Episcopalians of color assemble at ‘Why Serve’ to learn about vocational opportunities, build relationships

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jun 27, 2023

Episcopalians of color gathered June 22-25 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, to attend Why Serve, hosted by The Episcopal Church’s department of Ethnic Ministries. The annual conference helps discerning Episcopalians of color learn about vocational opportunities in the church. Photo: Shireen Korkzan/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Sewanee, Tennessee] Dozens of Episcopalians of color gathered June 22-25 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, to learn about ministry opportunities at various levels in The Episcopal Church and how to lead congregations in a tech-forward future.

The Episcopal Church’s Department of Ethnic Ministries hosted Why Serve, which was attended by lay Asian, Black, Indigenous and Latino Episcopalians who are currently discerning whether to pursue lay or ordained leadership roles. The event consisted of various workshops and presentations by missioners of African Descent, Asiamerica, Indigenous and Latino/Hispanic ministries addressing what the discernment process entails and the differences between lay and ordained ministries.

The Rev. Ronald Byrd, missioner for African Descent Ministries and a member of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s staff, told Episcopal News Service that Why Serve changes its curriculum every year based on which missioner is selected to run the program.

“People of color have been marginalized in The Episcopal Church and have not had opportunities for access to leadership positions in the church,” he said. “Why Serve was designed to provide a pathway for learning for discernment and about opportunities to serve God and God’s people.”

The Rev. Anthony Guillen, missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries, told ENS he believes The Episcopal Church needs to pay attention to the lack of ethnic vocations currently available to persons of color.

“There are few vocations overall, and I think The Episcopal Church needs to ask itself why and to have conversations with [Episcopalians of color] so that we can do something about it together,” he said. “Why Serve provides the opportunity for individuals from different backgrounds to come together in this community and to explore their sense of calling.”

People of color make up 10% of The Episcopal Church’s total membership, according to data from the Pew Research Center, and many of them have openly expressed experiences of racism and microaggressions by white Episcopalians despite the church’s ongoing strides toward systemic racial reconciliation. Several Why Serve attendees shared their experiences of microaggressions by white Episcopalians during workshops — for example, Guillen shared a story of when he was ignored by white clergy at a parish he was visiting until they saw his senior title listed in a guest registry he signed. 

The University of the South, established in 1857 with the intent to support a slaveholding society, is actively reconciling with its racist history. Those efforts include the removal of Confederate memorials on campus and granting generous financial aid packages to students of color. A portion of the Trail of Tears — a network of routes where tens of thousands of members of Indigenous Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes were violently removed from their homelands in Southeastern United States and forced to migrate on foot to present-day Oklahoma — crosses through Sewanee, not far from the University of the South’s campus. Why Serve attendees learned about the University of the South’s reconciliation efforts while touring the campus.

The Rev. Mary Crist, a coordinator of Indigenous theological education for The Episcopal Church and a registered member of the Blackfeet nation in Montana, told ENS that Ethnic Ministries chose to hold Why Serve in Sewanee because of the university’s “sincere” efforts to make amends with its colonial past. Crist, who attended Why Serve on behalf of the Rev. Bradley Hauff, missioner for Indigenous Ministries, said she joined The Episcopal Church after searching for a church home where it was OK to explore and ask theological questions without being told that she “talks too much.”

While at Why Serve, Crist told discerners to be ready to serve before joining a vocation because “Christianity is not for wimps.”

“Do you take Jesus’ teaching seriously? You’re going to be serving unpopular people. You’re going to be serving the poor. You’re going to be serving those who are messed up on drugs. You’re going to be serving people who have illnesses, people who sin,” she said. “It’s a vocation of love and service. That is what Jesus made very clear.”

Why Serve used to be exclusive to Episcopalians of color between ages 18 and 30, but this is the first year the conference was open to adults of all ages because, according to Byrd, discernment can happen at any age, and many people discern ministry as a second career or after retirement. The age requirement change resulted in a mixed cohort of both young and older adults.

During the conference, the Rev. Pamela Tang, a deacon and interim missioner for Asiamerica Ministries, explained the differences between ordained church vocations and their eligibility requirements, concluding her presentation by saying, “Discernment is the beginning, not the end.”

Kim LuWald, a senior director for a nonprofit organization based in Florida, joined The Episcopal Church in 2019. She told ENS that someone like her, an Episcopalian of Vietnamese descent and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, is rare; however, she feels encouraged to live out the church’s values and show others what it means to be Episcopalian. LuWald is currently discerning a priesthood call, and she told ENS that Tang’s presentation and Why Serve in general have been helpful for her discernment process.

Pamela Tang, deacon and interim missioner for Asiamerica Ministries, and Kim LuWald, a discerning Episcopalian from Florida, lead a worship service for Why Serve attendees June 24 at University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Photo: Shireen Korkzan/Episcopal News Service

“When a bishop or anyone in The Episcopal Church asks how we are to grow the church, say ‘we show up,’ because I want people to feel encouraged; it’s the ministry of presence,” LuWald said. “By us showing up and people seeing us, it speaks louder than anything … There’s richness that [people of color] are bringing to the church, in whatever capacity of service that we are in.”

Chauncy Molodow is a cradle Episcopalian of Mexican descent from Phoenix, Arizona. She told ENS she’s been wanting to become a priest since she was 12 years old, and she’s currently looking for answers to make sure she’s on the right path. Why Serve answered a lot of questions that Molodow said she didn’t think to ask in the first place, including the difference between a vocational deacon and a transitional deacon.

“[Tang’s presentation and the ensuing discussion] gave me the security to say, yes, this is what I want to do,” she said. “And no, it’s not because I’m young. It’s because that’s in my heart. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

Keith Johnson joined The Episcopal Church after learning about it in 2016. He and his wife are currently parishioners of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. As a person of African descent, Johnson told ENS that Why Serve was a positive experience for him as he considers discernment for priesthood, and he was especially enthusiastic about meeting fellow people of color from different parts of the country involved with The Episcopal Church in various capacities. The presentations and discussions gave him much to reflect on.

“How do we work together as ethnic ministries and have each of those four groups in their subsets vie for power and for representation, while at the same time not cannibalizing each other and saying, ‘My oppression and suppression is more important than yours?’ How do we as a collective work to have these conversations?” Johnson said.

Even though Asian, Black, Indigenous and Latino people are culturally and ethnically different, Crist said a key similarity that unites everyone is their histories of facing colonialism and oppression at some point in history, and that so-called minority groups in the United States are “victims of the doctrine of discovery.” However, “We’re very resilient people, so we’re still here. We’re all Episcopalians.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.