Diocese of Central New York honors Harriet Tubman during annual renewal of vows service

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Mar 22, 2023

Saints Peter and John Episcopal Church in Auburn, New York, was one of four locations across the Diocese of Central New York where people gathered for a March 22 service that commemorated Harriet Tubman and included the renewal of vows. Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe officiated at the Auburn church. Photo: YouTube screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Central New York on March 22 combined its annual renewal of vows service with a commemoration of Harriet Tubman as part of its ongoing commitment to racial justice and reconciliation.

Tubman, who was born enslaved in 1822 before escaping as an adult, is best known for her work helping enslaved people reach freedom as a conductor for the Underground Railroad. She also was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harper’s Ferry and was active in the effort for women’s right to vote.

She also lived for more than 50 years in Auburn, New York, less than 30 miles from the diocesan office in Liverpool. Her home now is preserved by the National Park Service as a national historical park.

Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe noted in a statement sent to Episcopal News Service that the service was taking place during Lent, a season of repentance. “For too long The Episcopal Church has been on the wrong side of the horrors of institutional racism and dehumanization,” she said. “This service is just one way we are intentionally lamenting and repenting of our complacency and participation in a system that is antithetical to the gospel we proclaim.”

Harriet Tubman, who lived in Auburn, New York for more than 50 years, was commemorated in a March 22 service by the Diocese of Central New York. Photo: GPA Photo Archive / H.B. Lindsley / Library of Congress

Tubman’s nickname of “Moses of her people” was recalled in the service’s opening hymn, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land,” which has as its refrain, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land; tell old Pharoah, to let my people go.” The closing hymn was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which often is called the Black National Anthem.

In her sermon, Duncan-Probe noted that Tubman “could have done many things when she found her freedom” but chose to return to help her parents, siblings and others escape enslavement. “Over the course of her life, over 70 people were to find freedom with her, because she never gave up,” she said.

“She said slavery is the next thing to hell,” the bishop added, “so Harriet Tubman, who found liberty and freedom, chose to go back into hell for the redemption of others.”

Last November the diocese’s convention adopted a resolution calling for a local commemoration of Tubman on March 10, which is her feast day in The Episcopal Church calendar. The resolution’s author, the Rev. Megan Castellan, who also helped plan the March 22 liturgy, said in the diocese’s statement to ENS that combining the renewal of vows with a commemoration of Tubman’s life and witness “seemed like a way to center her example of following Christ.” Castellan noted that Jesus calls followers to bring freedom to the captive and release to the prisoner. “Harriet was an example of someone who did just that throughout her long life,” she said.

The service booklet listed ways that people across the diocese could learn more about Tubman and anti-slavery efforts in Central New York, including through her home’s historic site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Tubman commemoration is the latest activity the diocese has undertaken as part of a two-year commitment to racial justice and reconciliation, pursuing what it calls its vision of “a world healed by love.” In February, 30 members of the diocese, including Duncan-Probe, traveled to Alabama to visit sites in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham that are important in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and to learn more about systemic racism.

After returning home, Duncan-Probe said, “Our pilgrims are equipped through their shared experiences and their strengthened relationships to continue the healing work of becoming Beloved Community in their homes, parishes and communities across our diocese in new and powerful ways. Our hearts, having been broken by the past, are turned to the future.”

The diocese’s commitment to inclusivity also extends to its activities that take place both in person and online. The service, which included the renewal of baptismal vows for everyone, the renewal of ordination vows for clergy and the blessing of oil of chrism for use in baptisms, was hosted in several sites. Duncan-Probe preached and presided at Saints Peter and John Episcopal Church in Auburn. The Liturgy of the Word also was streamed to three other churches around the diocese, where clergy presided at the Eucharist and distributed communion to those attending. The service also was livestreamed on the diocese’s YouTube channel.

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.