Closing the loop on racial reconciliation

Two Virginia parishes reckon with their Confederate histories

By Heather Beasley Doyle
Posted Mar 16, 2017

[Episcopal News Service] He felt attacked, and says so, specifically choosing the word to convey his strength of emotion. Yes, he felt personally attacked. But A.W. “Buster” Lewis also felt that R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia–his parish–“as I knew it, was being attacked and that we needed to do something about it.”

Lewis’s feelings first welled up in the summer of 2015, when the vestry of R.E. Lee Memorial decided to explore the idea of changing its name of 114 years. The decision came in the wake of the June 2015 shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left three wounded and nine dead. Quick on the heels of the shooting, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution at its 78th General Convention urging “…all persons, along with public, governmental, and religious institutions, to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.”

A drawing of R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia.

Confederate flags were not the issue in question at R. E. Lee, a reasonably large parish of 465 members in a small town of some 7,200 residents. Lexington is home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are buried there, and the Appalachian Trail wends its way north just a few miles away. This university town’s rural surroundings and deep historical roots blend into its own ecosystem—one that feeds R.E. Lee.

“[Our parish is] a rather diverse community on the conservative-liberal spectrum,” says the Rev. Tom Crittenden, rector of R.E. Lee Memorial.

In that diverse setting, with the Charleston massacre looming large in the country’s conscience, a parishioner had written a letter to the vestry about the church’s name. The parishioner “just wanted to go on record that the name was not helpful to the mission of the church, and asked the vestry to consider changing the name,” says Crittenden. Given “the context of those killings and the Confederate memorabilia,” Crittenden says, “when [the vestry] received the letter, there was a general awareness that the name was on some level problematic.’’ With that awareness and with the letter as a catalyst, a discussion of its name opened up among R.E. Lee Memorial’s 465 members.

That same summer, just 138 miles to the east at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley spoke from the pulpit about the Confederate symbols in his church, long known as “the Cathedral of the Confederacy.” During the Civil War, Richmond was the capitol of the Confederate States of America. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, worshipped at St. Paul’s and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was a member.

When Adams-Riley preached 11 days after the Charleston shooting, he spoke about the church’s visible, tactile links to the Confederacy. St. Paul’s vestry member Linda Armstrong remembers hearing that “it’s time for us to look at what message that sends to others.” The rector also spoke on “hate, white supremacy and white privilege,” she says. “It did make people think—people go to church and don’t really look around.”

With that, Adams-Riley had set St. Paul’s on its own path to discerning how the parish’s past and its adornments square up with its current identity and values.

A Sunday morning worship service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Gail Goldsmith

From Washington National Cathedral to the Diocese of Maryland, discussions linking history with the national conversation about race have sprung up across the Episcopal Church. Still, those conversations often feel stilted, defensive, too shallow or well-meaning—and consequently, miss the point.

For racial reconciliation efforts to hit their stride, the conversations must transcend the dynamics of a typical daily exchange.  Meaningful racial reconciliation means digging deep on an emotional level, says Heidi Kim, the Episcopal Church’s staff officer for racial reconciliation.

“Part of why we cannot have open and vulnerable conversations about racism is because there has been so much shame and blame around racism,” Kim says. People of color are shamed for who they are, while white people are blamed for racism. “We have to do better [than that],” she says.

Lewis didn’t feel good about the conversation at R.E. Lee Memorial from the get-go. “The vestry, in my point of view, mishandled the whole issue,” he says. The governing body decided to consider the name change when many parishioners were out of town for summer vacation, and Lewis felt a lack of transparency starting with those first meetings.

Moreover, “I felt that the members for generations really, literally, had lived with this name almost as a source of pride,” he says. Since joining the church in 1972, Lewis says he had only heard one person question the name until the issue surfaced in 2015.

Crittenden describes a different experience. “I came here nine years ago and the name of the church was a topic of random conversation,” he says. The rector points out that his church was founded in 1840, more than a generation before the Civil War. Originally founded as Latimer Parish, it became Grace Episcopal Church in 1842. Robert E. Lee worshipped there after the war, while president of Washington College (today’s Washington and Lee University). The church became R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903, 33 years after the Confederate general’s death. “The church was not founded in honor of Lee,” Crittenden says.

The parish considered its name for four months with various activities, including town hall-style forums, small group discussions and a congregational survey. A deep divide quickly emerged between members who saw the name as “anachronistic” and out of sync with the parish’s mission, and those for whom the name expresses a “deeper history of the church within the community and Lee’s role at the church,” Crittenden explains.

When the issue came to a vote in November 2015, the vestry decided that the name change needed a supermajority to pass. It failed by one vote. The congregation has yet to recover.

This kind of outcome wouldn’t surprise Kim. “There’s no magic bullet” for success with racial reconciliation, she says—the process hinges on how people approach the work, and each other. Talking about race, even in a veiled way, requires a willingness to value everyone as the expert on their own life experience, rather than elevating a select few as experts, she says. From start to finish, “being in right relationship has to be more important than being right,” Kim adds.

