Wonder-full things are happening at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church – and I get to witness the winning.
At 10 a.m. this morning, the Rev. Jemonde Taylor will deliver his first sermon as the 11th rector and pastor at the historically African-American church in southeast Raleigh. Established on the heels of slavery in 1868 with parishioners from the St. Augustine’s University chapel, St. Ambrose became the first black church in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. The church’s leaders and parishioners have sustained a nearly 145-year legacy of community leadership and public service.
“St. Ambrose has a reputation of being a worshipful place, a place where, when people gather, they are ready to worship God,” Taylor said. “That’s the type of place I want to be involved; a place of innovation, a place that’s cutting-edge, not resting on its laurels, but always looking to move forward.”
It’s where I grew up and, six years ago, returned with my family. Eager to emerge with an adult disposition among elders I’d known all my life, I joined a couple of church ministries. Last year, I also accepted a seat among 12 trustees on the St. Ambrose vestry.
We called Taylor as our next rector in June, following months of discernment. St. Ambrose is the first church for which Taylor will serve as lead, and sole, rector. He will be installed by the Right Rev. Michael B. Curry, bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, on Oct. 17.
“He has a keen intellect, an able voice and a powerful vision for how the gospel can transform lives in society for the good of the human family,” Curry said. “He and St. Ambrose will make great partners as a force for good in Raleigh.”
Taylor steps into a legacy of community leadership and outreach that includes the late Rev. Arthur J. Calloway, a former Raleigh councilman; and the Rev. Michael Battle, who started the church’s pioneering Jazz Mass; and the Rev. Kimberly Lucas, the first African-American woman ordained in the state diocese and the first woman to lead St. Ambrose.
“In order for the church to be the church, it must be visible and vocal,” Taylor said. “Jesus has no mouth, no hands, no feet, but ours. The church cannot be quiet because the church’s place is in the public square. Whenever there are issues of social justice, the church must speak.”
A native of Louisburg, Taylor, 34, graduated from N.C. State University in 2000 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He also earned a master’s from Stanford in mechanical engineering with a concentration in robotics. Before attending General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York, Taylor worked as an automotive performance and design engineer for Michelin Tire Co. in Greenville, S.C.
“This man is committed to the gospel and its ministry,” Curry said, comparing Taylor leaving a lucrative career for priesthood to the disciples leaving their nets to follow Jesus. “He’s a powerful model.”
St. Ambrose has modeled for Hershey Mallette, 26, another child of the church. Last week, Mallette, 26, started classes at General Seminary, following its focus on holistic ministry and priests she admires, including Taylor.
“St. Ambrose was into social justice before it was the cool thing to do,” said Mallette, who holds an undergraduate degree in history from N.C. A&T State University and a master’s in public history from Howard University in Washington, D.C. “That legacy of social justice and community activism informed me as a Christian and inspired me to live my call.”
Taylor comes to us from the 7,200-member St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas. As part of a team of clergy, Taylor’s ministry led him to a Spanish-speaking neighborhood; to serve as chaplain and teacher at a historically African-American Episcopal elementary school; and to lead the church’s 20s and 30s ministry.
It’s an urban ministry that has become a cornerstone of Taylor’s priesthood, and complements what he describes as a two-pronged ministry of listening and presence. In fact, no matter the city, Taylor, a world-traveler and trumpeter, has always chosen to live in areas close to those society likely labels the least of us, and in areas of gentrification.
Here, he’s chosen a place in Midtown, a place near St. Aug, his father’s alma mater.
“I like to be on that cusp,” he said. “In those environments, for me, is where I see Jesus.”