‘The unvarnished truth’: Episcopal Peace Fellowship marks 80th anniversary with racial reconciliation event

By Egan Millard
Posted Nov 13, 2019

Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely speaks at the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s 80th anniversary commemoration at the Center for Reconciliation in Providence, Rhode Island, on Nov. 10, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Providence, Rhode Island] Founded in 1939 on Armistice Day – the commemoration of the end of World War I, which now coincides with Veterans Day in the United States – the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, or EPF, was established to promote pacifism and protect conscientious objectors as the world plunged into yet another devastating global conflict.

And some of its leaders today – including the Rev. Bob Davidson, chair of EPF’s national executive council, and the Rev. Will Mebane, vice chair – became involved when EPF supported them as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

“EPF is actually the reason I’m an Episcopalian,” Mebane told Episcopal News Service. Mebane had thought he only had two choices as a conscientious objector: “Go to Canada, or go to prison.” But a friend referred him to an Episcopal priest who connected him with EPF’s resources and invited him to come back to church on Sunday. The rest is history.

However, peace means more than just the absence of war, and EPF’s mission has expanded from its earlier focus to a wider variety of social justice issues, from combating gun violence and sex trafficking to promoting racial reconciliation and criminal justice reform.

“Part of our mission statement is to ‘dismantle’ violence,” Davidson told ENS. “That’s a more active term than ‘be aware of’ or ‘oppose.’ … What we’ve come to understand is the intersectionality of poverty and racism and violence. That … has led us more deeply into racial reconciliation and the awareness of white supremacy, white privilege, as the root cause of so much collective and interpersonal violence.”

The Cathedral of St. John in Providence, Rhode Island, now houses the Center for Reconciliation. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

That’s why the organization chose to celebrate its 80th anniversary with a two-day series of events focused on racial reconciliation. On Nov. 10, EPF hosted a “Commemoration of Witness” evensong service at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol, Rhode Island – at which Bishop Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island officiated and the Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, the newly consecrated bishop of Vermont, preached. It was followed by a fundraiser.

Members of the EPF National Executive Council at the 80th anniversary evensong at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol, Rhode Island. Front row: The Rev. Cody Maynus, the Rev. Ann Coburn, Bob Lotz, the Rev. Will Mebane
Back row: Rob Burgess, the Rev. Bob Davidson, Melanie Ath, Ellen Lindeen. Photo: Steven Atha

The next day, the events continued at the Center for Reconciliation at the Cathedral of St. John in Providence. The cathedral – which remains the seat of the Diocese of Rhode Island – suspended services in 2012 due to financial difficulties, but it has housed the Center for Reconciliation since 2013. Established as a diocesan initiative, the nonprofit center educates the public about the history and legacy of slavery and racism.

With the center mostly operating in the basement of the cathedral, repair work in other areas of the building is ongoing, with the hope of reopening it completely in the future.

“The cathedral had closed just about a month before I was elected bishop, and I was not consulted, but it was presented to me as a closed building, and I set as a goal for myself reopening the building,” Knisely said.

The Center for Reconciliation is an especially useful resource in Rhode Island because, as with much of the Northeast, public awareness of the local impact of slavery is not as acute as in the South, Knisely said – a theme that was repeated throughout the day on Nov. 11.

“The Diocese of Rhode Island in its early days profited directly from the slave industry, and worse than that, a number of our buildings were built by enslaved people,” Knisely said. “As a child … I thought I was in the North and therefore I was exempt from having to feel guilty about this, and I discovered that’s not the case. And I have learned that this is not something that happened a long time ago. This is something that is ongoing, built into the historic inequities in American culture.”

When asked why racial reconciliation work – especially dealing with events that happened centuries ago – is important for Christians now, Knisely explained that progress cannot happen if not everyone understands the full historical context.

“How can I be a person of the Gospel truth if part of my life is blocked from my own understanding?” Knisely asked. “It is impossible for us to have a conversation across racial divides if half of that group knows a history we don’t know. … [Racism] is the original sin of the United States. And gun violence, drug addiction, gender violence – all of that vectors back to the enslavement industry. Capitalism, the way we abuse workers on the assembly line, vectors back to the plantation. Until we go to confession, we have no way of being reconciled.”

