Absalom Jones Center to launch social justice project named for Bishop Barbara Harris

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 7, 2019
Barbara Harris

Retired Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris leads the Diocese of Massachusetts in singing hymns during its 2014 electing convention. Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Diocese of Massachusetts

[Episcopal News Service] The Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, an initiative of the Diocese of Atlanta that has served the past two years as a resource supporting The Episcopal Church’s racial reconciliation work, is about to expand its scope, and it will do so in the name of one of the church’s most heralded bishops.

On Nov. 16, the Episcopal educational center will launch the Bishop Barbara C. Harris Justice Project to strengthen the church’s efforts to address environmental injustice, health inequities, mass incarceration, the death penalty, inhumane immigration policies and other social justice issues.

Harris became the first female bishop in the Anglian Communion when she was consecrated as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989. Now retired at age 89, she continues to be an inspiration to Episcopalians and an example of faithful commitment to justice work, making her a natural choice for this honor, Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright said.

Harris is able to “thread the needle” of being both kind and candid, Wright told Episcopal News Service, exemplifying “how to talk in terms of inequity and to talk in terms of justice and where we’ve missed building relationships of Christian affection.” She has spoken forcefully on issues of race, gender and sexual orientation while remaining personable and affable, Wright said, “and you just don’t see that every day.”

Retired Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Harris is scheduled to join the ceremonies next week in Atlanta, which will include a forum discussion, a commemorative dinner and a worship service, with Wright preaching, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

The day will be both a celebration of Harris’ life and the starting point for the new justice project named for her.

“She totally embodies what this work is about, in her own journey and the way she has been living her life in the world as an advocate for justice and her courageousness and her trailblazing spirit,” said Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Atlanta-based Absalom Jones Center, which is located across the street from Morehouse College.

Meeks analogizes the Harris Justice Project as the center “spreading its wings.” So far, the center has assembled online resources, organized events, developed curricula, and led classes and a pilgrimage intended to help Episcopalians and Episcopal clergy members reckon with their own racial biases and need for healing, in the context of The Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community framework. Meeks sees the next step as connecting that spiritual journey to the outside world.

“The idea is that the justice project will be kind of the outreach arm of the center. A lot of our work has been focused on healing and inner work and we will continue doing that, but we are also getting ready to expand ourselves,” Meeks said in an interview with ENS. “Now that you’ve had some opportunity to heal, what do you do next?”

Much of the center’s ongoing racial healing work will build on the example of an inaugural pilgrimage that brought 20 Episcopal priests and deacons to Atlanta in May. The participants were selected from all 20 dioceses in the church’s Province IV, which encompasses all or part of nine states in the Southeast. Future pilgrimages will draw from a broader pool of participants, and the center hopes clergy members will return to their dioceses and parishes and mobilize Episcopalians to start their own journeys toward racial healing.

They also will be encouraged to consider how their faith calls them to work for justice on a range of social issues, Meeks said, because she thinks “racism is at the core of all those issues.”

Starting with a focus on the environment, the Harris Justice Project is developing a course curriculum that will debut in the new year. The curriculum will highlight ways that environmental risks tend to disproportionally affect minority communities and people of color, especially in less-affluent neighborhoods, Meeks said.

The Episcopal Church has endorsed such work through its General Convention, which in 2015 passed a resolution opposing environmental racism, “expressed in such ways as the locating of extraction, production, and disposal industries where they disproportionately harm neighborhoods inhabited by people of color and low income communities.” That resolution echoed a similar measure passed in 2000 that raised concerns about “the practice of locating polluting industries disproportionately near neighborhoods inhabited by people of color or the poor.”

Racist roots of unjust environmental policies stem from “the ways in which we’ve constructed this country on ideas of supremacy, on ideas of some people are better than others,” Meeks said.

She also knows that the people who come to the center’s classes bring a wide range of attitudes about race and society. Sometimes, it’s important for diverse groups first to unite around the basic Christian principle that “everybody on the planet is an equal person,” Meeks said. “That’s a starting place.”

Wright sees the Absalom Jones Center’s mission as “increasing people’s capacity to have more courageous conversations,” with the hope that they will replicate those conversations when they return to their families, communities and congregations. It helps to spotlight people like Harris who have embodied that work.

“Bishop Harris has been a courageous communicator, someone who has tried to create a brave space … as bishop and even beyond that,” Wright said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.