COVID-19 temporarily derailed a scheduled Stations of the Cross installation at a new Episcopal chapel in New Jersey. But thanks to technology, Episcopalians throughout the Diocese of Newark have had an opportunity to view and pray with the images throughout Lent.
Sister Gerardine Mueller, a Roman Catholic Dominican nun, created the traditional 14 stations in painted stained glass. The glass panels hang in the chapel at the Caldwell Dominican house in Caldwell, N.J., where Pat Vine saw them while visiting her spiritual director, Sister Gail De Maria.
“I was really impressed,” said Vine, parish administrator and long-time member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Wayne.
Her spiritual director, who belongs to the Roman Catholic order of Saint Joseph of Peace, photographed the stations and installed the pictures in glass frames lit from behind in a hallway at her motherhouse in Englewood Cliffs. When a fire and lengthy restoration at the house forced the stations’ removal, the photographer offered them to Vine for installation in a chapel being created at St. Michael’s. There, they nearly ended up under wraps again, thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown.
“All these framed pictures were sitting in a bag in the soon-to-be chapel,” Vine said. “I ended up one day thinking, ‘Lord, I really want to do something for Lent. What can I do?’ And the stations came to mind. So I brought them home, took them out of the frames, scanned them and then made up the stations.”
With Mueller’s blessing, Vine created a short e-mail for each station pairing a photograph with a prayer and text by Rina Ristano, FSP, from “The Folly of God: The Journey of the Cross, A Path to Light.” Every three days throughout Lent, Vine has sent one to members of St. Michael’s, an interested neighbor and a number of other individuals throughout the diocese.
Response has been positive, she said. “One priest responded and said, ‘May I have your permission to send this to my parish?’” She agreed, believing that “the more that would reflect on Christ’s sufferings during Lent, the better.”
Another priest wrote about how touched she was by the prayer for the Sixth Station, where a woman wipes the face of Jesus:
Lord, help us to recognize you in the hidden corners of our world.
In the forgotten ones, in those who mean too little to the world, whose presence is never greeted with a smile.
We ask that we might reflect your love for all people in everything that we do.
Mueller, now nearly 100 years old, has created art in various media and started and taught in the art department at Caldwell University. An interview with her and photographs of the stations and her other artwork can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/XCizxL2eeJ8
The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman is a priest in the Diocese of Newark.
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is among the faith figures in “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” a new four-hour, two-part documentary series by noted historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The series premieres Feb. 16 and 17 on PBS stations nationwide and is available via PBS on various streaming services.
Gates traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America as the source of “African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.
“The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage,” according to the PBS description.
Besides Curry, Gates interviews Oprah Winfrey; musician John Legend; actress Jennifer Hudson, civil rights leaders the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. William Barber II and gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans.
Gates and Curry discuss the powerful influence of music in the Black church and the emotional pull of traditional spirituals.
“When somebody starts singing in a certain way,” Curry said, “folk, inside, start reacting and responding. And eventually, there may be shouts and there may be silence, but something is moving inside. And that’s where the Black church is found: in those heartbeats.”
“And that heartbeat comes from Africa,” Gates said.
“Straight from Africa,” Curry agreed. “No doubt about it. And it has been integrated with the Christian story and experience.”
Gates himself has Episcopal roots, although he is shown in the series attending his childhood church, Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, W.Va. His mother’s family was from West Virginia.
Gates now is famously the host of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS show that traces the family histories of celebrity guests.
However, his interest was sparked much earlier. In an article for The New Yorker, written in 2008 and titled “Family Matters,” Gates wrote about his paternal grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, known as Pop Gates to his family. He lived in Cumberland, Md.
“Pop Gates was buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where our forebears were among the very few Negroes allowed to disturb the eternal sleep of Cumberland’s élite white Episcopal citizenry.
“The town’s Episcopal churches had been segregated at least since the black St. Philips offered its first Communion, on June 19, 1910. That day, the church’s records show, Pop, his mother, Maud, his wife, Gertrude Helen Redman, and about half a dozen other Gateses took the Sacrament, which was offered by the Diocese of Maryland’s white bishop.”
His documentary on the Black church, said Gates, is “a systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshipped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses, to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches.
“This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for — faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace — all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church,” he said.
It seems only a few days ago that I took down my Christmas wreath, put away the elf on the shelf (I know – it’s a bit creepy, but it’s still cute.), and stopped being asked, “So how was your Christmas?” Now the question is, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”
For those like myself who observe Lent, this is the big question at the start and at the heart of the season. It is a personal and deeply important question, one into which all of one’s values, attitudes towards favorite activities, beliefs and behaviors are tightly wrapped. What one gives up (or takes on, as many now do) during Lent is a personal matter, between the individual and his or her conscience, between the individual and God.
The emphasis on self-reflection of this season is one of the reasons why I love Lent. After the the glittering ebullience of Christmas and New Year’s, Lent takes me inward and calls me to be still. While the holidays can leave me breathless, Lent invites me to catch my breath. In the 40 days that unfurl from Ash Wednesday, I engage in a kind of spiritual house cleaning by taking a hard look at the state of my relationship with God, with others, and with myself.
I recently became aware of a painting called “Ash Wednesday,” completed in 1860 by the German artist Carl Spitzweg. It’s significant, when regarding this work, that the day before Ash Wednesday is known in some cultures as Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of fun and feasting before the penitential season of Lent.
Spitzweg’s canvas depicts a solitary harlequin, still decked out in his colorful and jolly costume and pointed hat (a fool’s cap perhaps), although the festivities of the previous day are over. But when we look more closely, we realize this figure of revelry and excess, with arms folded and head down, is sitting in what appears to be a prison cell.
A shaft of light comes through the cell’s only window and illuminates the lonely figure, who seems deep in thought. His only sustenance is a jug of water. Every element in the painting forcefully outlines and underscores what a traditional Lent involves: self-reflection about and repentance of the “sins” of excess; fasting and self-denial; (re)encountering God.
This view of Ash Wednesday and Lent is severe, uncompromising, and, some might argue, joyless. Yet it is fully in keeping with those tough, uncompromising words the priest utters when imposing the dark ashes on my forehead: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This year, however, will be different. In the Diocese of New York, Bishop Andrew Dietsche has directed that, to avoid the risk of further spreading the coronavirus, the imposition of ashes should be suspended.
Although the Book of Common Prayer expresses no particular instructions regarding ashes, other than their imposition by the minister at the liturgy, the physical distribution of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful is an ages-old practice. Many people look forward to it.
I will miss going to my church, walking up its long center aisle to stand before the priest tasked with dipping his thumb into the ashes, with which he then traces a cross on my forehead while pronouncing those ancient and bracing words.
I admit that I will miss the wondering glances of passersby and other subway commuters to that spot above my nose. I – We – will miss receiving that visible sign that identifies me – us – as Christ’s own. But I also recognize that this loss is yet another necessary one we need to count in order to one day reclaim a greater health. Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates is concerned with our unseen, rather than seen, appearance.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to observe a “holy Lent,” a season of penitence and fasting, a season when they take stock of their lives, pray, read, and meditate on God’s holy Word.
This is solemn, not morose work. It is not a 40-day sentence to sport a scratchy hair shirt, to subsist on a diet of locust crunch, and to wear a dour expression to show how deeply repentant one is. That is a soul-killing Lenten observance that only leaves the observer angry and resentful rather than spiritually cleansed and fulfilled.
As for giving up things, there is more to Lent than simply eschewing chocolate, alcohol or caffeine. While that may be a feature for some observers, there is more to the season than food and drink deprivation. For example, pride, anger, bigotry, wastefulness and pollution of the creation, injustice, cruelty, and indifference to the suffering of others are some of the other greater sins worthy of inclusion on the “giving up” list.
As it is impossible to renounce in one Lent all of the wrong things that compromise my relationship with God and others, I select one or two that I feel could benefit from my undivided attention. That can be a lot if those one or two things keep getting in the way of my having a life that is more whole. But if I am fully honest with myself, I will choose the most important wrong things about myself in need of grace-filled repair.
It is the quest for honesty and truth that inspires my love of Lent. Where so much — too much — around us is unreal, inauthentic and falsified, this is a season that requires truthfulness and reality. At a time where very little is spiritually or morally required of us, Lent urges us to think deeply, like Spitzweg’s harlequin, about our frailties and the world’s and our brokenness. Perhaps that is why, unlike our other seasons or holidays, Lent has escaped commercialism’s grasp. It cannot be prettified, glamorized or bowdlerized, nor can it be fashioned into a consumer item with a price tag. There are no Lent cards to write and send, no decorations to deck the halls.
Finally, what I also love about Lent is that anyone can engage in what this season offers. There is no need to be a Christian or even a believer to adopt some of its practices.
