The Sheep Keep Moving
A.H. McNeil Commemoration
Ezekiel 34:11–16 1 Corinthians 12:27–31
We generally think of sheep as being docile animals. And when we think of all of God’s creatures I don’t think we typically say we want to be a sheep. We may say to ourselves, being a dog, or a cat wouldn’t be too bad; or an eagle, or a dolphin. But a sheep? No. I’ll pass.
Most of us are familiar with the New Testament imagery in which Christ alludes to us as being sheep. He says, my sheep know me. We hear stories of the lost sheep or the found sheep. Yet even here in Ezekiel, from the Old Testament, God says “I myself will search for my sheep.” We, the sheep of God, can look back through history or in our own lives and realize that even though we may not be the perfect spotless lamb, we can be a faithful lamb.
To be a good sheep is to be a creature who follows its shepherd. A sheep must trust the shepherd as it is led from one pasture to the next. It must trust the shepherd to keep it safe when darkness falls and you can hear the wolf cry. A sheep is smart enough to know that it cannot go through life on its own merits, relying on its own action. A sheep needs constant assistance from the Good Shepherd, our Lord.
Alexander McNeil, locally known as Aaron, was one such sheep. We can trace the events in his life and know that it wasn’t easy. Alexander found his way to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now known as Hampton University. He graduated and became a teacher. Later he married classmate Dora Brockett and they found themselves teaching at the same school. In those days a teacher of color could typically earn around $30/mo. Though this wasn’t too bad of a wage, it was a common practice for the colored teachers of the day to experience delays in receiving their pay. As we read in a letter from the Founder of the Hampton Institute, you may work an entire year before you get paid. How would you survive a year without pay? And being in that position, whom could you complain to? It seems that the perspective graduates from Hampton were likely made aware of this fact. Yet they still persisted, following their call to teach the next generation.
The teaching they offered wasn’t just reading, writing, and arithmetic, it would include religion and social issues. In this time, less than 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, life for black folk was not easy. Yet the sheep follow the call of their Lord. In 1887, at age 29, Alex is accepted into the ordination process through the Diocese of Missouri. Two years later, he begins his theological studies at King Hall, part of what is now Howard University another Historically Black University. Through his hard work and the good he is doing in his community; his reputation is growing. One of Alexander’s fellow teachers who taught about 200 students said, she had left teaching because “My home tasks have been so heavy, I have not done much work in Sunday-school and temperance, but the community has not suffered, because Mr. and Mrs. McNeil have been faithful workers in all good causes.”[i]In the same publication Dora, his wife says, “They have been teaching in the same school, which is overrun with a ‘wide-awake set.’ With housekeeping and teaching, she finds she has not much time to spare.” “The march seems onward."[ii] Then just one short year later, his wife Dora dies, and their infant daughter dies shortly after.
Many people would be crushed under the weight of this loss, but Alexander keeps going. He continues to teach, he continues his seminary studies, and he is elected Principal of the school at which he and his wife were teaching. Alexander says “[He] ‘aims’ to do all the good he can in all the ways he can.”[iii]Sheep like Alexander and the people who surrounded him do not have time to rest. For the Lord keeps calling, the sheep keep moving, and through hardship and tragedy, the Lord remains faithful.
In 1892, right here in Hopkinsville, from these very pews we sit today, a small group of men and women started a black Sunday school. Quickly seeing a need for better education, a regular day school was also formed. They met in a tobacco warehouse. Over the next two years, this burgeoning ministry was growing and needed full-time support. A.H. McNeil is called to the Diocese of Kentucky where he has the assurance of being ordained. He comes with a reputation for making a difference in the communities he lives; for being a great educator, and a mentor to his students. He takes on the good work that has been started; filling his call to be a teacher and soon-to-be preacher. On his arrival, in 1884, the school has 59 students. This sounds like a big job.
Shortly after his arrival, he married a local girl, Augusta Brewer, herself a teacher. Tragically she dies 5 months into their marriage. Once again, this hardship doesn’t seem to slow the work God has called Alexander to do. Within two years he helps raise money for a new and permanent building, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. The building we know today as the Aaron McNeil House. He becomes a Deacon and continues his studies to be ordained a Priest, all while teaching, mentoring, and leading Sunday services. The sheep keep moving, and through hardship and tragedy, the Lord remains faithful.
