Episcopal Church’s African Descent Ministries hosts 2024 International Black Clergy Conference in Baltimore

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Apr 9, 2024

About 160 Episcopal and Anglican bishops, priests and deacons from across the African diaspora are gathered April 8-11, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland, to discuss the conditions affecting Afro-Anglican ministry and witness at the triennial International Black Clergy Conference. Photo: Sandye Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal and Anglican bishops, priests and deacons from across the African diaspora are gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, to discuss the conditions affecting Afro-Anglican ministry and witness at the triennial International Black Clergy Conference.

The Episcopal Church’s African Descent Ministries organized the April 8-11 conference, which is taking place at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards. Some 160 people are attending. This year’s theme is “Unshakeable Faith in Troubled Times,” which reflects on II Corinthians 5-7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

The Rev. Ronald C. Byrd, the church’s missioner for African Descent Ministries, told Episcopal News Service that this year’s theme was selected because “our churches of African descent are in crisis.”

“We’re seeing our churches close. We don’t have enough priests to prepare, and we have gentrification going on all over the country, and of course in the church,” he said. “We’re trying to find how we can be church to those that God has called us to. We must be strong in our faith because it’s been tested, and it will continue to be tested. But if we’re going to continue to have a presence and a voice and a footprint in The Episcopal Church, we must walk by faith, not by sight.”

The conference informally kicked off on April 8 with an NCAA championship watch party. On April 9, the conference’s first full day began with participants gathering and listening to guest speakers address topics ranging from transition ministry to church statistics. Specifically, the church statistics presentation addressed demographic data compiled from parochial reports, Church Pension Group, and current clergy placement and openings tracked by the church’s transition ministries.

The Rev. Jemonde Taylor, rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, a historically Black parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, serves on the conference’s design and worship teams. April 9, in the afternoon, he and Panama Bishop Julio Murray were scheduled to lead a discussion on climate and environmental racism from global and local contexts. They planned to address the outcomes of COP28, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference that took place in late 2023, and what work the church needs to do to continue to address and respond to the global climate crisis. From a grassroots perspective, Taylor planned to discuss St. Ambrose’s work toward eradicating environmental racism in the community as it relates to the heat island effect and flooding, as well as air and noise pollution.

“The hope is that we will come out of this conference with deeper bonds of affection and also toolkits that will help us minister in the new reality,” Taylor told ENS. “I’m looking forward to gathering with people around the world who share common African ancestry to pray together, worship together, to share stories, to laugh together, to really build community and relationships.”

The April 9 itinerary also included a discussion on “theological framework” by the Rev. Michael Battle, founder of the PeaceBattle Institute and theologian-in-community at Trinity Church Boston. The Rev. Guy Hewitt, racial justice director for the Church of England, and the Rev. Steve Greene, minister of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Lucan, Ontario, Canada, planned to provide information and answer questions about the Anglican Communion in the United Kingdom and Canada. The Rev. Kim Coleman, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, and president of the Union of Black Episcopalians was to provide an update of UBE’s work.

The Rev. Ronald C. Byrd, The Episcopal Church’s missioner for African Descent Ministries, speaks at the triennial International Black Clergy Conference on April 9, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Sandye Wilson

“When planning the International Black Clergy Conference, our goal was to make sure that we brought in a number of international high caliber speakers representing The Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, and I think we’ve achieved that,” Byrd said.

On April 10, additional guest speakers are scheduled to offer presentations on healing from internalized oppression, health, retirement and other benefits offered by the Church Pension Group, and church planting and redevelopment. The Very Rev. Shelley-Ann Tenia, dean and rector of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, is set to serve as the morning keynote speaker. A group of young adult children of clergy who are no longer active in church are scheduled to participate in a panel discussion addressing how churches can effectively reach out to younger people and serve them. Byrd’s daughter, Kayla Byrd, is one of the panelists.

“If we’re going to continue to be a church, we have to look for ways in which we build church community, the ways in which we build faithful Christians,” Byrd said. “If we don’t focus on the youth and young adults, then guess what? We won’t be here much longer.”

After the evening Eucharist on April 9 and 10, clergy organizers will offer participants the opportunity to participate in closed open mic sessions to share any concerns with their colleagues and ask questions. Byrd said the space provided will be “safe” and “sacred.”

Organizers have also planned worship services that will include liturgy from across the African diaspora, including Ethiopia, Botswana, the West Indies and other countries and regions. Musicians from St. Ambrose will perform a variety of music genres reflecting the African diaspora’s diversity, including African American spirituals, jazz and reggae.

“The worship is really steeped in Blackness,” Taylor said. “Wherever people of African descent have been dispersed around the world, much of what we will experience worship-wise will touch on that diversity.”

The conference will conclude April 11 with keynote speeches from former Central Pennsylvania Bishop Nathan Baxter and the Rev. Donald Henry Kortright Davis, a theology professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Byrd plans to provide the closing remarks.

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