Traci Picard, the Center for Reconciliation’s program and research associate, gives a presentation on the history of slavery in Rhode Island. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

The day began with a presentation from Traci Picard, the center’s program and research associate, and volunteer tour guide Mark Burnham on the history of slavery in Rhode Island.

“This is what we call ‘difficult history,’” Picard said.

She spoke of how the state, the church and businesses combined to create a “web of complicity,” even in states like Rhode Island, which lacked the large plantations found in the South but where the economy was heavily based on trade, including the slave trade. Until 1807, Rhode Island was the top slave-trading state in the United States, Picard said, and Rhode Island had some of the strictest laws on runaway slaves.

“We didn’t have a primary crop, like tobacco or cotton,” Picard explained. “The African people were the commodity. That was our primary product.”

Byron Rushing, vice president of The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, delivers the keynote speech. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

In the afternoon, Byron Rushing – the vice president of The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies and founder of the Episcopal Urban Caucus who also served as a Massachusetts state representative from 1983 until this past January – delivered a keynote speech in which he delved into some of the semantic problems encountered when talking about slavery, racial reconciliation and colonialism.

“Episcopalians, like many Christians, love words that start with the syllable ‘re-,’” Rushing said. “[Those] words have a huge implication: the implication of return. Returning to something that existed. Returning to a different relationship between humans.

“In the ‘re-,’ what was the ‘conciliation’? ‘Re-conciliation’ assumes there was a time when it was not a problem.”

Rushing also took issue with the use of the word “discover” to describe European colonization of Native land, explaining the problem in a modern parable.

“I’m going to go out into the parking lot and I’m going to find your car. I’m going to figure out a way to get into your car. I’m going to get into your car. I’m going to drive your car to Boston! I have ‘discovered’ your car,” Rushing said.

The theft of Native land gave rise to the theft of the labor needed to exploit it, Rushing said.

“You have stolen the land, so you steal the people.”

Rushing then moderated a panel discussion with representatives from all over Province I, who spoke about the various racial reconciliation projects they had undertaken.

When the Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts, decided to hold the 10-part Sacred Ground dialogue series on race and racism developed by The Episcopal Church, co-facilitators Holly Carter and Caitlin Slodden expected about 20 people to sign up to participate in the whole series, while in fact, 88 parishioners did – nearly a third of the congregation in a town whose population is almost completely white.

Holly Carter speaks during the discussion panel. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

Carter and Slodden credited the success to robust support from the clergy and vestry and to the fact that Carter, who is black, and Slodden, who is white, are equal partners in running the series, bringing different backgrounds and experiences.

The Rev. Katie Ernst, interim executive director of the Mission Institute, talked about how she successfully lobbied the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of Massachusetts to make changes to the diocese’s vocational discernment process after a black woman left the process because of issues related to race. Through a series of interviews with multiple seminarians and recently ordained clergy of color, the Mission Institute was able to identify patterns of white supremacy within the process, she said, and the commission has made promising changes.

Lee Cheek of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, spoke of her efforts to restore the “erased” history of W.E.B. Du Bois, the black writer and activist who was born in her town but not appropriately recognized and celebrated there. The Rev. Gail Avery described a similar struggle to recognize and honor the contributions of black citizens through the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.

It’s crucial, Cheek said, for white people to personally engage with people of color and witness “the unvarnished truth” of the effects that racism has had on their lives.

The Rev. Rowena Kemp and Suzy Burke, the conveners of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut’s Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation Ministry Network, spoke of the success they’d had in fostering difficult conversations through pilgrimages, forums, workshops and even theatrical performances, in addition to curating a library of helpful media and resources. They stressed the importance of reaching beyond the intellectual level to a deeper emotional level, a point also raised by Cheek.

“We need to grab people by the heart,” Cheek said.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.