Union of Black Episcopalians at 50

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jul 27, 2018

From left, the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Indianapolis Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and the Rev. Keith Yamamoto were among more than 300 laity and clergy who attended UBE’s 50th anniversary celebration July 23-27 in Nassau, Bahamas. Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism and reconciliation, challenged the gathering to step out and proclaim the Gospel we already know. Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Nassau, Bahamas] The Union of Black Episcopalians wrapped up a 50th anniversary celebratory conference here July 27, reviewing and renewing the organization’s historic commitment to justice for all, embracing the Jesus Movement’s way of love, and affirming its calls to youth and to ministry to the most vulnerable.

About 300 youth, young adults, laity and clergy from across the Americas and the United Kingdom enjoyed Nassau’s warm island hospitality and climate, and opportunities for daily Morning Prayer and bible study. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s opening sermon July 23 at Christ Church Cathedral sparked spirited, standing-room-only nightly worship with gospel choirs, jazz music and dance ministries in local congregations.

When on July 25 Curry announced he would undergo surgery for prostate cancer, UBE attendees felt shock and fell silent, responding in prayer as did thousands of Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide.

Provocative presenters and panelists considered UBE’s role and continuing relevance in a post-Christian, increasingly racially and ethnically divided and politically charged world. Discussions included the complexities of multiculturalism, becoming the beloved community, the Jesus Movement, environmental justice, current clergy trends and youth leadership.

UBE National President Annette Buchanan renewed the organization’s mission to support African-American seminarians like Shawn Evelyn, left, from the Diocese of Los Angeles, who attends the Virginia Theological Seminary. Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

UBE National President Annette Buchanan proclaimed the organization “the largest advocacy group in the Episcopal Church.” And she announced the addition of new chapters, expanding collaborative advocacy initiative and offering ongoing support of black youth, seminarians, congregations, clergy and institutions.

UBE alum Aaron Ferguson, now an Atlanta financial consultant, told banquet attendees on July 26 that the organization’s mentoring and support transformed his life. It afforded him opportunities to travel, create lasting friendships, acquire college scholarships, and garner appointments to such church bodies as the Standing Commission on National Concerns at age 19.

“We hear the board meeting, the business meeting, we talk about all those things. (But) UBE has a spirit about itself that affected my life tremendously,” he said. “I promise you, there’s some young people here whose lives will be changed in ways you can’t imagine, with the wonderful way UBE operates, to create this inner sanctum of peace, safety and security for young black people in the church.”

UBE: ‘Made for such a time as this’

No stranger to turbulent times, UBE emerged in 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the Kerner Commission concluded the nation’s 1967 riots and civil unrest were sparked by its steady move toward two societies: one black, one white; separate and unequal.

The Rev. Gayle Fisher Stewart, an associate pastor at Calvary Church in Washington, D.C., and a conference co-dean, said that knowledge made the anniversary celebration “both exciting but also bittersweet because we are looking at the very same conditions in our society then and now.”

The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, a conference presenter, agreed.

“We’ve come a long, long way during these 50 years yet … the very violence that took Martin Luther King’s life remains a prevalent and pervasive reality in our land, in our nation today,” she told the gathering via Skype from New York City.

“That assassin’s bullet is a manifestation of the very same violence that is the legacy of slavery, the very same violence that is white supremacy … that is ‘make America great again,’” she said, amid applause.

African-Americans continue to disproportionately experience extreme poverty; institutionalized racism; and a lack of decent housing, jobs, educational and recreational opportunities. Such lack contributes to pervasive violence – both self-inflicted and often at the hands of law enforcement authorities – and makes eventual incarceration more likely, contributing to what Douglas called “a poverty to prison to death pipeline.”

U.S. poverty rates hover at 22 percent for blacks and 19 percent for Latinos, more than double the 8.8 percent for their white counterparts. African-Americans number 13.2 percent of the U.S. population, but are 5.1 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated; constituting almost 40 percent of the prison population, she said.

But Douglas and the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism and reconciliation, described the presiding bishop’s initiatives as a way for the black church to strengthen its characteristic faith and to help others thrive despite the current climate.

Curry’s Jesus Movement calls us to a rule of life, a way of life, back to “the center of black faith … to discover what compelled slaves to continue to fight for justice against all odds and never succumb to the enslaving conditions of death that were around them,” Douglas said.

