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SEEN UP NORTH – Bonner’s big breakthrough

Tony Best

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The next time Canon George Bonner preaches at any of Barbados’ Anglican churches, worshippers should seek an answer to an intriguing question.
How come St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, an almost exclusively West Indian parish, has experienced “a resurrection” in an area that was once as racially isolated as any part of America’s Deep South?
About 30 years ago St Alban’s was slated to be closed because of a dwindling congregation. Bonner was sent there to solve the problem.
But it is also a fact that the church is now one of the cardinal parishes in the Long Island Episcopal Diocese, and the church hall and its premises function as a vibrant community centre.
“We have come a long way because of the devotion of our West Indian congregation to their church and our determination to make it work in the best interest of the people who worship at the church as well as the community,” said Bonner, a Belizean graduate of Codrington College who was once the priest in charge of St Clement’s and St Swithin’s churches in St Lucy.
“We have opened up the church to community organizations and institutions looking for a place to meet, to call home, and including among them are some Barbadian organizations, Combermere School Alumni Association, among them. We have a scout troop, and developed our own supplemental hymnal of upbeat songs with which people are familiar. We have been able to transform the church from a dying institution to a vigorous and lively congregation.”
On any Sunday, it welcomes about 500-plus worshippers to its two morning services, a far cry from the eight or so white people who sat in the pews in 1985 when Bonner joined the “mission” church as its priest in charge.
“Thank God we were able to transform the church and make it what it is today, a happy growing parish,” said Bonner, who spent ten years studying, preaching and ministering in Barbados before coming to New York.
Along the way, St Alban’s status was upgraded to that of a full-fledged parish, with a rector, and 1 400 members. In recent years, it raised and spent US$2 million upgrading and expanding its internal sacred and community facilities.
“Canon Bonner has been successful because he doesn’t say ‘no’ to pleas for help and for requests to open up the church to the community,” said a congregant. “People respond to that.”
What has also spurred the transformation is in the influx of middle-income West Indians, who own the one- and two-family properties in the neighbourhoods.
In the end, the area changed from an all-white section of Brooklyn to a mostly West Indian enclave.
That explains why when Long Island’s new Episcopal Bishop Lawrence Provenzano recently visited St Alban’s and viewed the dramatic changes, he decided to make Bonner a canon in the diocese. His installation took place during a choral evensong for All Saints Day at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nassau County.
Bonner served as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
But that was short-lived because the mostly Belizean congregation seized the church property and broke away from the Episcopal Diocese, triggering a lengthy legal battle that was only recently resolved.
“I was then sent by the Diocese to St Alban’s and I have remained there ever since,” Bonner recalled.
“When I went to see the church, I was told by white residents that they didn’t want any blacks, any second class citizens in the neighbourhood. It was a hostile environment, so much so that when I sought to buy a home for my family, I opted not to acquire it in Carnarsie. I was too fearful of attacks by Whites. I considered it too risky for my family and we bought a house in another section of Brooklyn. Blacks were often challenged on their way to church but we worked with the police and we persisted and eventually prevailed.”