Feast of Joseph and Mary Gomer (September 4)   Leave a comment

Above:  Sierra Leone, 1951

Image Scanned from Hammond’s Complete World Atlas (1951), 94

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JOSEPH GOMER (JULY 20, 1834-SEPTEMBER 6, 1892)

husband of

MARY GREEN GOMER (DIED DECEMBER 1, 1896)

U.S. United Brethren in Christ Missionaries in Sierra Leone

This feast comes to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days via Orlo Strunk, Jr., In Faith and Love (1968), a U.S. Methodist Sunday School resource for adults.  The volume profiles 11 people, including the then-recently deceased St. John XXIII, listed under this other name, Angelo Roncalli.  The book contains a biography of Joseph Gomer, but I extend this feast to include Mary Green Gomer, whose story comes bound up with that of her husband.  Unfortunately, little information about her is available.

The Gomers were the first African-American missionaries the former Church of the United Brethren in Christ (one of the predecessors of The United Methodist Church) commissioned.  For more than two decades the Gomers worked as missionaries in Sierra Leone, building the first successful relationship between Christianity and the people of Shenge, Sherbro Island, and laying the foundation for faith in members of generations alive today.

Joseph Gomer seemed like an unlikely choice for missionary work.  He, born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on July 20, 1834, grew up on a farm near Battle Creek, Michigan.  He attended school with white youth, but had to endure racist insults daily.  At the age of 16 years Gomer left home and moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he found a job in a furniture store.  In the Windy City our saint also joined the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  During the Civil War he served as a cook in the U.S. Army.  After the war, on a steamboat from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Dayton, Ohio, Gomer met Mary Green, a widow traveling with her adolescent daughter to home in Chillicothe, Ohio.  The couple had become engaged to marry before the steamboat docked in Dayton.  That year they married in Third United Brethren Church, Dayton.  Joseph worked as a foreman in a large mercantile house.  His responsibilities were in the purview of measuring and fitting carpets.  The Gomers were active in Third Church, holding formal and informal leadership positions.  Joseph, for example, often had more than one title simultaneously.

The Gomers’ lives changed in 1870.  The denomination had established a mission on Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone, in the late 1850s.  The mission grew coffee and rubber trees.  After the missionary assigned there died in 1870, the Gomers applied to fill the vacancy.  They were lay members.  They were relatively uneducated and lacked missionary training.  Furthermore, the denomination had not yet commissioned any African-American missionaries.  The United Brethren commissioned the Gomers and sent them to Sherbro Island, however.  The Gomers sailed on November 8, 1870, and arrived in January 1871.

The challenges facing the Gomers were daunting, and their frustrations were also numerous and great.  For starters, they arrived at a mission post consisting of rundown buildings and few people who cared about the mission.  After all, there had been no missionary there most of a year.  Many of the local people thought of Christianity as a religion just for white people.  Competition among missionaries of various denominations was a drawback, and local feuding chiefs created civil strife.

Nevertheless, the Gomers accomplished much.  They introduced more efficient farming techniques, built a thriving industrial school, fought superstition and ignorance, eschewed denominational competition, convinced many locals that Christianity was a religion for Africans, converted many people, inspired people to repair buildings and construct new ones, and reconciled mutually hostile chiefs.  Mary focused on working with women and children.  Joseph became an ordained minister during his years as a missionary.  The Gomers cared about the people among whom they labored for the glory of God.  The couple’s skin color helped them to build relationships with people on Sherbro Island.  The Gomers served three terms in Sierra Leone, with breaks in the United States from November 1875 to November 1876 and from April 1889 to November 1889.

During the third term of service Joseph was planning to retire, given his failing health.  He never retired, for he died in Freetown on September 6, 1892.  He was 58 years old.

Mary retired from missionary service in May 1894.  Then she returned to Dayton, Ohio, where she died on December 1, 1896.

Men and women such as Joseph and Mary Gomer have been essential to the building up of the Church.

One lesson from the story of the Gomers is that sometimes the people best suited for a particular role are the ones who seem most unlikely.  As the Bible teaches, God qualifies the called.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 20, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF LEO XIII, BISHOP OF ROME

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANSEGISUS OF FONTANELLE, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT

THE FEAST OF SAINTS FLAVIAN II OF ANTIOCH AND ELIAS OF JERUSALEM, ROMAN CATHOLIC PATRIARCHS

THE FEAST OF SAMUEL HANSON COX, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND ABOLITIONIST; AND HIS SON, ARTHUR CLEVELAND COXE, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF WESTERN NEW YORK, HYMN WRITER, AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

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Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servants Joseph Gomer and Mary Green Gomer,

whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone.

Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom,

that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm 96 or 96:1-7

Acts 1:1-7

Luke 10:1-9

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 716

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