Finding ‘Sacred Ground’: Thousands connect with Episcopal Church’s film-based series on racism’s historic roots

Jenny Fife introduces Sacred Ground to the discussion circle that Fife formed at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, Va. Photo/courtesy of Jenny Fife

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.

Children in 1937 walk along dirt paths connecting farm cabins on land once known as the Pettway Plantation in the isolated central Alabama community of Gee’s Bend. The Black families photographed by the Farm Security Administration were “living under primitive conditions.” Many of them, descendants of slaves, still bear the last name of the former plantation owner, Pettway. Photo/Arthur Rothstein, via Library of Congress

“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.”

The Sacred Ground series draws upon a variety of resources.

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.”

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