Discovering the benefits of self-reflection, giving our time and talent to something or someone other than ourselves, and thinking and talking about life’s harder sides can be universal, not just Christian, activities. A season that bids us all to participate in such important, life-enhancing activities deserves our love. n
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published at Grow Christians, www.growchristians.org.
With the pandemic limiting travel over the holiday season, many Americans will be settling in front of the television to watch their favorite holiday movies, along with their favorite drink — a cup of hot apple cider or a glass of wine — to add some cheer.
Holiday movies have become an essential part of the American winter celebrations and are likely to be more so for those quarantining this year. The entertainment site Vulture reports 82 new holiday movie releases in 2020. But, even before the lockdown, production of annual Christmas movies was reported to be up by at least 20% since 2017 on a single cable network.
Holiday movies are popular not simply because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.
Christmas movies as reflection
This is particularly true with Christmas movies. In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion,” the religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas movies act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves.”
These movies offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.
The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a fantasy film about a man named George Bailey, who has touched the lives of many, despite all his problems — represents visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital component.
Another movie commonly replayed this time of year is 2005’s “The Family Stone,” which portrays the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that quarrels can be worked through and harmony is possible.
The 2003 British holiday film “Love Actually,” which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings to viewers the perennial theme of romance and the trials of relationships.
Movie-watching as ritual practice As holiday movies bring viewers into a fictional world, people are able to work through their own fears and desires about self-worth and relationships. Such movies can provide solace, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working through difficult situations. The movies offer hope in believing it all might turn out all right in the end.
When people see some part of their own lives unfold on screen, the act of viewing operates in a fashion that’s strikingly similar to how a religious ritual works.
As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people’s everyday lives. Rituals can open up “ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force,” he writes in the collection “Anthropology of Religion.”
For example, for Jews and Christians, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them with the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions connect those praying with their God, as well as with their fellow believers.
Holiday movies do something similar, except that the “transcendent force” they make viewers feel is not about God or another supreme being. Instead, this force is more secular: It’s the power of family, true love, the meaning of home or the reconciliation of relationships.
Movies create an idealized world Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn.” It was one of the first movies — after the silent era’s various versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — where the plot used Christmas as a backdrop, telling the story of a group of entertainers who have gathered at a country inn.
In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, couched in a desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in World War II for a year and national spirits were not high.
The movie hasn’t endured as a classic. However, Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas,” which appeared in it, quickly became etched in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called “White Christmas” became better known.
As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America,” Crosby’s crooning offers the “quintessential expression” of the holidays, a world which “has no dark side” — one in which “war is forgotten.”
In subsequent Christmas movies, the main plots have not been set in the context of war, yet there is nonetheless often a battle: that of overcoming a materialistic, gift-buying and gift-giving kind of holiday. Movies like “Jingle all the Way,” “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” center on the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love. Dr. Seuss’ famously grouchy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking all the gifts away. But as the people gather together, giftless, they join hands and sing while the narrator tells viewers, “Christmas came anyway.”
‘All’s right with the world’ Though Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday films are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly ever a mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.
As media studies scholar John Mundy writes in a 2008 essay “Christmas and the Movies,” “Hollywood movies continue to construct Christmas as an alternative reality.”
These movies create on-screen worlds that kindle positive emotions while offering a few laughs. “A Christmas Story,” from 1983, waxes nostalgic for childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003’s “Elf” centers on the quest to reunite with a lost father.
In the end, as the narrator says late in “A Christmas Story” — after the family has overcome a series of risible mishaps, the presents have been unwrapped and they’ve gathered for Christmas goose — these are times when “all’s right with the world.”
At the end of a troubled 2020, and as so many families are physically isolated from their loved ones, people need to believe in worlds in which all’s right. Holiday movies allow a glimpse of such a place.
S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is professor of religious studies and cinema and media studies, by special appointment, at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. This article was first published at The Conversation (www.theconversation.com).
Like many Americans of my generation, I have been a big fan of “Peanuts,” the cartoon created by the late Charles Schulz. As a kid, I impatiently awaited the delivery of the Sunday papers so I could turn immediately to the page where Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and their motley group of friends held court and made me and my parents laugh at their amusing adventures and experiences.
I loved each of the main characters because of the way Schulz designed their physical characteristics: Lucy’s big gaping mouth that either bossed others or was Snoopy’s target for one of his dreaded sloppy wet “kisses”; Charlie Brown with his nearly bald pate and woe-is-me expression; or the rumpled Pig Pen, who was eternally surrounded in a cloud of dust. By some mysterious alchemy, Schulz gave his characters personalities that were at turns irritating and endearing.
The Peanuts gang also came across as real children; they were kids like me who went to school, struggled at times with their lessons, and were mystified by the grownups who raised and taught them. They played games (which Charlie Brown never succeeded in winning), teased one another, and developed crushes (see Lucy and Schroeder).
The Peanuts kids also celebrated our culture’s popular holidays, and in 1965, Charlie Brown and his pals moved from the funny papers to the big time: Television. First, there was the Halloween special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where actors gave the gang their unique and now recognizable voices. But Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown would be different, playing to a wider audience and handling a more significant story. “Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer,” the kids sing in the film’s introduction as they glide in a serpentine, Snap the Whip line across a frozen pond (with Snoopy bringing up the rear). I join my voice to theirs, reveling in every note of composer Vince Guaraldi’s immortal score. I never tire of the uncomplicated melody, which evokes joy, hope and innocence.
Charlie Brown frets to his pal Linus about not knowing what Christmas “is all about.” The commercialization of the season, heavy with bling and glitz, leaves him feeling confused and kind of empty. Even Charlie’s dog Snoopy has his canine pad rigged out with colorful and flashing lights. But for Charlie Brown, something is wrong with this picture. Something is missing. Yes, Charlie, I understand.
Charlie later gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea to solve his problem: put on an old-fashioned Christmas pageant, complete with the Three Wise Men and bleating sheep. “No, no, no!” objects know-it-all Lucy. It’s got to have “Santa Claus, deck them halls, Ho-ho-ho, and pretty girls,” she explains while batting her eyes at her love interest, Schroeder, whose task is to provide the pageant’s music.
Despite his best efforts to organize the pageant, it doesn’t come together. No one cooperates, least of all Snoopy, who prefers dancing atop Schroeder’s piano rather than listening to his master’s instructions.
Charlie and Linus’ trip to the local Christmas tree market to buy one for the pageant doesn’t help matters, either. Shiny and glammed-up trees are everywhere, but there is nothing real or meaningful, except for a bedraggled little specimen whose needles have all but fallen off.
Taking pity on it, Charlie buys and presents it to his “friends,” who laugh it — and him — to scorn. When he places an ornament on one fragile branch, the tree bends deeply, nearly breaking under the bauble’s weight. “Ugh, I’ve killed it,” laments Charlie, believing again that he can’t do anything right, not even choose a good Christmas tree.
“I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” says Linus very calmly, as they stand in the school auditorium where the pageant will take place. One spotlight sheds a beam on Linus (now without his trusty security blanket) as he takes to the empty stage. He recites the ancient verses from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-14): “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger …” Finally, Charlie Brown understands. The pathetic little tree that looked as if it wouldn’t amount to much, then receives a loving and twinkling makeover from the kids, who present it to Charlie Brown. “It isn’t such a bad little tree; it just needed a little love,” says Linus wisely.
While “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” is essentially an animated cartoon, whose characters look funny, and behave broadly, and there are silly noises and pratfalls, Linus’ recitation of Saint Luke’s verses is its solemn core. For a few moments, the story’s busyness is suspended to make room for a larger and more eternal story.
Charles Schulz’s brilliance lies in having none other than Linus, often presented and judged (especially by his sister Lucy) as too babyish and meek to be taken seriously, to declaim the biblical narrative about another and very special child’s birth.
Like the puny tree, which the other kids ridiculed and rejected, Linus emerges from his customary lesser status to be the one who knows the truth about Christmas. He “tells” that truth by reciting the Nativity story. Sometimes it takes a child — a blanket-toting, thumb-sucking Linus sort of child — to remind the Charlie Browns in the world what life, love, and other important things are all about.
This is why I added “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” to my DVD collection, and why watching this animated classic every year over these many decades is one of my cherished Christmas traditions.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published in the Episcopal New Yorker.
The term “Old Master” painters always brings the well-known heavy hitters to mind: Rembrandt, Giotto, da Vinci, Dürer, and Mantegna, who are on the long list of European men (and a few women) who, between the 13th and 19th centuries, produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “Old Master” was “a pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; especially a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.”
At first glance, contemporary artist Tyler Ballon may not remind anyone of the traditional image of an “Old Master.” On the day of his Zoom interview with Episcopal Journal, he was clad in a T-shirt bearing the words “God vs. my enemies,” and jeans.
From his canvas-packed studio at the Mana Contemporary Center in Jersey City, N.J., the 24-year-old African-American figurative artist turns out large-scale paintings like those that Renaissance and Baroque-era European artists typically produced.
However, the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired Ballon, a Jersey City native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ depictions of mythological heroes, and, more specifically, biblical characters and saints. Over the last several years, Ballon has used old master techniques from celebrated works to draw attention to the challenges facing Black Americans.
Ballon grew up in a “challenging environment,” where many of his peers were incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently. But he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal church) and his love of art for setting him on a different path.
“Art saved me,” Ballon asserted. At first it was merely a hobby that competed with his other love, boxing. But his now-deceased grandmother, upon seeing a drawing he did of her, encouraged him to “keep it up,” because it would bring him and the family success.
In 2013 and 2014, he received the Young Arts awards (presented by the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami), and since 2014, his work has been included in several group exhibitions in this country and in Sweden.
During his years attending a Roman Catholic grammar school and church, Ballon was exposed to and fell in love with traditional iconography that tells the Bible’s dramatic stories
in stained glass and sculpture. As a high school student, he studied the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
“I was always very observant, and I noticed and was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scriptures so powerfully into ‘real life’ onto the canvas,” Ballon said.
However, his deep affection and respect for the work of the Old Masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism.
“I felt a separation from the art because all of the figures were White people. I loved the work, but none looked like me. It left me feeling excluded from the conversation,” he said.
Representations of what is now often termed the “Black body” in European art have been scant and largely peripheral. Black figures, frequently unidentified, were relegated to the margins, in the background of paintings, or portrayed in servile roles.
One exception is Balthazar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. As Ballon explained, “We live in direct relationship to our heroes. If our heroes are in the Bible and yet don’t resemble us in images, we can’t see ourselves as trying to be like them or trying to do what they’ve done.”
Ballon has filled this pictorial vacuum. Using the tools of the old masters — grand canvases and oil paint, and fluently speaking their iconographic language —Ballon has moved Black bodies from the shadowy margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying (and also honoring) them as biblical characters.
His paintings document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.
Ballon’s meticulously detailed paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, the African-American artist whose paintings also reference European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama drew accolades. Ballon is not bothered by the comparison to Wiley, whom he met when he was 18 years old and whom he idolizes for the older artist’s technique and his broad knowledge of art history.
While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the use of color and light, strong composition, and powerful storytelling seen in works by the renowned Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), are reflected most prominently in his work.
Ballon brings these elements together to emphasize the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), one of his most pointedly Caravaggio-inspired works. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in the Italian master’s 1603 The Entombment.
In Ballon’s hands, they have become residents of an African-American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. As a kind of homage to Caravaggio, who often included himself in his paintings, Ballon has cast himself as the corpse in this work.
With an economy of gesture and expression the artist gives his attention to hands in Called (2019), where another young man (again, the artist), wearing a baseball cap, sits on a damaged set of steps.
He is interrupted from counting the money he holds in each hand by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible in his right hand while pointing to the young man with his left. Looking up, the young man points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), the work represents subtly yet powerfully the decisive moment when the soul is summoned.
Take Up Your Cross (2020) offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, Caravaggesque light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another elementary school kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.
Mary in Prayer (2018), based this time on Francisco de Zurbáran’s The Young Virgin (1632-33), is a nearly full-length figure work and one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional images. The open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on Mary’s lap and her hands positioned to receive the Holy Spirit place her solidly in Western iconography, yet Ballon uses her to address current conversations about whose body can embody holiness.
Although not a member of a faith community, like the message on his T-shirt, Ballon is forthright about his beliefs and self-identifies as a devout Christian who dedicates all of his work to God’s glory.
“God is the source of my gifts and my greatest agent, who brings opportunities to me,” he said. He feels closest to the Old Testament’s Joseph, on whom God bestowed the gift to interpret dreams, whereas Ballon feels that he has received the gift to interpret the Scriptures through his paintings. His goal is to become one of the greatest figurative painters in the art world, and to be a mentor to other young artists. But, again, he said he leaves that in God’s hands.
Ballon is part of a small but growing group of artists who have returned to representing the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his immediate community, and in his view, the figure expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. As was true for these painters from Europe’s past, composition, vivid color, light and gesture are his currency.
Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of their works are in keeping with past practices of artists borrowing from one another’s masterpieces. After all, imitation is the highest form of praise.
But more importantly, Ballon is contributing meaningfully to the growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color by bringing together their underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell the Bible’s compelling stories. His work unapologetically affirms that these bodies can portray sacred characters, be the bearers of eternal truths, and can reflect the imago Dei.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York.
