Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans show solidarity with Black Lives Matter
By Pat McCaughan , Episcopal News Service
With passing cars honking approval, the Rev. Peter Huang and hundreds of Asian and African Americans gathered Aug. 1 in South Los Angeles’ historic Leimert Park neighborhood raising fists; praying on bended knee; singing; chanting in solidarity, “Your liberation is our liberation”; affirming that Black lives matter.
The Gathering: A Space for Asian American Spirituality participated as a co-sponsor and helped to plan the socially distanced and livestreamed “Vigil for Solidarity and Love.” The group’s involvement signaled a shift for this Diocese of Los Angeles ministry, created in 2019 to affirm and explore Pacific Islander and Asian American identity within the Episcopal Church. The nation’s current conversation about race has led the ministry to further define that mission through the question: How do we fit into this work, this dialogue?
As native elders succumb to COVID-19, culture is lost
By Heather Beasley Doyle, Episcopal News Service
In early 2019, as an editorial committee began working on a new Lakota translation of the Book of Common Prayer, two of its members died “right off the bat.” They were Indigenous elders whose language fluency had uniquely qualified them for the task, the Ven. Paul Sneve, who coordinates the project funded by a United Thank Offering grant in 2018, told Episcopal News Service in May.
The loss hurt Sneve both personally and culturally: Losing two elders in short order was a reminder that time is a critical factor in saving Native languages, stories and customs. Then, about a year later, the coronavirus began disproportionately affecting Native Americans, putting elders at particular risk. The pandemic is “scaring us to death,” said Sneve, who also serves the Diocese of South Dakota as archdeacon. “We’re terrified of losing [our elders]. And our tribes are very aware of it.”
By David Paulsen , Episcopal News Service
When protests against racial injustice erupted nationwide in late spring, the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York invited Episcopalians to participate in “Sacred Ground,” the Episcopal Church’s 10-part, film-based discussion series. The curriculum confronts the historical roots of systemic racism and examines how that history still shapes American institutions and social interactions today.
About 200 people signed up for the dioceses’ discussion circles.
Interest was just as strong in the Diocese of San Diego, where at least 11 congregations recently signed up to form Sacred Ground circles. And in Stevens Point, Wisc., the Rev. Jane Johnson started a discussion circle at her Episcopal-Lutheran congregation hoping at least a handful of people would join her. The circle widened to more than 60 participants from four local congregations and across the Diocese of Fond du Lac.
Such examples highlight the churchwide growth in Sacred Ground participation since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, fueled widespread protests. Previously, about 400 discussion circles had taken up Sacred Ground from its launch in February 2019. Two months after Floyd’s death, that number doubled to more than 800 groups.[Information about how to register for Sacred Ground is at www.episcopalchurch.org.]
“The response has given me hope this is not going to be just a moment, but a movement,” Johnson told Episcopal News Service. “It’s sad that it takes so long to wake up to something … but we’re finally willing to do something.”
A discussion circle may sound like a rather passive form of action, especially in light of the fervent protests against recent instances of deadly police brutality. But Sacred Ground goes beyond a book club or Bible study, facilitators say. They describe some of the curriculum’s videos and reading assignments as intense and the conversations direct, even uncomfortable — all intended as a springboard for action.
“This is tricky stuff to navigate,” said Jenny Fife, an Episcopalian who organized a Sacred Ground circle this year in Roanoke, Va. Examples she cited from the curriculum include European Americans’ forced relocation of Native Americans, racial discrimination in 20th-century federal housing policy and the various barriers that made it difficult for Black World War II veterans to obtain G.I. Bill benefits.
“There’s some awful stories out there,” she said, “awful stories that we need to hear.”
Sacred Ground is part of the Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community initiative on racial reconciliation. Unlike other anti-racism programs, Sacred Ground doesn’t require an experienced trainer, only volunteer facilitators. The curriculum is ready to go for any groups that commit to engage with the material and have honest and open conversations about what they learn. And though the curriculum doesn’t prescribe specific real-world responses, it presumes participants will be moved to work for social change in their own ways when they are done.
It also presumes most participants will be white. That is by design, said Katrina Browne, the “Traces of the Trade” filmmaker who developed the Sacred Ground curriculum: “written by a white Episcopalian for white Episcopalians.”
