Another Super Bowl is in the books. Records were set and heroes rose to the moment. One team wears big heavy ornate rings – the other will content themselves with rings past won. A Most Valuable Player was crowned, and everyone made a lot of money.
Let me tell you the story of a humble African-American woman, who had an indomitable spirit and fierce commitment to her calling equal to if not greater than the heroes of this or any Super Bowl.
Born Anna Ellison Butler Alexander on St. Simons Island, Ga., in 1865, she was born free, but her parents and 10 brothers and sisters had lived in slavery. Her father James “Aleck” Alexander was unique as a slave. Defying Georgia’s draconian laws, he taught himself to read and write and learned numbers. His owner, Pierce Butler, recognizing Aleck’s intelligence and thirst for education, put him in charge of his affairs. All of the Alexander children were educated by Aleck and his wife, Daphne, but Anna would be the star pupil, and teaching would be the singular calling of her life.
Anna’s family settled in Pennick, Ga., an area that even the “poorer class of white people” had abandoned for the free land in Florida. What they abandoned was swamps, ponds and land exhausted by decades of primitive farming practices. It was poor land, but it was all that the now displaced former slaves could afford. Pooling their resources, they formed a community with the mantra, “Poor land, but our land!” The poverty of the community was profound, but their poverty proved to be their survival – everyone took care of everyone.
As soon as she could, Anna started formal teaching. In the years of Southern reconstruction, public education was pitiful, particularly in the rural South. Anna, a confirmed Episcopalian, was so dissatisfied with the support for education in Pennick that she went to Darien, Ga., to a school affiliated with St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. It was there that Anna honed her formidable teaching skills and was able to give her students a Christian education. This “teaching church in school” would be her teaching method for the next 60 years. It should not go unnoticed that there were no roads of significance between Pennick and Darien, but there was lots of water. Anna rowed and walked the 40-mile round trip journey every week.
Anna dreamed of a church in Pennick and in her youthful naiveté got a commitment from the priest in Brunswick to agree to baptize anyone Anna presented. One week later, Anna presented six children into the new congregation in Pennick! That little mission became Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.
In 1907, Anna’s ministry of love, self-sacrifice and gift of education came to the attention of the bishop of Georgia, who decided to consecrate her to the Order of Deaconesses – the first African-American deaconess in the United States. In 1998, Anna was made a saint in the Diocese of Georgia and, in 2015, a saint in the Episcopal Church.
I have only scratched the surface of Anna’s story – there is much more, which can only be told in the countless lives she changed by giving education to those who otherwise would have never had a chance. Those changed lives, too. Anna didn’t get voted MVP – she earned it!
The Rev. Joe Bowden is the assisting priest at Church of the Good Shepherd.