Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Gayle E. Harris on the continuing power of racism and xenophobia

Posted May 29, 2020

Jesus said:

“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word…” (John 17:11-13; New Revised Standard Version)

In a conversation this week with a priest of our diocese, we discussed how and when the sacrament of Holy Baptism might be administered for a child during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Both of us, and I hope you also, are looking forward to the time when we can gather in corporate worship, and in numbers greater than 10 persons, but also are fully aware that that will not arrive for months, perhaps many months, given the prediction of the science and medical communities of a possible recurrence of mass infection later this year.  And this priest reminded me of what Bishop Barbara Harris said, more than once:  “We are Easter people, living in a Good Friday world.”

It is frustrating that most of us have been sheltering and in isolation for almost three months, and there is impatience as well as hope for gathering again together in our churches in the foreseeable future. Three months seem such a long time, but that is due to our modern pace of life and our need for gratification and comfort.  When I think of the suffering and deprivation in many centuries due to religious conflict, slavery, genocide of native peoples, the Holocaust, wars and other pandemics, it puts the three months of my being deprived of corporate worship and sacraments in perspective, as well as my awareness of those who now suffer domestic violence, lack of access to health care and employment, and economic insecurity.

The continuing power of racism and xenophobia in this country is again displayed to the world this week in the racial profiling and probable root of the recent deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. The reaction on the streets of our cities is another eruption of frustration from over 400 years of oppression and injustice for people of color on this continent.  Again, in the light of ever-present suffering and violence from racism, the memory of my great grandmother, Emma, keeps coming to me. She was born a slave in 1857, and I remember her voice and stories of what she experienced as a slave. Hers was a horrible life as both a slave and a sharecropper until the early 20th century, without much hope and full of suffering. She died as I was about to turn seven years of age, just a few weeks short of her 100th birthday.  No matter what I face or sacrifice now, it seems shallow in comparison to what she faced, and to what first responders, essential workers and so many on this planet face daily.

I would be selfish if I wallow or strike out because of what I can’t do or can’t have right now. As St. Paul wrote, we must bear each other’s burdens, and care for the welfare of others, even over our own longings, desires and sense of freedom.  It is the “Jesus” way of life.

Our Christian faith calls us to responsibility for each other, not just our individual desires and needs. During this pandemic we, the Body of Christ, must be so tied to ethics and public health, rather than our desires, that we dare not allow even the slightest chance that the worship and sacraments of the church be transporters of disease.

This is especially true for us as we end the Great 50 Days of Easter, and encounter the day of, and the church season after, Pentecost.  The Feast of the Pentecost is the second most holy day on the church calendar.  A day that ushered in change for the followers of Jesus.  A fiery spirit that compelled them to proclaim Jesus to the world.  A day that embraced them and formed a new and changed community.  A day that compelled them to let go of themselves, so they could embrace God who was calling them to change in spirit.

Again, the words of my friend, the Rev. Sam Portaro, crystalize for me the necessity of letting go of myself in order to embrace the Holy Spirit of God:  “The birth of the church at Pentecost…is not so vivid an experience for us as the death of (Saint) Paul and the departure of Jesus.  We seem to be waiting for their return, or at least for someone like them, who will pick up where they left off and take us the rest of the way.  Until that time or person comes,we cling tightly to our ways…We are reminded by the examples of both Jesus and Paul that what we have in and with each other belongs to God.  We are stewards of one another, but we do not own one another…

“That is how and why they could let go, how and why we can let go.  At some point – perhaps at many points – we must surrender our own selfish fears and commend our lives and ministries back to God…

“For when we truly commend everything back to God, we are allowing God to exercise God’s own creative power and imagination. We are allowing God to contribute to the shape of our life and ministry.  What emerges may not be pleasing to us.  But that says less about the product than it says about the partnership… it is not our design that needs changing, it is our attitude and our commitment to partnership with God in community with others.”  (Daysprings; pp.220-1)

It feels like a long time that we have been isolated in physical distancing, and from our churches, but in the reality of the totality of our lives, this has been but a brief, yet painful, period so far.  But we fear that not only will we continue to live with restrictions for several more weeks, but that perhaps in a few months we will need to relive it again.  We may long for what was, and how we experienced life, but even that was a change from what came before it.  Change is part of life, sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental; sometimes welcomed and sometimes dreaded.  But God is with us no matter what, leading us to learn, to go beyond the superficial, to discover new opportunities, expand our horizons and let go of our self-centeredness in order to embrace and be embraced by God’s Holy Spirit.

The Season after Pentecost is the longest season of the church year, five to six months long.  The color for the season is green, symbolizing growth and calling us to live daily, moment by moment, as disciples of Jesus.  We need this long season to go deeper in faith, to learn, grow and recommit to discipleship as we look toward the next change before us, and the changes that will continually come our way.

Sam Portaro wrote the words below 20 years ago, before 9/11, before the 2008 economic collapse, before many natural disasters, before the recurring public awareness of the inherent power of racism, and before this pandemic.  They are words we need to hear now.

“There is much fear just now, fear of the many changes coming to our lives and to our life.  Every institution we have known and struggled to build is assaulted by change.  Deep down, like Jesus and like Paul, we know this change is imminent.  What we do not know like Jesus and Paul is that absolute trust in God that allows us to commend it all to God.

“So we find ourselves at a critical juncture, not unlike our ancestors before us. The disciples Jesus prayed for were also fearful…But in rare moments when they gave it all back to God and gave themselves to each other, an amazing and powerful thing happened.  The spirit of God swept through them and the power of God was unleashed among them, and a new life, a new creation, came into being.

“It can happen again.  It will happen again.  It does happen again – whenever we give it back, and let God have a hand in making it so.”  (Daysprings; p. 221)

Come Holy Spirit, come!

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris