General Convention: Speaking up, in big and small ways, about race

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jul 7, 2015
The Rev. Myra Garnes Shuler, introducing the young adult speakers at the Acts8Moment gathering. Photo: Lynn Collins

The Rev. Myra Garnes Shuler, introducing the young adult speakers at the Acts8Moment gathering. Photo: Lynn A. Collins

[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] With the nation’s racial tensions boiling, the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church has spoken in a big way about its priorities, earmarking $2 million for racial justice and reconciliation work in the next triennium.

The initiative involves “new money” and unrestricted funds and sends a strong hopeful message, according to Diane Pollard, a New York lay deputy and co-chair of General Convention’s Legislative Committee on Social Justice and United States Policy. The committee oversaw the bulk of resolutions involving racial justice and reconciliation efforts, including: A011, A182, A183, C019, and D044.

During a July 2 budget debate Sam Gould, a Massachusetts deputy and a member of General Convention’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance (PB&F), said that as a teenager he was the “New England prep school-attending white boy of my church’s primarily black and Latino youth group” in a town with one of the highest rates of gang activity in that state.

“Over the years my eyes have been opened by watching my friends. Their public schools did not educate them. Their police do not make them safe. More have gone to prison than have graduated from college. These are not statistics; these are my friends.”

“I used to view their reality as that of a glass ceiling they were trying to break through. I believe a more apt metaphor would be that they are trying to break up through the floor, the floor I have been invited to stand on because of the color of my skin. If we continue to look at racial justice as a black issue, we will fail… If we pat ourselves on the back after this convention and say ‘job well done,’ we will fail.”

The Rev. Mally Lloyd of Massachusetts, PB&F chair, told Episcopal News Service that given the current racially charged atmosphere in the United States, the shootings and the plight of African-Americans, the committee wanted to do more in earmarking $2 million for racial justice and reconciliation and offering a blank slate for the church to be able to try something new.

The $2 million will come from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s short-term reserves and is part of the $4.7 million surplus with which the 2013-2015 triennium is predicted to end.

“We’re seeing this as an extraordinary circumstance and an extraordinary opportunity and, therefore, using extraordinary means to support it,” Diocese of Maine Bishop Stephen Lane, PB&F vice chair, told ENS.

Pollard acknowledged the nation’s racially charged context, noting that as convention has met in Salt Lake City, seven predominantly black Southern churches have had suspicious fires. In the months before convention, police-involved shootings of unarmed African-American men, and the June 17 murders of nine black churchgoers during an Emanuel AME Church Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, by a self-described white supremacist, have intensified racial unrest.

“We are where we are,” Pollard said July 1, of the nation’s racial ills. But she believes the work of convention can refocus efforts for reconciliation.

Gould agreed: “As a member of PB&F, I am proud of this budget and the bold statement it makes. However, it must be seen as the start of a movement Jesus is calling us into. The movement for racial justice and reconciliation, that is what every Episcopalian must engage in. Now, we know that only together and with God is change possible.”

Pollard said the committee’s racial justice resolutions “inform and support each other” and are pieces of a larger whole.

“Our church has this great opportunity to build on what has happened … and if we’re honest about it, all we can say is, ‘Are we going to answer the call?’ I think we are, but we’re also human beings and we’re frail, too.

“I’ve been in this struggle for a long time,” she added. “It’s not something that I’m ever going to give up. This is a time of opportunity in the church.”

The time is now: ‘Pieces of a larger whole’
Pollard and others say the landslide election of North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry as 27th presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church also speaks in a big way about the church’s priorities and dreams. Curry, who will begin his nine-year term Nov. 1 as the first African-American presiding bishop, has said reconciliation and evangelism are mainstays of his ministry.

He joined with hundreds of bishops and other convention-goers during a June 28 anti-gun-violence procession to witness, worship and walk through the streets of Salt Lake City. The goal was to build common ground and “bring an end to violence, because black lives matter, brown lives matter, all lives matter,” he said.

Curry challenged marchers to: “Go forth, go forth, go forth into this world and proclaim that love is the only way. Go forth and proclaim that we will end the scourge of violence, we will make poverty history, and we will end racism, because we all got one God who created us and we are all children of that one God, and we are brothers and sisters one of another, and all lives matter.”