Giovanni Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy,” in the collection of the Frick Museum in New York, embodies both the Franciscan sense of poverty and its attitude towards nature, not only in the style and subject matter but also in its pristine, jewel-like oil glazing techniques.
It was painted at some time in the last few decades of the 15th century and so stands at a pivotal historical point, near the end of the early Renaissance, and just on the threshold of the High Renaissance in Italy. It represents the 13th century saint alone at the mouth of his cave retreat. Having just stepped outside, he witnesses the early dawn as if it were an unexpected miracle.
In the background, we see the charming hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy from which he came. Much has been written about both the style and the iconography of this magnificent painting, but I want to discuss it here principally in terms of its technique and how the oil glazing method Bellini used embodies Franciscan ideology and values.
Although oil paint is now a revered traditional technique (having been practiced for centuries), at the time Bellini worked, oil paint methods were the new, cutting-edge technology originating far away in the Netherlands. Only a few Italians at that time had even experimented with the new medium, which mixed pulverized colored pigments in a base of linseed oil and varnish that binds the powdered color together and adheres it to the work’s surface.
The standard media for early Renaissance panel painting in Italy was tempera. In tempera, the binder is egg yolk instead of oil, and it dries very quickly, so it demands a rapid, dry-brush technique of application. But oil paint dries much more slowly, and certain additives can speed up or slow down drying so the artist has more control over the timing of the painting’s execution and can lavish more attention on details and nuances of color.
During the Renaissance, however, oil paint was not applied freely to the canvas or panel as it is today, but was glazed in thin transparent layers of paint laid down one over the other, allowing some of the underpainting to be visible through all the other layers, giving it that luminous, jewel-like effect.
Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, “Saint Jerome,” in the collection of the Vatican Museums, offers a rare glimpse into the oil painting techniques used by Italian artists in the first stages of a work. Initially, Leonardo covered the entire panel with a warm yellow ochre ground, after which he established the broad darks and lights of the composition with earth browns.
Next Leonardo would presumably have glazed in the local colors for the skin, the sky, the lion’s fur, the rocks, and so forth, but allowing some of the ochre underpainting to remain visible, shining through the various transparent glazes, giving greater overall coloristic unity to the finished painting.
In Bellini’s “Francis in Ecstasy,” there is a coloristic dialogue between the warm amber foundation (more intensely orange-yellow than in the Leonardo) and the cool grey-blue and brown glazes he layers over this underpainting in articulating the main masses and elements of the landscape.
But because blue typically seems to recede while yellow appears to push forward, the amber underpainting almost gives the effect of the light coming from behind the picture, softly illumining the entire landscape in all its minute, lucid, naturalistic detail, so lovingly labored over, and echoing the gentle light of the emergent dawn.
The attentiveness Bellini shows to every detail is typical of Netherlandish art, but is somewhat rare in Italian art, where the landscape setting is often minimal — just enough of a background to situate the figures in a believable space.
The landscape here, however is rendered in all its marvelous, minute, rich, naturalistic detail. This truth to nature, with each leaf and blade of grass so lovingly and realistically rendered with all its imperfections, embodies the Franciscan reverence for nature and a respect for creation that Bellini shares with the saint.
In yet another respect Bellini parts with tradition in this painting. It was customary during the Italian Renaissance to idealize forms as a way of indicating the presence of divine grace. Images of Christ, his mother and the saints would all resemble the idealized gods of the ancient Greco-Roman world, like Apollo and Aphrodite (Botticelli’s contemporaneous painting comes to mind).
But Saint Francis in Bellini’s picture is a homely man of small stature, with a crooked nose and a balding pate, hardly the Adonis we might reasonably expect from an Italian master. But this lack of idealization is also in keeping with Franciscan humility, the modest saint as he is represented here is remarkably un-beautiful — not dominating the landscape, but living harmoniously within nature’s bounty as brother and fellow creature.
In Bellini’s hands, not only the diminutive, homely saint, but also the animals, birds, plants and even the sun itself seem almost to be incarnations of the divine, and the “poor,” commonplace materials used in the making of the picture — wood, oil, pigments, varnish — are themselves transformed and transfigured by the artist sacramentally, so that the painting itself is a sort of “incarnational” witness revealing the Christ potential in all living things. As the saint himself puts it in his famous Canticle of Brother Sun: By mother earth my Lord be praised, governed by Thee, she hath upraised what for Man’s life is needful. Sustained by thee through every hour, She bringeth forth herb, fruit and flower.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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.”
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.
“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.
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