A decade ago, the future looked bleak for Williamson Taylor’s New York City congregation. With just 20 parishioners, the church in a Bronx mall was struggling. Taylor (STH’84,’89), 4,300 miles from his homeland and newly installed as the church’s pastor, had his work cut out for him.
Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Taylor stood in front of his sparse congregation at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and told them not to despair. They did at least have a sanctuary, even if many in the borough didn’t know it was there.
“I come from Africa,” he remembers telling them, “where we sometimes worship God under a tree because we do not have a building. It’s not the building that is the church; it’s the people, the living, breathing church.”
A fine sentiment, but with only a handful people, Taylor still didn’t have much of a church.
That was 2002. Today, Taylor, also an Episcopal canon for congregational development, can sometimes welcome more than 200 people—even after borrowing chairs, many still end up leaning against walls. With the Episcopal Church seeing a 14 percent slide in active members in the same period, how did Taylor increase his flock so dramatically? His is both an African and an American success story.
When Taylor showed up for class at the School of Theology in the early 1980s, he had one suitcase, $100, and nowhere to live. His wife and two children were still in Sierra Leone. It wasn’t a promising start. What he did have, however, was tuition support and the help of longtime director of admissions Earl Beane (CAS’63, STH’67,’68). Beane told him “never mind” about the money and set him up with college accommodation. “Boston University did not put tuition before my registration—it just welcomed me,” says Taylor. Eventually, his wife, then his children, joined him.
Taylor was already an ordained Anglican priest in Sierra Leone when he started at BU. Here he began to learn how he would have to adapt to serve God on this side of the Atlantic. He recalls an especially formative year as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Visiting the people in the wards at Mass General opened my eyes to new ways of doing ministry,” he says. “I came to realize that being a chaplain doesn’t just mean visiting someone in a hospital room and not knowing the background of the pain and suffering they had gone through.”
Two former British colonies
Still, when Taylor started working in the Episcopal Church in the United States, he instinctively looked for connections to the Anglican Church of his homeland. (The Episcopal Church was formed in the United States after the American Revolution, when America’s Anglican clergy refused to swear allegiance to the British monarchy, as was required of members of the Church of England. It remains part of the Anglican community.)
“Sierra Leone was a British colony for 150 years,” he says. “When I came over here and was serving, I found that this country at one time also had a lot of British influence. I found some similarities that I was able to tap into, work with.”
But while the prayers and services may have common ancestor, much is different. In his current role as a canon for congregational development, Taylor often mentors new priests—many making the same journey he once took from African Anglicanism to American Episcopalianism. He shares with them the lessons of his life.
“As an Anglican priest, you are the be-all and end-all of your parish—you call the shots. Not so in the Episcopal Church. Here, in the Episcopal Church, you work with the vestry, who are laypeople. You don’t call the shots; you work with them.”
A naturalized American, Taylor won’t completely cut his ties to the continent of his birth. He was recently made a canon commissary—a kind of ambassador—for the Ghanaian Anglican Church and is still a member of his old church in Freetown, sending his annual membership fees, along with robes and other gifts. “We keep doing those things,” he says, “to keep abreast with our part of the world while we are here.” That ‘while’ suggests Taylor might rush back at any moment, but that seems a distant prospect. Early in his post-BU career, he turned down a bishopric in Sierra Leone to cement his family’s place in America. That tentative ‘while’ might be habit or it might just be a reminder that he’s a product of two nations.
“I don’t take every culture and say, ‘Yes, this is the one,’ and throw mine away,” he says. “I still do my traditional African things; I still do the American things.
“I keep reminding my children, who have become more American than Americans, that at the root of it all we are Africans and that there are African Americans here who would like to learn about the African culture from us. I have not forgotten Africa, my homeland.”
And so back to the church in the Bronx, where Taylor’s African and American experiences are coming together to build something special. First, the American part of the success story. “I started what I call aggressive advertising,” he says of boosting his congregation. He discovered that a local newspaper would give a regular, free 500-word slot to local religious groups, so he encouraged youth members to “write pieces just to tell the church’s story.” He also introduced a welcome packet and buddy system for new members to “make them feel at home.” Word began to spread, but there was an African dimension to the campaign, too. He had given his young authors some cultural advice. “I told them, ‘Don’t just say Episcopal; people from the Caribbean islands, who are sometimes in the majority in black churches, don’t know that word—you’re going to put Anglican.’”
St. Joseph’s became, says Taylor, an “Episcopal slash Anglican” church. And this church—with 200 people and a building, there’s no doubt it is one now—has a priest at its helm perfectly placed to bridge the two cultures, African slash American Williamson Taylor.
Andrew Thurston can be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this story appeared in the winter 2012 edition of Focus.