Episcopal Church leaders welcomed a new resource “targeting white folks to help with the kind of re-education that we need,” Browne told ENS, “given how little we get taught in schools about the history of racism and the actual depth and extent of it.” Rather than exclusion, this approach encourages fair expectations: People of color are welcome to participate but shouldn’t feel obligated to explain racism to their white neighbors, Browne said.
“It’s very common in my experience for people of color to say, ‘It would be great for you all to learn more and not have us be the teachers all the time,’” she said. She also has found that well-meaning white people often don’t think they can talk about race without a person of color present, a common scenario in the Episcopal Church given its predominantly white membership. Sacred Ground encourages those Episcopalians not to let their congregations’ homogeneity stop them from increasing their own understanding of racism.
Church leaders also have increasingly found that white Episcopalians desire those conversations.
“Sacred Ground has clearly filled a deep need and hunger across the church and beyond. Especially among white folks, there is a growing recognition that racism is not just a problem for people of color,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation, said in a statement to ENS. “If anything, systemic racism has been built for white flourishing; that means it is best dismantled and addressed by white people.”
Fife’s experience with Sacred Ground in Roanoke is a common one. “It’s been pretty profound for me personally,” she said. “I’ve done a 180-degree turn.”
A self-described “child of the South,” Fife grew up in Richmond, Va., blind to the vestiges of white supremacy all around her in the one-time capital of the Confederate states, from the prominent monuments to Confederate figures to the slave owners and overseers in her own family tree. She was given the middle name, Lee, in honor of her grandfather, who had been named after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.
She first learned about Sacred Ground from a woman she met in August 2019 while she and her husband participated in the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice organized by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Fife then began developing a Sacred Ground circle at St. John’s Church, and by the time the church hosted its first session in January 2020, more than 50 people had signed up from St. John’s and other Christian congregations around Roanoke.
Fife, a 67-year-old retired elementary school teacher, had considered herself a “typical liberal do-gooder,” but she soon realized how little she understood of systemic racism, the institutional systems and structures designed to disadvantage African Americans. She never had been challenged to go beyond a white perspective to reexamine the racial arc of American history.
“As a Christian, I believed that we were all made in the image of God. I just didn’t kind of get that there are two Americas. There’s Black America and there’s white America,” Fife said. “And I live in white America. And African Americans live in both Americas.” Institutional racism, she said, is “just so hard to see” — until it becomes obvious.
Browne, a lifelong Episcopalian who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, came up with the idea for Sacred Ground after the Episcopal Church’s 2017 launch of Becoming Beloved Community, invoking a term popularized by Martin Luther King Jr.
Renewed focus on racial reconciliation drives interest in Becoming Beloved Community webinars.
Becoming Beloved Community’s four parts often are illustrated as a labyrinth: telling the truth about the church and race; proclaiming the dream of Beloved Community; practicing the way of love in the pattern of Jesus, and repairing the breach in society, such as through advocacy for reform.
Spellers’ team offered it to dioceses and congregations to guide their efforts at racial reconciliation, which the church set as one of its top priorities at the 78th General Convention in 2015. Within that framework, Browne saw an opportunity to get white Episcopalians to lower their guard and engage with the subjects using documentary films as educational tools and as prompts for discussion.
Browne is best known for her 2008 documentary “Traces of the Trade,” which followed her and her family members’ researching and coming to grips with the truth about their slave-trading ancestors in Rhode Island. “I was certainly steeped in an appreciation for the power of documentary film to generate more heartfelt dialogue,” she said. “This is an emotional, spiritual journey, and there is something about the power of film to open things up.”
In fall 2017, Spellers embraced Browne’s pitch of a film-based series on the roots of the racism still built into American institutions — and perpetuated, often unknowingly, by the individuals who fill those institutions.
Browne, originally from Philadelphia, doesn’t exempt herself. As a white Northerner who once clung to a “presumption of innocence,” she learned in making “Traces of the Trade” that much of the economy in the North had been tied to slavery, even after slavery was outlawed there. Browne also began examining her own perceptions. “I may not be an intentionally racist person, but I still have implicit racial bias. I still have loads of white privilege and class privilege.”
Browne developed a series of 10 sessions, each requiring participants to prepare themselves before meeting by completing reading assignments and viewing one or more videos. Sacred Ground participants also are expected to read the curriculum’s two core books: “Waking Up White,” a 2014 memoir by Debby Irving, and “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Black theologian Howard Thurman, originally published in 1949.
One of the first assigned videos is titled “The Myth of Race Debunked in 3 Minutes.” Others are longer, such as an hourlong episode of the PBS series “The African Americans,” hosted by historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. Browne also identified the TV news program episode “White Anxiety” hosted by Katie Couric as a highlight for its discussion of class issues, as well as the final session’s assignment “Dawnland,” a 2018 documentary that details Maine’s efforts to atone for taking Native American children from their families to be placed in foster homes and boarding schools.
The sessions follow a roughly chronological line, starting with a look at the persecution in Europe that motivated the early colonists to leave their home countries and journey to North America. The new arrivals soon began persecuting the continent’s Indigenous people and enslaving Africans. Other sessions examine Latino and Asian/Pacific American experiences in the United States. Participants also examine examples of systemic racism in today’s America, such as mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on people of color.
The curriculum isn’t intended as a comprehensive summary, but rather a starting point for discussion as participants connect historical narratives with their own life experiences.
“Sacred Ground is a time and opportunity to hear the story of our past with regard to race, to hear our stories of our pasts,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a video statement released with the curriculum’s February 2019 launch. “From the travail and the reality of all those stories may emerge hope for a new day.”
The Rev. Janine Schenone, rector of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego, Calif., said she often preached against racism on Sundays but wanted to help her congregation dig deeper. She and the church’s minister of formation invited parishioners to join a Sacred Ground circle in fall 2019, and the results were profound, Schenone told ENS.
“I’ve never seen anything so utterly change the attitudes and the beliefs of people,” she said, especially around race. “This is a painful curriculum. It is not easy to listen to the history of our country and how it has systematically shut down the lives of people who are not white.”
Schenone also serves on the Diocesan Advocacy Committee of the Diocese of San Diego’s Executive Council. The committee formed its own Sacred Ground circle in January 2020 and was joined by newly consecrated Bishop Susan Snook. More congregations around the diocese are also participating.
And though many of the discussion circles remain all or mostly white, some Black Episcopalians are joining the discussions and finding them valuable as well.
Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., is a notable example. Its multiracial congregation partnered about five years ago with the mostly white NOVA Catholic Community for regular meetings about race relations, often taking the form of book discussions. They wanted to do more, so in August 2019, they started Sacred Ground.
“I think it’s an exceptional program,” the Rev. Kim Coleman, Trinity’s rector, told ENS. She also serves as national president of the Union of Black Episcopalians.
Coleman said she has learned things she didn’t know about white culture and that she appreciates how Sacred Ground illuminates the connections among the historic patterns of abuse endured by other communities of color in the United States. Such knowledge provides the essential foundation for taking action, she said.
“Today, people ask the question, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’” Coleman said. “The response is, get informed first. Find out what the issues are. If you’re at all unhappy with what you see on the national scene and can’t understand, turn to Sacred Ground or something similar, just so you can broaden your understanding and awareness.”
Yearning To Breathe Free: A Reflection On the Murder of George Floyd
“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” — James Baldwin
America has been and is a place of irreconcilables. In contrast to the stalwart Pilgrims and other early settlers who survived perilous journeys to forge new lives are the indigenous peoples whose territories were taken from them and who became displaced persons within their own lands.
There are the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of humanity’s God-endowed freedom and unalienable rights, penned in elegant calligraphy by a man whose slaves were not meant to be included in those words. America is a place where a black man has served two terms as its president, yet one where an unarmed black man can also die from a white police officer’s pressing his knee on his neck.
Recognizing moments of gratitude during a crisis
In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
The above quote was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while imprisoned in Germany near the end of WWII. Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, was being held in prison for treason after participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for which Bonhoeffer was ultimately executed. The entire process of writing Letters and Papers from Prison relied upon individuals putting their lives at risk to bring Bonhoeffer writing supplies and to make sure his texts were delivered to those who would preserve them.
In this context, gratitude was likely much clearer, as the costs were especially high for those helping him. The quote makes clear that Bonhoeffer recognized that when everything is going perfectly (or as close to perfectly as we can encounter), it is easy to assume that we have achieved security, happiness or success on our own and overlook those that aided us. It is in moments of struggle that we then realize that our lives and achievements are woven tightly in with the lives of others.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Nine-year-old Caleb Barnett of Edina, Minn., wasn’t the only one getting a bit teary in May when he reluctantly reached for his 2020 calendar and crossed off Christian camp, cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. His mother, Sarah, was as sad as he was. She runs camps for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota (ECMN) and knew he’d be missing a fun learning experience.
But she began to see raw material for Caleb’s ongoing spiritual formation in the community that started showing up on their doorstep. Every day at noon, a group of his bike-riding friends — no longer tightly scheduled with organized activities — would swing by to get him and cruise the neighborhood.
Having gotten to know their parents, she decided to invite the families over every Friday for a socially distant backyard camp that’s largely about Christian hospitality — and they’ve been coming. There are even matching T-shirts for all the kids.
“I’ve actually thought of that as how I could empower my camp families to be that kind of local presence in their neighborhoods this summer,” said Barnett, the missioner for children, youth, camp and young adults with ECMN. “Maybe they just do a little picnic every Friday, invite their kids’ friends’ families and do this kind of relational ministry that Jesus was all about, even if it’s not vacation Bible school format.”
As the strange summer of 2020 arrives, families are finding that they can’t count on the usual seasonal programming to help kids keep making progress in spiritual formation. Short-term mission trips are canceled. Christian camps and vacation Bible schools are taking the season off or pivoting temporarily to new models that can be administered at home, in small, socially distanced groups or online.
That means parents can’t rely solely on professionals to move the faith formation process along. Indeed, those professionals are doubling down on their roles as supporters and partners of family-based ministries. They’re becoming equippers by innovating from within their formation traditions — first by assessing families’ needs, then by adapting what they have to offer. Formation experts say it’s a sound approach: experimenting — fully expecting failures — and frequently reassessing.
“Because we’re designing something new, all bets are off,” said Abigail Visco Rusert, director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. “There are so many restrictions, so many hurdles — but that’s where the opportunity lies, too.”
Many parents feel torn. Sacred Playgrounds, a consultancy that conducted an April survey of about 2,500 parents who’d previously sent kids to mostly mainline Protestant camps, found that only 19% said they would send their kids to virtual camp programs this year. Another 41% said maybe; 40% said no, not even if it’s free.
Parents who have already been looking beyond traditional programming for their kids find this summer nudging them further toward alternatives. A decade ago, Adrienne Davis of Durham, N.C., was a big believer in short-term mission trips and VBS, but now she and her husband use a broader array of tools for teaching their three elementary-age children.
“We really started interrogating, are those [types of programs] the only ways that our kids are growing spiritually?” said Davis, who grew up in an African Methodist Episcopal church and now attends a United Methodist congregation with her family.
They also began to question, she said, whether long-distance mission trips are necessary when so many needs exist near home. She said they aim to foster an environment where their kids learn to confront racism, to integrate faith into daily life and to express whatever doubts they might have.
In past years, the Davis kids have attended a nonreligious anti-racism day camp that’s run by Christians whose values the Davises share. This year, they’ll be doing safe outdoor activities such as hiking among peers and adults who speak a language of faith.
“Just being in nature, being reconnected to people and land in particular, is kind of our focus right now as we’re trying to keep our kids sane,” said Davis, whose children are 6, 8 and 11.
Other parents are interested in giving virtual camp a try. For Kari Duong-Topp of Apple Valley, Minn., camps offered through the Episcopal Church in Minnesota have given her two children exposure to a cross section of youth. She hopes that her son, now 17, will say yes to ECMN’s alternative this year: weekly Zoom gatherings with his cabin mates from last year, interspersed with activities designed to be fun and reinforce faith commitments.
He’s resisted attending church since he was in fifth or sixth grade, Duong-Topp said. But camp was a different story: “Camp gave him a place to talk about some of these things and hear other people talking about it and learn about being of service in a way that he tolerated,” she said.
When pursuing formation goals, such as youth leadership in ministry, one helpful practice is human-centered design thinking, said Rusert, of Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry. A concept borrowed from engineering, it begins with consideration of an end user’s needs and context, then works backward to develop systems that are continually tested for user friendliness.
In youth ministry, it can involve identifying core constituencies, naming perceived needs and being willing to keep trying even if initial attempts don’t deliver on a specific result, such as increasing biblical literacy among youth over the summer.
Formation is ongoing, Rusert said, never finished in youth or adults. For youth, it is a process of “unearthing” what God is already doing in their lives, rather than trying to mold them into an ideal “product,” she said.
They’re most affected when this unearthing ministry, which makes youth more aware of who they are and where they feel called, flows from loved ones close to them, such as parents and guardians.
“The thing that has been most successful for the churches that we’ve worked with is when they’ve integrated young people on the front end,” Rusert said. “It has made all the difference to those young people feeling fed along the way.”
What kinds of faith lessons can be learned, living with the constraints of a pandemic?
Formation happens in part by living out the faith’s lessons in real-life situations, according to Christian camp consultant Jacob Sorenson of Sacred Playgrounds. In his view, nothing can substitute for a physical camp setting where kids are away from home, differentiating what they believe as individuals and navigating life together.
If a child leaves clothes on someone’s bed, for example, and that person is annoyed, “there has to be some sort of reconciliation and forgiveness,” Sorenson said.
“So it’s not just learning about these things as a disembodied concept. … No, it’s like, ‘I have been forgiven. I ticked somebody off. I hurt somebody’s feelings when I didn’t mean to. I have been forgiven for it, and we now move forward as a community, because that’s what we do at camp.’”
This year, none of that seems likely, at least in a conventional form, as summer begins. Though some states haven’t ruled out mid- or late-summer camps for limited numbers, it’s not clear whether that will happen. For instance, as of June 9, at least 81 of the 119 sites affiliated with Lutheran Outdoor Ministries had decided not to open for traditional camp.
Vacation Bible school is getting a remake in terms of format this year, though reconfigurations vary in approach. In Johns Creek, Ga., families are used to dropping kids off at Johns Creek Presbyterian Church for a four-day program that costs $40 for the week. This year, they’ll pay a suggested donation of just $10 for supplies that they’ll pick up, but they won’t be on their own, according to Allison Shearouse, the church’s director of Christian education.
VBS ambassadors, who might normally have led stations at the church during VBS, instead might organize two or three families to do some of the activities together.
This is allowing us the opportunity to do VBS in a way that makes it more a part of their community and day-to-day life than maybe it had been in the past,” Shearouse said.
At Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., VBS organizers are taking a different approach. Vacation Bible school will still meet nightly for a week as usual, but instead of three hours at the church, this year’s program will be condensed into one hour per night by Zoom.
“Keep it engaging, keep it short, and don’t overwhelm our people” is the approach, said the Rev. Thomas Brackeen, the minister to youth and families at Metropolitan AME. “We can extend our outreach beyond the church walls by providing these virtual opportunities.”
The online mode suits Metropolitan, Brackeen said, because it’s a commuter congregation. Most members live outside the city; many drive as far as 45 minutes each way. Unlike for Johns Creek, clustering in backyards for VBS activities won’t work for Metropolitan’s dispersed congregation. Yet the more frequently kids hop online to join friends and adults from church, the more they feel connected despite geographic distances. VBS will reinforce that habit this year.
This article originally appeared on the Faith and Leadership website, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
Presiding Bishop Curry’s Word to the Church:
[May 30, 2020] A word to the Church from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry:
When the Cameras are Gone, We Will Still Be Here
“Our long-term commitment to racial justice and reconciliation is embedded in our identity as baptized followers of Jesus. We will still be doing it when the news cameras are long gone.”
In the midst of COVID-19 and the pressure cooker of a society in turmoil, a Minnesota man named George Floyd was brutally killed. His basic human dignity was stripped by someone charged to protect our common humanity.
Perhaps the deeper pain is the fact that this was not an isolated incident. It happened to Breonna Taylor on March 13 in Kentucky. It happened to Ahmaud Arbery on February 23 in Georgia. Racial terror in this form occurred when I was a teenager growing up black in Buffalo, New York. It extends back to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and well before that. It’s not just our present or our history. It is part of the fabric of American life.
But we need not be paralyzed by our past or our present. We are not slaves to fate but people of faith. Our long-term commitment to racial justice and reconciliation is embedded in our identity as baptized followers of Jesus. We will still be doing it when the news cameras are long gone.
That work of racial reconciliation and justice – what we know as Becoming Beloved Community – is happening across our Episcopal Church. It is happening in Minnesota and in the Dioceses of Kentucky, Georgia and Atlanta, across America and around the world. That mission matters now more than ever, and it is work that belongs to all of us.
It must go on when racist violence and police brutality are no longer front-page news. It must go on when the work is not fashionable, and the way seems hard, and we feel utterly alone. It is the difficult labor of picking up the cross of Jesus like Simon of Cyrene, and carrying it until no one – no matter their color, no matter their class, no matter their caste – until no child of God is degraded and disrespected by anybody. That is God’s dream, this is our work, and we shall not cease until God’s dream is realized.
Is this hopelessly naïve? No, the vision of God’s dream is no idealistic utopia. It is our only real hope. And, St. Paul says, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). Real love is the dogged commitment to live my life in the most unselfish, even sacrificial ways; to love God, love my neighbor, love the earth and truly love myself. Perhaps most difficult in times like this, it is even love for my enemy. That is why we cannot condone violence. Violence against any person – conducted by some police officers or by some protesters – is violence against a child of God created in God’s image. No, as followers of Christ, we do not condone violence.
Neither do we condone our nation’s collective, complicit silence in the face of injustice and violent death. The anger of so many on our streets is born out of the accumulated frustration that so few seem to care when another black, brown or native life is snuffed out.
But there is another way. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a broken man lay on the side of the road. The religious leaders who passed were largely indifferent. Only the Samaritan saw the wounded stranger and acted. He provided medical care and housing. He made provision for this stranger’s well-being. He helped and healed a fellow child of God.
Love, as Jesus teaches, is action like this as well as attitude. It seeks the good, the well-being, and the welfare of others as well as one’s self. That way of real love is the only way there is.
Accompanying this statement is a card describing ways to practice the Way of Love in the midst of pandemic, uncertainty and loss. In addition, you will find online a set of resources to help Episcopalians to LEARN, PRAY & ACT in response to racist violence and police brutality. That resource set includes faithful tools for listening to and learning from communities too often ignored or suppressed, for incorporating God’s vision of justice into your personal and community prayer life, and for positively and constructively engaging in advocacy and public witness.
Opening and changing hearts does not happen overnight. The Christian race is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Our prayers and our work for justice, healing and truth-telling must be unceasing. Let us recommit ourselves to following in the footsteps of Jesus, the way that leads to healing, justice and love.
By Guy Hewitt
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Often, people don’t appreciate the complexity of a situation while in it. For Trinity Sunday, I want to speak to a triune, three-fold calamity confronting the USA. Imagine in one year, a viral pandemic that claimed over 100,000 lives, unseen since the Spanish Flu; an economic contraction costing tens of millions of jobs, unknown since the Great Depression; and civil unrest unheard of since the Civil Rights era, the outcome of which is evolving. In years to come, people will regard 2020 as a unique moment in time.
In 1967, when the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., stated, “without justice, there can be no peace,” his statement held no malice or threat of violence but rather he was declaring the universal truth; that without justice peace will remain an elusive goal. The book of Proverbs says, “the evil do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.” In love, and towards a more perfect Union, I speak to the issue of “No Justice, No Peace.”
As people of faith, we should seek equality and speak out on behalf of victims of injustice. In his Letter to the Galatians St. Paul affirmed our singularity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for [we] are one in Christ Jesus.” In the gospel of John, our Lord gives the imperative, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
We have another reason for speaking on this point as politics was literally brought to door of our church. As stated by Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, “the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a Bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
Proverbs says that “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” I need to commend those peaceful protesters who across the U.S., in cities large and small, and further afield, rallied against the taking of George Floyd’s life. His is the most recent in a series of brutal killings of primarily black males. May they all rest in peace. As Dr. King emphasized, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I similarly need to condemn all those who sought to use these civil rights actions to cause damage and mayhem, just as we should condemn those armed mobs who recently occupied capitol buildings.
In 2008, many wondered whether the election of Barack Obama as the first black president would also be the inauguration of a post-racial era in the U.S. This proved illusory as racial politics and inequality intensified. Many non-blacks are not aware of “The Talk” that black parents often have with their sons. This is about how to act if ever you have an encounter with police. Black children are taught to obey, do whatever they say, not to talk back and above everything else watch how you move your hands. This message is oft instilled as if life depends on it; but then again, it possibly does.
The recent Axios-Ipsos poll taken the week George Floyd was killed, found that 77% of whites say they trust local police, compared with just 36% of African Americans. This shouldn’t be “normal” in 2020 in America. What many Caucasians fail to comprehend is that black people often experience a very different political, economic and social reality. The colour of your skin can and does affect many interactions including how teachers, employers, police, judges, bankers, immigration officials, politicians, historians, and the like perceive you. On average, white households have nearly 6.5 times the wealth of black households. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is not just an old, classic movie but the “normal” for people of colour today.
One of the reassuring features of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter protests has been their multiracial composition and the proliferation of young people. This is significant for they are not just the leaders of tomorrow but the catalysts for change today. To this, I need to speak directly to our white sisters and brothers.
James Baldwin, a neighbor of my parents, wrote, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” The gospel of John says, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”
Some years ago, Bishop Curry redefined the opposite of love. According to him, the opposite of love isn’t hate but selfishness. “The real opposite of love self-centeredness, which is the most destructive force in human relationships and political ones.” He emphasised that, “Selfishness is the hallmark of our time, the ‘pattern of this world.’ We are a culture swimming in fear, judgement, survival-of-the-fittest, competitions for wealth and resources, and a manic need to prove oneself better than others.”
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
In our Act of Contrition we confess, “that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” What we have left undone — the sin of omission. Fundamental to abolishing the racial barriers in the U.S. is breaking the white code of silence. As I hear from white friends, “We don’t need to talk about race. It’s not our issue.” How wrong they are. Proverbs tells us, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
As citizens of our global village, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Four days before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered his last pulpit sermon in Washington D.C. “It’s an unhappy truth,” he preached, “that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle. The disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism.” More than 50 years have passed since Dr King was taken from us and we’re still searching for the cure.
In her book on white privilege, “Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” Debby Irving makes some important observations, “Not so long ago, if someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. ‘But I’m a good person!” I would have insisted. ‘I don’t see color! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!’ I would have felt insulted and misunderstood and stomped off to lick my wounds. That’s because I thought being a racist meant not liking people of color or being a name-calling bigot. For years I struggled silently to understand race and racism.”
She continues, “It turns out, stumbling block number one was that I didn’t think I had a race so I never thought to look within for answers…I thought white was the raceless race – just plain, normal – the one against which all others were measured. What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs.”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. I’ve met many white people who share not only these beliefs but the same feelings of race-related confusion and anxiety. I appreciate that for many white people, having real conversations about race is tricky. Most aren’t accustomed to doing it and aren’t proficient at doing it well. Many fear sounding stupid, use the wrong words, or offending, but there is a need to try. Race isn’t other peoples’ issue; it’s everyone’s. The Book of Isaiah tells us, “learn to do good – seek justice, rescue the oppressed.”
Many white friends have learned that conversations about race start by the rejection of the feel-good fiction that we live in a colorblind world and instead thinking about what whiteness means in America. Also, it requires truly listening to the experiences of non-whites: dates like May 20 (Emancipation Day in Florida) and names like Emmett Till and Rodney King should be appreciated by all.
Just as our churches prepare a strategy to safely reopen in the shadow of COVID-19, we should similarly act to put the disease of racism behind us. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO), through vaccination, declared smallpox eradicated. Perhaps with a determination to bring about real change, we can similarly eradicate both COVID19 and racism.
By faith, in hope and with love, I believe that we can. Yes, we can! Amen.
The Rev. Guy Hewitt was Barbados’ first London-born ambassador to the U.K. He is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.
The following is a statement from Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry:
This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.
The bible teaches us that “God is love.” Jesus of Nazareth taught, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The prophet Micah taught that the Lord requires us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”
The bible the President held up and the church that he stood in front of represent the values of love, of justice, of compassion, and of a way to heal our hurts.
We need our President, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values. For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”