That faith was born of struggle and challenge, yet when slaves sang spirituals such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” they were affirming Jesus’ presence with them in their suffering and pain. That, not only was he there with them, but they were present to him as well. “They were living in this crucified reality” from which they drew strength to survive, she said.

That song represents both a call and a challenge to the black church’s present reality, she added. “What does it mean to be there with Jesus, not at the foot of the cross, but on the cross? What does that mean to be with the crucified classes of people in our own time?”

Douglas said it means it isn’t about fighting to be at the center of the inside (of institutions), but rather to be accountable to and in solidarity with those who are on “the underside of the outside” – to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable today, such as transgendered teenagers, who have the nation’s highest suicide rate, or with asylum-seeking immigrant parents separated from their children.

Spellers told the gathering that on May 19, Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding “proclaimed the Gospel and the world responded with a resounding ‘Amen!’ Now, black Episcopalians have to step out of the shadows and outside of our churches and proclaim it, too, proclaim the Gospel we know. Proclaim the love and saving power of the God we know in Christ so that the world can know him and love him too.”

May 19 was the day “Christians woke up and said, ‘That’s not the church I left when I was 13. I’m coming back.’ It was the day that atheists began to tweet, ‘If that’s Christian, sign me up.’”

Within a week of the royal wedding, a newly created Facebook page, Episcopal Evangelists, had 2,000 followers, she said. A “Saturday Night Live” skit, featuring Kenan Thompson as Curry, offered great one-liners that the presiding bishop loved, like “they gave me five minutes but the good Lord multiplied it to a cool 15.”

After Curry preached, people not only discussed his sermon, Spellers said, but they were “debating the power of love. The word ‘Episcopal’ was the most searched term on Google that Saturday. People were so curious about what is this church and what kind of Jesus does this guy know about.”

The presiding bishop woke the world up about the Episcopal Church. But, “at times such as these … when white supremacy has gained not just a toehold, but is sleeping in the White House, … when our nation scoffs at the poor and the refugee and the widow and children and everybody Jesus loved most,” the world needs Christians to wake up too, Spellers said.

“The world needs Episcopalians whose lives depend on the God we know in Jesus Christ, and if there is anyone in this church who has needed this faith to survive, who has wrested the faith from the hand of the colonizer and the hand of the master, surely it is black Episcopalians,” Spellers told the gathering.

UBE is celebrating not just a half-century but 400 years of black Anglicans on this continent, she added, with “the ups and downs, the trials and triumphs that have brought us to this moment. … The question now is, do we know what time it is?”

Multiculturalism and becoming the beloved community

Massachusetts Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris was the first woman to celebrate Eucharist at the Holy Cross Anglican Church in Nassau, Bahamas. Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

Panel discussions focused on changing circumstances affecting many already-vulnerable black churches, such as diminishing opportunities for full-time traditional clergy employment, and ways to welcome those with different cultural identities, including youth, who have largely left the church.

Elliston Rahming, author and Bahamian ambassador to the United Nations, told the gathering that, while the United States prides itself on being “a melting pot” for all cultural identities, the percentage of foreign-born people in the general population has remained static over the past 156 years.

“In 1860, foreign-born citizens within the U.S. represented about 13.2 percent of the population. In 2016, there were 43 million foreign-born citizens within the United States, representing about 13.5 percent,” he said.

Quoting a 2013 “Christianity Today” article by Ed Stetzer, Rahming added, “The church is called upon to be an instrument in the world showing and sharing the love of Jesus. The church is also to be a sign pointing to the Kingdom of God and acting as a credible witness of God’s power. People are supposed to look at the church and say that’s what the Kingdom of God ought to look like.”

Yet, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, “Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated hour in the U.S.,” he said.

Heidi Kim, the church’s missioner for racial reconciliation, and the Rev. Chuck Wynder, missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement, presented “Becoming the Beloved Community,” a reconciling initiative to help “repair the breach.”

Kim and Wynder, who have organized justice pilgrimages as a way to healing and transformation, called the resource creative, adaptable and different.

“Previously we thought we’d just make everybody do anti-racism training and then we’d all be trained and everything would be fine, but that didn’t work,” Kim said.