Annette Buchanan, Union of Black Episcopalians president, addresses the participants of the July 1 Acts8Moment gathering. Photo: Lynn Collins

Annette Buchanan, Union of Black Episcopalians’ president, addresses the participants of the July 1 Acts8Moment gathering. Photo: Lynn A. Collins

Many, including Union of Black Episcopalians‘ President Annette Buchanan, believe that Curry’s election signals an era of reconciliation and deep listening and cooperation within the church.

“Part of what we are all committed to in The Episcopal Church is having a conversation about racial justice and social justice,” Buchanan said at an evening conversation co-sponsored by the Union of Black Episcopalians and the Acts8Moment July 1 at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City.

“One of the things that we have found, as we hear more every day about all these atrocities, is that we’re starting to get numb. We can’t handle it any more; it’s too much,” she told the gathering.

But, while visiting churches, she realized that “no one was having this conversation. It was like a dissonance; the world was going crazy. But many of us were not having those conversations in our coffee hours. We were not hearing about it in our sermons, there was no opportunity for dialogue.”

Education, training, action
Chuck Wynder, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement, said racial reconciliation when combined with social justice opens up amazing spaces for transformation, to be lived out not only in church but also in the community. He cited as examples the Diocese of Atlanta’s Beloved Community Commission and the Diocese of Southern Virginia’s “Repairing the Breach.”

“We have to recognize that without justice-making, there is no reconciliation; that justice-making is naming and speaking truth,” he said.

Emily Shelton, from the Diocese of Virginia and a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Young Adults, said she got involved in racial justice efforts after University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, who is African-American, was beaten right outside her front door by Alcoholic Beverage Control agents.

“Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – they were just names to me until one day it came to my front door,” she told the General Convention’s Legislative Committee on Social Justice and United States Policy. “God is sounding the alarm but we keep hitting the snooze button. It’s time for the church to wake up.”

The Rev. Kurt Gearhart, a Washington, D.C. deputy, said he spent last year intentionally exploring “with fellow Christians at St. Patrick’s, Washington D.C., habits that perpetrate racism. We discerned together that the civil rights movement isn’t over. We’ve done a lot of the easy work; now we have to do the difficult work. We have to change our hearts and souls. It’s the work of the church. We have to do it together, as a community that’s going to learn from each other.”

The Rev. Ramelle McCall, rector of St. Michael and All Angels, Baltimore, testified before a committee hearing that, as an African-American priest in the Diocese of Maryland, he and others have been working to build bridges with local authorities. But, he said, “racial profiling is real. It’s next door, and it frightens the hell out of me.”

The Rev. Kim Turner Baker, who is African-American, petitioned for “a systematic way of studying and approaching these problems. What we need to do is help everybody look at this through a Gospel perspective and work to change the government.”

She said she has served in various settings, sometimes as the only person of color in a congregation. While most people are of good will, she said statistics indicate “the majority of whites in this country very rarely have any interaction with a person of color. Our church is predominantly white; our church needs to be educated.”

David Aniss, a Fond du Lac deputy, told the committee that an Education for Ministry course through Sewanee’s School of Theology about multicultural understanding became a focus for continued dialogue. “The fundamental problem is the lack of understanding between cultures,” he said. “There is a lot of almost-unconscious bias people show.”

Kevin Smallwood reads a reflection about being racially profiled by hotel security. Photo: Lynn Collins

Kevin Smallwood reads a reflection about being racially profiled by hotel security. Photo: Lynn A. Collins

Sarah Watkins, a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Young Adults, told the committee that many people have to be taught how to talk about race and how to listen about it as well.

“Where white people get hung up, with regards to anti-racism when there’s violence against people of color, we wring our hands and feel guilty and we don’t know how to move forward,” said Watkins, who is white.

Anita George, 76, a deputy from Mississippi and a lifelong Episcopalian, said she has been engaged in the civil rights movement “since I was 17 years old. As a professional, I have done diversity work. As an educator I was doing multicultural work in educational as well as in church settings.”

For so long, she said, people of color have struggled to tell their stories to majority groups and not always with the best results. But this convention – along with what’s going on in society – have a different feel because “the stories are being held right up in front of us, all around us,” she said. “It’s almost like Christ is saying, ‘Can’t you see? Look here. I’m showing you.’