Three years after the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is constructed, the facility is way too small for the perceived need. In an 1899 report to the Bishop, Alexander says,
“The influence exerted by our work and communicants upon our own people in the community is wholesome, and is by many valued and appreciated, and also tends to beget us friends among our white fellow-citizens. Properly appointed school rooms are very much needed in our work here, if for no other reason, for the one that the Chapel and its furnishings would be in better condition. With proper teaching facilities the enrollment could be increased into the hundreds.”[iv]
By this time, Chapel of the Good Shepherd wasn’t just a church, a Sunday-school, and a primary school, but it also opened its doors as a resource for a library, a tutoring center, and a meeting place for other organizations. Chapel of the Good Shepherd was a community center.
Amid all this work Alexander trusts the Lord and gets married a third time. He marries Virginia Ritter, who is a local teacher in the public school system. This time, it is Virginia who lives through the sudden loss of her husband in 1901, less than three years after their nuptials. A.H. McNeil dies after having a stroke while eating dinner one evening. It is reported that this may have been within days of passing his canonical exams, which would have led to his ordination to the priesthood later that year. Bishop Dudley writes in his annual address,
“The Rev. Alexander Hamilton McNeil, Deacon, entered upon eternal life from his home in Hopkinsville on January 14th last. Born, I think, of parents in slavery, his had been a most varied career before he finally attained the long-desired privilege to minister the gospel of the grace of God to the people of his race. . . . He had just passed, most creditably, his examination for Priesthood when the end came. Perhaps his intense anxiety as to his success in this endeavor to be advanced to the Priesthood, and his excessive study in preparation for these examinations, had much to do in causing his death. All untimely did that death appear to our human eyes. He had won the confidence of the people of both races in Hopkinsville, and was perhaps the most influential colored man in the city. He was a good man and did good work.”
I understand that this may sound more like a history lesson, but it is also a Christian lesson. Paul tells us that we, individually, are members of the one body of Christ. Together, we all make up this body with our individual gifts, talents, and calls in life. It is through the examples of the Saints of old like Peter and Paul, or even Christ himself, that we strive to become the likeness of Christ. Through stories of the people we know or the history we are told, we reflect on our lives and strive to become more Christ-like. Alexander is an example of a dedicated and faithful sheep of God. A person that I believe we all can genuinely hold up. From success to loss, he kept fighting for what is right and good, despite the systems in place that were against him and his cause.
In the story I told, we may not see this unfairness. But it is clearly there. He was well educated, yet like many black men of the day, his ordination process took years too long. A beautiful building was erected but the furnishings seemed to be hand-me-downs or cast-offs, not suitable for regular use. And if Bishop Dudley’s thoughts are accurate, why would we ever work a man to death, just to give him what he has already proven he could do? Even the history we find, the story we uncover is difficult and sparse. Not because there wasn’t much to tell but because of the color of his skin, most papers weren’t writing of these equally important stories. This process of putting flesh on the dry bones of people of color, lost to time, is something that we, as a church, both on the national and diocesan levels are beginning to grapple with. I pray that we will soon begin this hard work on the local level as well. And I am encouraged by the progress we have begun here in Hopkinsville with the example of Bell Hooks and in this parish with A.H. McNeil. But there is still work to be done. We all have work to do, to discover and tell untold stories, to illumine acts of injustice in our midst, and to honestly face the injustices of the past and present.
At the end of 1966, 70 years after Chapel of the Good Shepherd was built, we find a struggling mission; struggling both with attendance and finances. At that time there was a push to merge struggling black congregations with more stable white congregations. I believe this was done with good intent. It was seen as a way to integrate congregations and it was seen as financially prudent as well. So Good Shepherd was merged with Grace. And like so many other congregations, over the long term, the good intentions of these mergers didn’t last.
About ten years after the closing, a group of people from this church and the community wanted to start a community center in the old Good Shepherd building. They knew a story of a priest named McNeil and the work he did in building the church, the school, and the community. So, they name it after him. And like many stories before the digital age, we can now use technology to fill in gaps and correct assumptions.
Today is a day of celebration. A day to celebrate A.H. McNeil, the life he lived, the work he did, and the legacy we carry on through the good works of the Aaron McNeil Center. And we celebrate the work that God calls each of his sheep to do. God calls us to keep moving, and through our hardship and tragedy, the Lord always remains faithful.
[i] Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Twenty-two years work of the Institute: [ with} records of Negro and Indian graduates and ex-students.: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1893: Class of 1881 Hayes, Virginia F.
[ii] Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Twenty-two years work of the Institute: [ with} records of Negro and Indian graduates and ex-students.: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1893: Class of 1877 Brockett, Dora V.
[iii] Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Twenty-two years work of the Institute: [ with} records of Negro and Indian graduates and ex-students.: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1893: Class of 1877 McNeil, Alexander H.
[iv] 1899 Journal of the Diocese of Ky, Parochial Report Chapel of the Good Shepard, pg, 105