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.

“Lord, Save Us!” A Sermon for the Sunday after Charlottesville

I am struggling. I am afraid.

As I’ve watched events unfold this week, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. I’ve struggled to find a way from our world and our lives into the gospel. It’s not that the gospel doesn’t speak to our situation. It most certainly does. it’s that the situation keeps changing and each day brings new horrors, new fears, new challenges. In this week when we observed the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we seem to be on the brink of nuclear war—closer to that catastrophe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All week, I kept thinking back to what it was like for me as a student in West Germany in 1979-1980; where scars from World War II were still present, and all around were reminders of the threat of catastrophic, nuclear war.

By the end of the week, the president was threatening to go to war with Venezuela.

We learned this week that 2016 was the hottest year in the recorded history of our planet.

This weekend we have witnessed in Charlottesville the hatred and violence unleashed by white supremacists, emboldened by a national culture that seems unwilling to name and reject hate and white supremacy. We have seen a young woman murdered by one of the white supremacist protesters. Views that might have been unthinkable a decade ago have become mainstream, and people who hold those views are embedded at the heart of our political and civic culture. While I was heartened to see the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of Virginia and other priests, among whom several I know personally, standing witness against that violence and hatred, the reality is that many, too many, white Christians equate Christianity with whiteness, white supremacy, and with American nationalism. These are sins we need to call out and name as evil. While it is easy to point fingers at others, it is important that we examine ourselves, to see where those views are embedded in our selves. Continue reading

Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!

Racism, the university, and the “progressive” city.

Sis Robinson, Associate Professor at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has written an essay about her research on five “hyper-liberal” cities: Madison, Evanston, IL, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. Her conclusions:

My research shows that one reason is white people’s separation from the lives of people of color.  White professionals in these cities can go entire days without seeing any black or brown people. As a result, they don’t see or hear overt racism in their own daily lives, and it becomes easy to believe that it isn’t actually happening anywhere.

Also, many of us white, liberal-minded people consider ourselves “post-racial,” and accept no responsibility for racism in our community.  We understand racial disparity as a systemic issue, but feel powerless to do anything about it.

Indeed, we have also staked our identities on the belief that we live in communities that are open and fair to all. The idea that we need to change the very systems we have been invested in nurturing threatens our very sense of self.

I look forward to reading her book: Networked Voices: Race, Journalism, and Progressive Voices.