“I feel we’re in a time where we can’t deny the sin and the violence, and if we don’t step forward now as a church, I don’t know who else will.”

‘Creating safe spaces to listen’
Heidi Kim, Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society missioner for racial reconciliation, and Wynder said they aimed to create and to support “safe spaces” to allow opportunities for such conversations and connections to take place in Salt Lake City and beyond convention.

Some of these opportunities during convention included:

  • An evening with documentary filmmaker Arleigh Prelow, chronicling the life of noted theologian Howard Thurman, said to have influenced the Civil Rights Movement. Thurman established the nation’s first interracial, intercultural and interfaith congregation and advocated tirelessly for community among disparate races and faiths.
  • Two screenings of the Emmy-nominated “Traces of the Trade,” examining the legacy of the slave trade in America. Episcopalian filmmaker Katrina Brown is a descendant of the DeWolf family, the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. The noted PBS documentary follows Brown and nine DeWolf descendants as they confront this legacy by retracing the Triangle Trade, and visiting the DeWolf hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island; slave forts in Ghana; and ruins of a family plantation in Cuba.

Facilitating the screenings of Traces of the Trade were Dain Perry, a descendant of slave-traders, and his wife Constance, a descendant of slaves, who have screened the film throughout The Episcopal Church in dioceses and parishes, in the hopes of furthering conversations about race.

The evening with Arleigh Prelow was presented by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

“Both events seem especially important in light of events in Charleston, South Carolina,” noted Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer of The Episcopal Church. “These events will lead to worthwhile conversations and may be an effective way to further the work of racial justice and reconciliation in dioceses in the weeks and months following General Convention.”

Said Kim: “Episcopalians throughout the church have lamented the violent deaths of African-Americans in South Carolina, Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and beyond, and want to answer our baptismal call to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’ These two films and the discussions around them will provide opportunities for participants to connect with others committed to the ministry of racial justice and reconciliation, and begin to discern together how to move this work forward in our congregations, dioceses and provinces.”

Moving beyond black and white: Hearing all voices
Roja Singh, a St. John Fischer College sociology professor married to Rochester Bishop Prince Singh, said an overflow crowd of enthusiastic young people electrified one of the dialogues on race led by Kim and Wynder.

“They had so much energy. So many people kept arriving that they ran out of chairs and were sitting on the floor,” she said.

Included were: Sergio Trinidad-Estrada, 18; Ashley Seeley, 17; Jacqui Maes, 18; and Kinnon McPeak, 15; all from the Diocese of Olympia.

They ranked racism, if not as No. 1, then certainly as the second-most serious challenge facing society and the church.

Trinidad-Estrada and Seeley, who is Native American, said they had both experienced racially motivated bullying and harassment but, in the words of Maes, they all want “to be part of the generation that makes the change and is the change, and to get a better understanding of where other people are coming from.”

They attended the dialogue on race to hear other perspectives and to help form some of their own. Most especially, they were impressed that “people were able to open up and to let us know the personal experiences they’ve had,”  Trinidad-Estrada said. “The opportunity to talk about your own experiences and see what you have in common and grow as a community together is phenomenal.”

“Talking about it does help a lot,” said Seeley. “You know you’re not alone and there are other people who want to make it better.”

McPeak said one of the issues was the lack of connection between races, something Singh also believes. “There needs to be trust-building across racial groups. We’re here in this together, we need to build a sense of solidarity.”

Singh, a sociologist, said learning to embrace her identity as a Dalit, or untouchable person, in India made her feel vulnerable, but “the feeling of being outcast was more pronounced here” in the United States.

“I’m very proud of The Episcopal Church, and this has been a wonderful convention with the anti-gun-violence march, the passage of marriage equality, the election of Bishop Michael Curry as the presiding bishop,” she said. “But how ready is the church structurally to address these issues?”

The difficult challenge; vulnerability, being ‘broken open’
At an Acts8Moment gathering, the Rev. Megan Castellan, a West Missouri alternate deputy, invited participants on a “quest to be broken open and to overcome our numbness and to see the spirit working in those around us.”

