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Finding Your Way — Ethelred Brown

By Janeen K. Grohsmeyer.

One morning, more than a hundred years ago on the island of Jamaica, a boy named Ethelred Brown went to church. Usually at this church, the people sang their creed, their list of what they believed. But that morning was Easter Sunday, a special Sunday, and so instead of singing the creed, the pastor said one line of it, and the people would repeat it.

This is some of what Ethelred heard:

  • We believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
  • So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three lords, but one Lord.
  • The Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

And Ethelred thought, "What?" He liked math, and he knew how to add. He knew that three wasn't the same as one. How could you have a unity in trinity or a trinity in unity? How can three things be one thing? How can one thing be three? It didn't make sense to him.

So right there, sitting in church, while everyone else was still saying they believed in a unity in trinity and a trinity in unity, Ethelred decided that he didn't believe that. He couldn't agree with what everyone else in the church was saying. He would have to find his own way.

That afternoon, he went to his uncle's house. On the table was a booklet with the words, "The Lord our God is one God." And Ethelred thought, "Yes, that makes sense." He borrowed the booklet from his uncle and took it home to read. That booklet was by the Reverend William Ellery Channing, who was a Unitarian minister in the United States. After reading it and some other books, Ethelred decided he was a Unitarian, too. But there were no Unitarian churches in Jamaica, and so Ethelred knew he would have to find his own way.

So that's what he did, for years and years. He still liked numbers, and when he was a grown-up he became an accountant, helping other people keep a good track of their money. He got married, and he and his wife had four children. Then, when Ethelred was thirty-two years old, he decided to become a Unitarian minister and start a Unitarian church in Jamaica. He didn't even know any other Unitarians, but Ethelred Brown didn't let that stop him. He found his own way. He wrote a letter to "Any Unitarian Minister in New York City," and he put it in the mail.

Eventually, he got a letter back, telling him he had to go a school in the United States to become a Unitarian minister. Now, Ethelred didn't have much money, and he'd never left Jamaica. But he didn't let that stop him. He found a way. He asked people to give him money; he said good-bye to his wife and children, then got on a boat to go the United States.

When he finally got to the United States, they didn't let him stay because he didn't have the right papers. Ethelred didn't let that stop him, either. He found a way. He went back to Jamaica, fixed his papers, and saved more money. Finally, three years after he had decided to go, he arrived at the school. He spent two years there, learning to be a Unitarian minister, and he was ordained in 1912. He was the first Jamaican to go to that school. He was also the very first black person to become a Unitarian minister.

One hundred years ago, that made a difference. Back then, people of different colors didn't mix. The teachers at the minister school told Ethelred that he couldn't be at a church with white people; they would want a white minister. Because he was black, he had to be a minister at a church with black people. Except there weren't any Unitarian churches with black people. So the Unitarian teachers didn't think he could be a minister after all.

That didn't stop Ethelred. He found a way. He went back to his wife and children in Jamaica, and he started a Unitarian church there. It wasn't easy, because the church didn't have many people or much money, and he didn't get much help from other Unitarians, but Ethelred had made his dream of being a Unitarian minister come true.

After eight years, he decided to start another church, this time in the United States. He and his family moved to New York City, and he started the Harlem Community Church in 1920. It wasn't easy there, either. They still didn't have much money, and they still didn't get much help. His wife became sick, and one of his children died. Besides being a minister, Ethelred had to work long hours at an extra job he didn't like.

But somehow, Ethelred found a way. For the next thirty-five years, Ethelred was the minister at the Harlem Community Church. Over the years, hundreds of people found their way there to pray and learn, worship and sing. Just like we do at our congregation.

In fact, one of the songs we sing has a tune named after the Reverend Ethelred Brown. It's in our Singing the Living Tradition hymnbook, and it's called "I'm on My Way."

Ethelred Brown always found a way to do what he believed in, and so should we.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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