House of Deputies President Gay Jennings’ remarks to EAM@40

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 25, 2013

[Episcopal News Service – Burlingame, California] The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the Episcopal Church House of Deputies, spoke June 23 during the closing banquet of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries @ 40 gathering. The text of her remarks follows.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings

June 23, 2013

I am deeply honored by this opportunity to speak to you tonight. Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality. It is a privilege to be with you and learn more about the vital ministry of EAM and its members throughout the church we love.

Last month, Tom Brackett, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for new church starts and mission initiatives, posted a question in the Five Marks of Mission Facebook group. He asked, “Does anyone know of an anti-racism training or process that goes beyond saying ‘No!’ to racism to saying ‘Yes!’ to the Beloved Community?”

His question garnered more than 50 comments, and the conversation went on for several weeks. If you read the post—anyone can join the Five Marks of Mission Facebook group and read it—you’ll see that its participants are wrestling with a question I hear about more and more often as I travel around the church:  How can we learn to talk about race and racism in the Episcopal Church in new ways that will help us break out of old categories and old dichotomies?

After I read the conversation that Tom had convened online, I talked with some leaders who are people of color about their experiences in the Episcopal Church. This evening, I want to talk with you about what I’ve heard and invite you to join the conversation.

I’ve heard that we aren’t talking enough across the categories we are assigned to by the forms we fill out. We aren’t hearing each other’s stories, and we don’t know each other’s histories.  For example, we celebrate our vital ethnic congregations, like those many of you lead, without acknowledging that many of these congregations exist because their founders weren’t welcome in white Episcopal parishes. We glory in the church’s Anglophile culture but don’t talk about what it is like to be part of the Anglican Communion when many of us still bear the scars of the British Empire. We revel in our church polity’s 18th century Enlightenment heritage but don’t talk about what it is like to be Episcopalians in the United States when many of us are here because of the catastrophic wars and foreign policy debacles that resulted from some less-than-enlightened imperialist thinking?

We must know our history. Fred Vergara opened my eyes when he told me about the anti-Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which became the unholy reward of the years of Chinese work in building the transcontinental railroad and the gold mines here in California. Ellis Island in New York welcomed European immigrants while Angel Island in San Francisco became a detention and processing zone of Chinese and other Asian immigrants. The Filipino Manongs in the 1930s farmed the pineapple plantations of Hawaii, California and canneries of Alaska. They came to the country as young single males, even teenagers, and due to the anti-miscegenation laws were not allowed to marry so they ended up old bachelors until they died. I was taught none of this as a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was taught instead about the melting pot where all races and cultures come to the United States and are assimilated. What wasn’t said was that assimilation meant becoming like the dominant culture. I was not taught well, and many of us don’t know our history, which makes conversation difficult at best.

And sometimes, like that video about the Asian woman runner that has gone viral on YouTube, we end the conversation before it ever has a chance to start. Have you seen that video? Last time I checked it had been viewed more than five million times. A young Asian woman is stretching before her run and a clueless guy—he is white—runs up. “Where are you from?” he asks, after a few sentences of conversation. “Your English is perfect.” “San Diego,” she says. “We speak English there.” And it goes on like that.

Perhaps some of you have experienced the Episcopal version of that video. Winnie Varghese, who is rector of St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York and who serves on my Council of Advice, says she sometimes gets asked, “When did you convert to Christianity?” Her family is part of the Mar Thoma Church, founded in AD 52. “We speak Christian there,” she could say.

As you have probably gathered, I am a white woman of privilege. But about twenty-three years ago, my eyes were opened to the blinding ignorance that comes from not knowing each other’s stories—from substituting those little check marks on official forms for real understanding.

Our son, Sam, was born in Colombia. We adopted him when he was four months old. A few years later, when it came time for him to start kindergarten, he and I went to our local elementary school in Ohio to enroll. I filled out the required forms, and when I came to the list of racial and ethnic groups, I checked “Hispanic.” When I handed the form to the school secretary, she asked, “Why did you check Hispanic?” “Because he is,” I said. I explained that Sam was adopted from Colombia, which is in South America. She repeated, this time with some agitation, “Well you can’t do that. He lives with you now, so you have to check white.” We went through this a third time, at which point I asked to see the principal. To his credit, I will say that when he heard the story, he turned ashen and apologized profusely. I don’t believe I ever dealt with that secretary again.

So we know—we have known for a long time—that white privilege can be insidious. And we continue to struggle against it. What I’m coming to understand, however, is that the check-mark categories that we substitute for talking with each other also divide people of color from one another and allows white culture to perpetuate its oppressive patterns. Too often we allow a hierarchy of race, ethnicity and privilege to silence people whose stories don’t conform to the history we think we know and understand.  Too often we try to struggle against racism by mimicking its divide-and-conquer ways of categorizing and ranking people by their differences.

Byron Rushing, who is the vice president of the House of Deputies and who has been a leader in the civil rights movement for five decades, explains it clearly. European colonialists, who had an elaborate system of cultural prejudice, came to North America and committed genocide against Native Americans and stole their land. Then went to Africa and enslaved Africans and stole their labor.  And ever since those atrocities, Byron taught me, when other people who are different come to this country, white culture finds a way to put them in a category that already exists. Chinese Americans were treated like slaves, and Hispanic Americans often don’t fare much better. Japanese Americans were incarcerated in reservations like Native Americans. And even when particular groups of people are admitted into power by white culture, they are often expected to assimilate as the price of security and success.

Now, the good news about all of this is that we have the chance to break the cycle. We can all speak the truth about the dominant culture in which we live, and from which some of us benefit, and we can stop pretending that it’s going to be different for the next group to arrive. We can listen to each other’s stories and pay more attention to the common threads than to who got here first, who came with documents, who came voluntarily, or who came with money or education. We can help dismantle racism by refusing to classify one another using its taxonomy.

Those of us who live in white privilege can listen to stories we do not know and learn history we were not taught. We can figure out how to be allies, which will often involve keeping our mouths shut. We can insist that the Episcopal Church figure out who it is and insist that the church go beyond saying no to racism and say yes to the Beloved Community. As Anthony Guillén, Episcopal Church missioner for Hispanic and Latino ministries, says, we must insist that the church organize itself to be truly welcoming and truly inclusive—not just tolerant, not just open to those who assimilate or who we decide are not a threat to our proper Episcopal ways. We can settle for nothing less than a truly multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic church.

As Episcopalians, we have a few things going for us. Byron, who represents the South End of Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, says that he often tells the people of his district that if they want to talk to people different from themselves, they don’t have to bus anyone in. They’re all right there. Here in the Episcopal Church, it’s the same way. We come from all corners of the Anglican world, with experiences shaped by many different historical periods and all kinds of encounters with racism and privilege. As Winnie Varghese remarked to me, the Anglican Communion is at our doorstep. We’re all right here, and most importantly, we all follow Jesus. We have what we need to get the conversation started.

Everyone wants young people to be active in our beloved Episcopal Church. When my daughter was 17, she decided not to attend church for a time. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t want to be part of a church that is racist, sexist and homophobic. We must pay attention to this because young people aren’t particularly enthralled by institutions in any case, and they won’t be engaged in one that perpetuates division.

Let me close with a quote from Maya Angelou that I think sets forth our charge:

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.

I hope that you will join this emerging conversation about how we can face history with courage and say yes to the Beloved Community by gathering together and being reconciled in the Risen Christ. I look forward to continuing this work with you.