“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17.
In 1941, we were a small group of 16 African-Americans, mostly faculty and students of Tillotson College wanting an Episcopal Church where we would be welcome.
During this period of U.S. history, especially in the South, Episcopal Churches and public institutions did not welcome “negroes.” Our determined founders learned of a black priest in Temple who was the Dean of the Colored Convocation of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
Father John Epps traveled to Austin by train to meet with us and together our group, with the support of the Bishop of the Diocese, organized an Episcopal congregation we called “The Church of the Advent.” For six years we met in people’s homes and in other East Austin churches and facilities.
Our tiny congregation moved into its first church building on E. 7th Street in 1947 and our name became St. James’ Episcopal Church. We were known as “the little church that cares.” When our growing congregation outgrew the small church, we purchased land in 1970 and built a larger church on East 19th Street.
In the late 80s, we went through a visioning process that led us to the practice of radical hospitality and a conscious commitment to diversity, inclusion, and growth. We drew many new members of all races to St. James’ with an annual “Jazz at St. James’” series of concerts featuring well-known jazz musicians.
Our congregation grew in numbers as people from all over Austin began attending. We, who were once rejected, turned away no one. We welcomed gay persons, mixed racial couples and families, artists, musicians, the rich and the poor. We were joined by educators, attorneys, Nigerian families, people from the Caribbean. In 2007, a Hispanic group asked if they might join and have a Eucharist service in Spanish, and we said “Of course.”
Our blend of nationalities, ethnic groups, and gender orientations did not come naturally. We have worked hard to become intentional about acceptance of our differences. We learn from one another. We value and live out our black heritage and are proud of our rich cultural community and worship.
Soon we were crowded again and challenged ourselves to buy a larger property, deeper into East Austin, at our current address — 1941 Webberville Road. We blessed this site in 2006, with parishioners placing dirt from their own homes into the foundation of our new church home. In addition, dirt was added from the National Cathedral, black sand from Hawaii, holy dirt from Chimayo in New Mexico, dirt from old Mexico, and St. James’ two previous homes, among other places.
Since 2007, St. James’ Episcopal Church has served God and the community from its new home on Webberville Road. We seek to make this place a welcoming home not only for us, but for all the people of Austin, wherever they are in their journey of faith.