me about this story is the perseverance of this amazing Christian. How many people I have talked to who have left the church over a slight or grievance, and Ms. DeKonza stayed with it. Blessings to her for all that she can teach us.

  5. Helen Svoboda-Barber says:

    Thank you for this amazing story. It is one step on a journey of miles we need to take as The Episcopal Church as we confront institutional racism. I am heartened by the dedication St. Paul’s Clay Center showed to marking this repentance and remembrance.

    I would love to read the 19-page history. Is there a way to access it?

    1. Jim Beck says:

      The 19 page story of the life of Mai DeKonza is posted on our church’s Website: http://www.episcopalclaycenter.org. Thank you for your interest.

  6. Haley Smith says:

    I’m glad you don’t like people who prejudge others. As a “Cradle Episcopalian” I am none of the things you describe nor were my parents or grandparents. But thanks for the blanket assessment.

  7. The Rt. Rev. Joel Marcus Johnson, Ret'd. says:

    What a wonderful event and story, and Elizabeth such an inspiring person who did not desert her church. In Easton MD, our Talbot County Association of Clergy and Laity (TACL) is sponsoring our first Conversation on Race, an event which will continue to reshape itself in the years ahead. It includes inter-congregational Sunday suppers in our churches, synagogue and mosque, as well as Community Conversation Days for such professional categories as the justice system, secondary and higher education, medical delivery of service, the business community, and even our religious congregations. It is important for our spiritual leaders to respond to Dr. King’s challenge, that 11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. This issue is looming large for us as TACL has forged a deeper relationship with NAACP in such events as the King Day Breakfast, now adding educational events for young and old alike. More to the point, Elizabeth, St. Paul’s Clay City and Wards Chapel AME’s story will be shared among our planners. Thank you for this inspiring story.

  8. Lynne Hatter says:

    As acatholic I am familiar with the term cradle catholic, which refers to someone born into a catholic family and baptized as a baby. I unaware of any other meaning for Catholics. I am not a cradle catholic as I converted in my late teens. I haven’t never heard it used in any other referrnce than birth or convert. Perhaps episcopalians use it differently.

  9. Kathleen Kuczynski says:

    I would like to see the words of the hymn she wrote. Our choir sings a hymn with the music to “Finlandia”; that tune can never be used enough.

    1. Melodie Woerman says:

      If you send me your email, I’d be happy to send those to you. You can find my email address on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, http://www.episcopal-ks.org.

  10. Ellen Tracy says:

    Can’t help but think of Deacon Joe Thompson and how this would have made him feel. Knowing him, he would have driven to Clay Center from the cathedral to attend.

  11. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    This sad story shows the depth of racism, North and South, in America. It is not just history. It exists today. In addition to public acknowledgement of past sins we need present, determined actions to cleanse the soul of the nation from the virus of racial prejudice.

  12. WJoe Hicks says:

    When I encounter stories like these, my question is, “In what way am I still doing this?” Because racism continues even now, I urge gentle but honest self-examination followed by confession. Many falsely believe that they are tolerant; That they do not sin. So did Peter in Matthew 26:35– “Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples.” But Peter did deny Him, as do we around this issue. I pray that all who come out of denial are warmly embraced.

    Today, as we experience less interpersonal racism, we suddenly realize that racism has been woven into the policies and practices of our organizations and institutions. Institutionalized racism is racially-biased outcomes without the racists. Examples include mass incarceration driven by racially-biased law enforcement, or school dropout rates driven by racially-biased rates of discipline or healthcare disparities or underemployment or the wealth gap. Statistics are consistently showing that all of our institutions have very racially-biased and negative outcomes. With this service of repentance, a church confronted its own institutionalized racism.

    Finally, internalized racism is just coming onto our radar. Any tendency toward self-hatred or low self-esteem is magnified by racism. There are many black Episcopalians who are struggling to hold their heads up today because their own churches do not see them as equal members. All of these forms of racism, which is our collective sinfulness, must be healed in order for all of us to fulfill the Great Commission. My prayer continues to be …

    O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

    1. Claire S. Milligan says:

      Dear Bro Hicks,
      I am an African American, baby Episcopalian. I believe your heart is in the right place. But I have a strikingly different perspective on many of your reflections. Here is just one example: “There are many black Episcopalians who are struggling to hold their heads up today because their own churches do not see them as equal members.” THIS IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. In the spirit of Ms. Mai, we are not “struggling to hold our heads up.” I wish we could discuss others of your comments, to include:
      “Today, as we experience less interpersonal racism…”

      “…we suddenly !! (Emphasis mine) realize that racism has been woven into…”

      “Institutionalized racism is racially-biased outcomes without the racists.”

      “Finally, internalized racism is just coming onto our radar.”

      “Any tendency toward self-hatred or low self-esteem is magnified by racism.”

