Challenges and inspiration at Union of Black Episcopalians conference
The Union of Black Episcopalians was formed 48 years ago and is dedicated to the ministry of blacks in the Episcopal Church. Its membership includes African Americans, white Episcopalians, and others who seek to ensure that past racial biases in the Episcopal Church and society at large are just that, in the past. It is a confederation of 55 chapters and interest groups throughout the continental United States and the Caribbean.
Members of the Diocese of The Central Gulf Coast with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
On July 31, I arrived in New Orleans, on a day best described in words from Flannery O'Conner: "Yesterday it was 95 with a heat index of 108. Humidity like that saps my energy, and takes my breath away."
The heat index wasn't the only thing that took my breath away during the four-day conference. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to serve as primate of the Episcopal Church, preached at the opening session, held at Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans. Morris Thompson, bishop of Louisiana, invited Bishop Curry to be seated in the bishop’s chair, which had been carved by slaves, but not before he metaphorically performed an exorcism on the chair: "Grant that this chair, stained through the crafts of Satan and human malice, may be cleansed by your abiding grace." Bishop Curry was then seated, to a thunderous round of applause and a standing ovation.
The theme of Bishop Curry's sermon was encapsulated in his repeated use of the sentence "The fruit is in the root." I took that to mean that in order to work through the world's problems, we must get back to living a Christ-like life because we cannot live out our baptismal covenants to respect the dignity of every human being without living and walking the way of Jesus. As Bishop Curry stated over and over again, "If it's not about love, it's not about Jesus." How can we turn a blind eye to a starving child? How can we carelessly dismiss the disenfranchised and marginalized members of our society? How can we listen to divisive political rhetoric and do or say nothing about it? To live out our baptismal covenants means to be bold and to take action, Curry said, for Jesus was bold and took decisive action, speaking up for the poor and marginalized of his time.
But look what happened to him, you may say. He was crucified for his actions. Curry was not advocating that we put ourselves in harm's way, but said there are little things we can do: offering a kind word to a struggling person, driving a cancer patient to a chemotherapy appointment, speaking up when someone makes a racist or off-color comment. After all, "If it's not about love, it's not about Jesus." Bishop Curry ended his sermon by stating that "trouble doesn't always last, and as long as Jesus is with us, who can stand against us?" The overflowing cathedral erupted to thunderous applause. I was left breathless and convinced once again that this man is truly sent by God to lead the Episcopal Church at this time in our history.
The highlight of the next day was a panel discussion by distinguished members of the Episcopal Church, including the Rev. Carl Wright, the Rev. Canon Jamesetta Hammons, and the Rev. Ellis Clifton. They addressed issues impacting the African-American community: black on black crimes, the school-to-prison pipeline, lack of affordable housing and mental health services, and the pattern of shootings of African-American men. While the discussion was painful, the panelists discussed ways in which they had successfully dealt with some of these things in their communities. There appears to be reason for hope, for out of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, we now have two sides of the community talking to one another for the first time. There also appear to be cracks in the code of silence among police officers.
A series of workshops followed. I attended one entitled “The Legacy of Jesus' Church: Racial Reconciliation & Social Justice After the Day of Pentecost," which was moderated by the Rev. Jay Augustine, senior pastor of the historic St. James AME Church in New Orleans. Augustine gave a compelling presentation on why the church is the appropriate place to have discussions and seek solutions to the racial issues that divide us. Again, I was left breathless and my heart was filled with hope.
The highlight of the next day was a thought-provoking address on the concept of racism. The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Director of Religion Program, Goucher College and author of such books as "Black Bodies and The Black Church" and "Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God," presented a controversal theory about the rise of “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Douglas's theory is rooted in her belief that “Stand Your Ground” laws are an extension of the old English law permitting noblemen to guard their castles, which has been extended to the protection of individual persons. Douglas said this cultural norm is fundamental to the American identity and to belief in manifest destiny. It is an Anglo-Saxon idea adopted by the founding fathers. Thus the white American view of racial superiority was based on Anglo-Saxon imperialism. Whiteness became the identity card for assuming leadership in Anglo-Saxon imperialistic society; a black body was not acceptable. Douglas sees this belief underlying the notion that Barack Obama has entered a space where he was never meant to be: a black man in the White House. Thus was the stage set for the rise of Donald Trump and his divisive rhetoric. Whether or not you buy into Canon Douglas's theories, they are, at the least, provocative.
The next day I was inspired by the creation of a task force to study the lack of access to mental health services in the African American community with a mandate to complete its work in one year with an eye towards presenting findings and recommendations to the 2018 General Convention to be held in Austin, Texas.
The closing Eucharist was exhilarating. The preacher was the Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell, who told of her personal journey to ordination. She spoke of the racism she had encountered during her short time in corporate America and the racism she had encountered at her seminary. Yet, she persisted. To paraphrase her words: Perseverance is vital to growing in your faith. God wants his people to persevere no matter what happens and so to learn to overcome obstacles, difficulties, trials, and tribulations and to experience victory in Christ. What inspiring words to conclude the conference! I left the room with a smile on my face and a heart full of hope that things can get better in our society.
Joe McDaniel, Jr. is a parishioner at Christ Church, Pensacola.