Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 5: The growing importance of anti-racism work

As with any vocational transition, beginning a new call as rector brings with it all sorts of expectations and assumptions. There is the usual round of pastoral responsibilities, sacraments, preaching, pastoral care. There are the countless administrative tasks, and there are the unique emphases that are connected to the particular life and charisma of a congregation as well to its geographical location. I expected to be deeply involved in ministry and advocacy around homelessness when I was imagining what my ministry would be like at Grace. I should have expected that there would be a significant civic role as well, although as I point out in my previous post, how that role emerged and evolved over the decade of my ministry at Grace was surprising.

Even more surprising is the emergence of another significant aspect of my and Grace’s ministry: racism and racial inequity. It’s not that racism hadn’t been a concern of mine earlier in life. I had taken courses in African-American history, read James Cone and Katie Cannon, learned from African-American classmates in Divinity School. I had seen racism in Boston, moving there just a few years after the anti-bussing protests when passions still ran high and the effects of racism were obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

When we moved South in 1994, I encountered new forms of racism. At Sewanee, I taught at one of the bastions of the Lost Cause, where the Yankees’ dynamiting of the university’s cornerstone was recorded in the stained glass windows of the narthex of All Saints’ Chapel and a full-length portrait of Leonidas Polk, the “Battling Bishop” in his confederate gray uniform, prayer book in one hand and sword in the other, hung in Convocation Hall, where faculty meetings and important receptions took place. It was also a place where faculty had taken stands for racial justice during the Civil Rights Era, and the entire seminary faculty had walked out when the Board of Trustees refused to desegregate the Episcopal seminary in the fifties.

In Tennessee and South Carolina where I lived for a combined 15 years, II had seen first-hand the deep inequities between black and white, the chasm between the economic achievement, educational achievement, health and mortality. I also saw the segregation of churches, St. Philip’s was the largely African-American, small Episcopal Church that had been founded by the good people of Christ Church who didn’t want to worship with their African-American servants. In Greenville, I saw the sharp dividing line between rich white, and desperately poor African-American neighborhoods, the literal wall dividing them dividing two worlds as completely as the Berlin Wall used to divide that city.

I also dealt with the Episcopal Church’s uncomfortable and inadequate reckoning with its past. Many of those who worshiped at our churches owned the sub-standard properties that were rented to low-income people. Earlier generations had been plantation and slave owners, and their descendants continued to be members of our congregations and generous in their financial support.

I thought I had left all that behind when I moved to Madison. I quickly realized that Madison was deeply divided on racial lines, that African-Americans constituted a much higher percentage of people experiencing homelessness than they did in the overall population. I soon discerned how few African-Americans, other than homeless people were on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Madison. I understood racism was an important issue for the nation, for the church, for our society but there seemed to be other matters of greater urgency.

That all changed in 2013. In that year, the Wisconsin Council on Families and Children (now Kids Forward) issued its Race to Equity report that detailed the huge disparities in academic and economic achievement, incarceration rates, health outcomes and mortality rates between the white and African-American populations of Wisconsin and especially Dane County. Also that year, the Rev. Alex Gee, jr., wrote an article in the Wisconsin State Journal entitled “Justified Anger” in which he shared some of his experiences being an African-American man in Madison. Suddenly, the urgency and importance of addressing racism at Grace Church seemed paramount.

Over the next few years, a task force calling itself “Creating More Just Community” brought together Grace members who have a passion for working on issues related to racism. We brought in speakers; we explored making connections with our close neighbors at the Dane County Jail. We joined MOSES, a coalition of churches and religious communities, black and white, from across Dane County that works on issues of criminal justice. With them we hosted press conferences, even a forum for governor’s candidates during the most recent campaign. We have had a months-long parish-wide dialogue on racism that recently concluded; a program that we are now offering to other congregations.

We have done a great deal over the last six years, but looking back it seems like we haven’t done nearly enough, nor have we accomplished much. The racial inequities in our community are as profound as ever. As a congregation, we are as predominantly white as we have ever been. On top of all that, our nation is more divided than ever.

Still, I don’t regret any of what we’ve done. If I do have regrets, it’s that we haven’t done enough. It is work that must continue on the parish level, in the community, and in our hearts. It’s necessary work that is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be faithful followers of him unless we engage with the racism in our nation’s past, our community’s present, and its lingering presence in American Christianity as it expressed and experienced at Grace and throughout the church. What form that work will take will be dependent on the people who lead it, the changing context in which we live, and historical developments that we can’t predict and for which we cannot plan.