      “All of these forms of racism, which is our collective sinfulness, must be healed in order for all of us to fulfill the Great Commission.”

      Bro. Hicks. Racism, white skin privilege, can be very subtle. Allow me to make two suggestions: please watch the documentary film, TRACES OF THE TRADE. And, please take our church’s course: SEEING THE FACE OF GOD IN EACH OTHER (also known as the “anti-racism” training).

  13. Rita Wallace says:

    What is astounding to me is that she is still called the church’s ‘only black member’. There have been none since? There are none now? Hmmm… I suppose, given how she was treated, it should not be surprising that other black people didn’t feel drawn. (I probably wouldn’t go to that church myself now, being black.) I think repentance requires more than a ceremony, though. They should be actively working for racial reconciliation and racial justice in the here and now. There is work crying out to be done.

    1. Melodie Woerman says:

      This rural area of Kansas has very few African Americans living in it. That is true in much of the state. Fewer than 6 percent of our residents are African-American, mostly living in urban areas. And the people of St. Paul’s today are open-hearted, progressive and welcoming. Though small in number, they are committed to providing food for people in need, their primary ministry.

    2. Nancy Mott says:

      Amen to Rita Wallace. “Repentance requires more than a ceremony.” Certainly this parish has done something that is, sadly, most uncommon. The church I belong to, a Black African American Episcopal church, began because Episcopal African American children could not be baptized in the city’s White Episcopal churches. Diligent historical search followed by repentance is an important place to begin. Yet the most hopeful note in the story lies in the next-to-the-last paragraph: “the opportunity and responsibility to better understand systemic racism and other forms of oppression”. That’s an opportunity and responsibility of us all.

  14. Joe Woodyard says:

    I worshiped at this church for 7 1/2 years before moving away in 2009. I loved that place and I love those people.

    I’m thankful that we’re still trying to get it right.

  15. Carl Cunningham says:

    This is the story of many African Americans in the United States. My family was introduced to the Episcopal Church in the mid-1800’s during slavery in Alabama. My great great grandmother, father was a white Episcopalian. This story is so painful to read because it just reminds me how harsh and evil people can be and still sit in a church and think it is okay and nobody speaks out against the evil. My family never departed from the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has taught me to be the best Christian possible through outreach, the glorious liturgy, and the awesome parties. LOL!!! I love my church.

  16. Rex Botengan says:

    As a third generation Episcopalian and therefore cradle Episcopalian, I find the term merely descriptive. I was baptized in the Philippine Episcopal Church when it was still part of TEC (then PECUSA). My grandparents remember the missionaries who seeded the Church in the Philippines, including Charles Henry Brent (whose feast day is March 27th). I find it odd that so many find this term oppressive. At what point should I deny the rich heritage that belongs to me? And how does my history “piss off” other who do not share it?

    1. robert Hunter says:

      A better description for Episcopalians is to be called “A Cradle Baptized Christian”

  17. Althea Benton says:

    This is a thoroughly interesting article. Thank you for including it. Thank you also to Mr. Beck for following the various leads in Clay Center in order to write the history of such a remarkable woman. I am sure that there are many more like her. I am touched by the care and desire of the current congregation to not only to honor Elizabeth Mai DeKonza, but to make public its reconcilation. As others have stated, there is still much work to do to battle and conquer racism.

  18. William James Coley says:

    I attend All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. This article brought tears of joy and excitment that God’s redeeming grace never, never, never stops. THIS is a beautiful article because it reveals the outcome of faithfulness to and reliance on a God who’s love, mercy, and justice is boundless and eternal as expressed in and through: 1) Mai DeKonza, 2) Jim Beck, and 3) St. Paul’s congregation.

    Ms. DeKonza’s strength to endure 59 years of exclusion is testimony of her strength of character. I do not know if I could or would have put up with mistreatment for fifty-nine years and still have believed that God loved me. Yet, like St. Paul, of whom the parish honors, Ms. Dekonza is a living example of God’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” and Paul’s declarative response, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknessess, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

    Mr. Beck reminds me of the High Priest Hilkiah ordered by King Josiah to repair the Temple and who found, according to 2 Kings: 22, the book of the law that spurned the king to reform worship in his land. Mr. Beck’s tenacity and faithfulness in searching out the truth and then presenting it to the congregation is wonderful.

    And finally, the response of St. Paul’s congregation mirrors that of King Josiah’s response “when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes.” The congregation did not respond with an, “Oh, that’s the past.” No, they sought to rectify a great wrong with repentence. I wish more would be willing to do as this wonderful congregation did. You all like King Josiah will be honored by our God.

    This congregation has done the three things God requires 1) do justice, 2) love kindness, and 3 walk humbly with their God. Thank you for shining God’s light into this world.


    Will Coley

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