The Rev. Sandye Wilson said facilitating authentic relationships at the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion in South Orange, New Jersey, where she is rector, requires “deep prayer, with deep respect for the traditions of all the people who are there, with an opportunity for people to learn from one another.”

Wilson said, “My challenge to us is to recognize that the kind of hospitality we have to offer folks is very different from years ago when American blacks sat on one side of the aisle in churches and folks from the Caribbean sat on other. Just because we look alike doesn’t mean our experiences have been similar. And our hermeneutic of life is determined by our lived experiences.”

In another workshop discussion, the Rev. Anne Mallonee, executive vice president and chief ecclesiastical officer for the Church Pension Group, said the traditional model of the full-time priest is in decline because of dwindling membership, aging congregations, and static pledge and plate income, accompanied by rising costs – trends that had prompted some UBE youth delegates to question the church’s goal of raising up leadership if congregations are unable to fairly compensate them.

Strategic Outreach: ‘A seat at the table’

UBE added three new chapters – Haiti, Alabama and Central Gulf Coast – to its current 35, collaborated with the Consultation and Deputies of Color to help ensure representation on church-elected bodies, and passed supportive legislation at the 79th General Convention affording members “a seat at the table,” according to Buchanan in her address at the July 26 business meeting.

UBE also supported the Episcopal Church’s appointment of the Rev. Ron Byrd as missioner for the office of black ministries, she said. Byrd, who had been slated to speak at the gathering, was called away because of a family illness.

UBE Youth participants planned and led a July 25 worship service at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Nassau, Bahamas. Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

Youth representatives Julia Jones and Cameron Scott reported that a dozen youth from Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Michigan and Georgia attended the conference. They participated in a local service project along with their Bahamian counterparts, Jones said.

They also led July 25 evening worship, a jazz mass at Holy Cross Anglican Church, “the highlight of our conference,” according to Jones. “We definitely felt the Holy Spirit moving.”

And while a panel of youth representatives called for change, telling the gathering they are frustrated with their lack of voice, power and role in church leadership, Jones said, “We know we are the future and we are proud to live up to that challenge.”

UBE’s continued support of the historically black St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, was acknowledged by their respective presidents, who reported increased enrollment and fundraising efforts, expanded curricula and higher retention rates.

Buchanan said UBE’s priorities remain to foster the vitality of black churches and to support laity and clergy. The organization is planning to offer mentoring programs for both and has already sought to strengthen its ties with clergy in the dioceses of New Jersey, Newark, New York, Long Island and Maryland.

Additionally, the organization provided financial and material aid to Hurricane Irma victims in both the United States and the British Virgin Islands. The organization is hoping to recruit clergy for three- to four-week stays in the Virgin Islands to offer much-needed rest to overwhelmed clergy, she said.

The next annual meeting is planned for late July 2019 in Los Angeles.

Honorees at the organization’s July 27 banquet included:

  • Diane Porter, with the Marie Hopkins Award for outstanding contributions to the social mission of the church;
  • Austin, Texas, City Councilwoman Ora Houston with the Dr. Verna Dozier Award for service-oriented work;
  • Dr. John F. Robertson, a founding UBE member, with a special community award for physical and mental health initiatives and “for ensuring UBE stays a healthy community,” Buchanan said;
  • The Rev. Donald G. Kerr, assistant curate, St. Barnabas Parish in Nassau, for facilitating the organization’s first gathering outside the United States; and
  • Panama Bishop Julio Murray, who in August will be consecrated primate of the Church in Central America, with the 2018 Presidential Award for steadfast support of youth and UBE.

He called the award “a surprise. You do what you do because God has given us talents and gifts and we need to share,” he told the gathering.

“The Union has played a very important part in my life,” Murray said, adding that the organization gives voice to brothers and sisters across the diaspora and raises up youth leaders. “We need to keep connected. While we are together, we are so strong. We are called to be a union. We need each other; we need to take care of each other.

“Union of Black Episcopalians, don’t stop only at change. We need to continue to work for transformation,” he said.

“If you stop at change, it will go back to be what it used to and some of that is going on now. So we need to move and work together for transformation so that it will never be what it used to, but it will be part, as (Presiding Bishop) Michael (Curry) would say, part of the dream God has for all of us.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.