Deeply listening to the stories of others — without judging or commenting — even when those stories evoke discomfort, or pain or joy or celebration, is a first step, she said.

“It’s only when we hear one another’s stories, when we bear them in ourselves, that we can truly become the beloved community that God calls us to be, the community united in love, and overcome the divisions that separate us.”

Byron Sloan, 28, a University of Arizona Episcopal campus minister, is Navajo and said that reconciliation, for him, was becoming baptized in The Episcopal Church.

“Reconciliation means different things to different generations,” he said. “For me, it’s living into the intersectionality of my identity as Navajo and as Christian and being able to have the church honor all the parts of who (I am). For the older generation, it’s acknowledging wrongs that have been done.

“I’m coming into the church at a time when I’m blessed to see the Doctrine of Discovery is being repudiated. It has let me see the church’s true colors,” added Sloan, an organizer of the Young Adult Festival at General Convention.

Another speaker, Kevin Smallwood, 22, an Episcopal Service Corps intern at Christ Church Cathedral, in Springfield, Massachusetts, said he was racially profiled twice at his Salt Lake City hotel. These acts of overt racism brought him to tears, “tears I felt had been inside me forever.”

“It pushed me to an emotional state where I felt the cries of all people of color who have overtly and covertly experienced racism.”

He added: “I urge the church to radically answer the cries of people of color and to engage with the voices of every city we go to. Action is the language of the millennials. Let us act in Christ’s name.”

Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu, 21, a Chicago native, said he joined The Episcopal Church three months ago after a trip to Manzanar, where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II, a trip which “first linked my racial identity and my faith in an organic way.

“That was one of the moments I first convinced myself, ‘Wow, I should start thinking about race and my faith.’ It really does matter. I can’t just be color-blind in Christ.”

A question he has for the church: “If we truly do believe that God is literally incarnated among people who are incarcerated, starved, tortured, lynched, crucified, shot, detained, pushed away, what does it say about us, that our church is not only the highest educated, but the wealthiest denomination in the United States?”

He noted that no Asian-American has ever been invited to preach at a convention Eucharist. But he said the Taiko drums pounding were like the heartbeat of the Asian-American community, “passionate. It showed that we aren’t some complacent, silent model minorities, but threatening, powerful, drumming, shouting rhythms, that we do and say powerful things to threaten white supremacy in our church.”

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue, a Georgia deputy and treasurer for the Acts8Moment, said the goal of the evening was that “we listen to each other, that is all we hope for. Basically all we want to do is proclaim resurrection in The Episcopal Church.”

Said the Union of Black Episcopalians’ Buchanan: “These conversations will help to bridge the divide deep and wide within our church and sensitize us to the insidiousness of racism and injustice in our church.”

She, too, said she felt a sense of hope in expanded leadership roles for women and people of color, with Curry’s election.

But she added: “While we have these hopeful moments,” there are still moments in this convention that say there’s a lot more work to do.

“Some of our young people have been racially profiled in our exhibit halls,” she said. “We’ve had some of our senior deputies challenged and asked whether they were guests at hotels. We’ve looked at our worship services and wondered why we couldn’t creatively blend all of our cultures and services to represent us all.”

She smiled. “But, this is the path we’re on and it’s the path we’re committed to, and with God’s help, we’ll get there.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a member of the Episcopal News Service team reporting about the 78th General Convention.


Comments (3)

  1. Louis Stanley Schoen says:

    It’s depressing to hear the stories of continued discrimination practiced by unconscious white supremacists; but it’s reassuring to see DFMS facilitating this dialogue once again at General Convention after it diminished immensely following 2009 defunding of antiracism training. The new funding for racial justice & reconciliation holds promise that Bishop Curry’s election was more than an image stunt. It’s also reassuring to see the work of Atlanta and Southern Virginia dioceses highlighted; may it greatly expand! Thanks to Rev. Pat McCaughan and ENS for this excellent report.

  2. Larry Hartman says:

    How do I avoid racial profiling?

  3. Richard Gatjens says:

    As a member of the Anti-Racism Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, it’s nice to see attention being paid to the issue again by the national church. We’ve seen funding and committees come and go, however, and I hope that this time the Church will stick to its commitment. It’s an issue we all need to become involved in.

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