A similar sentiment guides Don Edwards, founder of Justice and Sustainability Associates, a for-profit management consulting firm that facilitates “just and sustainable agreements around land use.” With years of land-use experience under its belt, JSA accepted its first racial reconciliation project about 10 years ago. As well as navigating the intersection of land and race, they have also worked with a handful of churches, including St. Paul’s. “Contextually, this is an area that is expanding,” Edwards says. “The Episcopal Church in the South is a particular portal” for such discussions about race.

Relics of the past, whether a name, plaques or needlepoint kneelers, ignited the conversations at both parishes. And through them, long-dead congregants live on, as they do through their descendants, some of whom attend the same churches that their families did generations ago.

“There is an element that we want to introduce that makes it as safe as possible for people to talk about their [ancestors] without having to take ownership of the choices their relations made,” Edwards says. In practice, this means understanding the range of views in a congregation, organizing small group discussions, fostering mutual respect, training facilitators and keeping a watchful eye on participants during emotional discussions

Adams-Riley credits Edwards with cultivating “a sense of welcoming one another and a sense of people being invited to share from the heart; a sense of honoring one another” at St. Paul’s. About 100 people attended the parish’s two prayerful conversations in August 2015.

Armstrong remembers well the conversations she attended as a member of St. Paul’s. When congregants had settled into groups of eight to 10 people, someone said that African-Americans find the Confederate battle flag offensive. “I don’t know that that had ever been spoken in a group, and I think people heard it,” she says.

With Edwards’s task completed, St. Paul’s moved forward. Confederate flag images inside the church were removed. Other items connected to the Confederacy remained—and their meaning is currently being reframed. And the History and Reconciliation Initiative formed. Armstrong chairs the group, which includes a history working group, another on liturgy and music and a third known as the memorial working group.

Working with a four-year plan, the history working group has dug into church archives and found other ways to understand St. Paul’s history. Once that process has wrapped up, the music and liturgy working group will figure out how those elements lend themselves to racial reconciliation.

Ultimately, the group aims to memorialize its past, keeping in mind “that part of our history is oppressive and it’s brutal,” Armstrong says. In the meantime, the congregation’s “prayerful conversations” continue, in the form of potluck discussions.  At the next potluck, in April, congregants will watch and discuss the documentary “Traces of the Trade.” The film’s director and producer, Katrina Brown, will be on hand for the event.

“We want to tell a whole and honest history [of St. Paul’s],” says the Rev. Melanie Mullen, Episcopal Church director of reconciliation, justice and creation care. Until March 1, Mullen worked as downtown missioner at St. Paul’s.

That desire holds the congregation together, Armstrong says. The process hasn’t been seamless, or easy. “It’s complicated…just the chatter was emotional for people,” she adds. While not everyone has gotten involved, most of the parish’s 450 active members have. “People have a sense, really, of being energized by this,” says Adams-Riley.

Armstrong expounds upon this sentiment. Although the word reconciliation implies an external reckoning or an apology, she expects an internal shift. The parish’s truth-seeking process “should transform not just who we’re seen as, but who we really are,” she says. As parishioners transform, they hope that St. Paul’s reputation as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy,” too, will metamorphose into the “Cathedral of Reconciliation.”

And, although, racial reconciliation is a ministry of the Episcopal Church, “Not everyone will feel called to this ministry,” Kim says, “and that’s okay.” She discourages congregations considering racial reconciliation just because “it’s the right thing to do,” or the ministry du jour.

About 10 people who favored the name change at R.E. Lee Memorial, including two families with children, left in the wake of the vote according to parishioner Lacey Lynch. Lynch also rooted for the name change but wasn’t surprised when it didn’t pass. For now, Lynch and her family have stayed. With the vote behind them, though, fewer parishioners participate in church life. While the post-vote exodus was small, the tone of parish life feels dramatically different.  Lynch points to an “underlying tension; it’s hard to describe it.”

Like Lynch, Lewis has stuck with his parish, despite feeling attacked.  He thinks—and hopes—that the name change question has been put firmly behind them. For her part, Lynch articulates a different wish.  “I hope that there can be further discussion on [the name change],” she says, “because I don’t see it as politically correct, I see it as addressing what the history of the Confederacy means.”

R.E. Lee Memorial did not hire a consultant when considering its name, but the parish has done so to help in healing its resulting rifts.“I think the discussion and then the vote was a wake-up call,” Crittenden says.  “It revealed differences in the congregation that “mirror[ed] the divisions that were in our country in the last election.”

Guided by the consulting firm, the parish is “discerning how we more fully move to unity as a congregation, as a church family, and focus on our call to serve,” Crittenden explains.  The process, Lewis says, is going well. Nothing is more important to the R.E. Lee community right now than seeing it through, Crittenden says.

Advocates articulate solid reasons for choosing the path of racial reconciliation, from repentance to creating a more just world. Edwards, the consultant, an Episcopalian who grew up attending a black Episcopal church, adds another: With dwindling attendance at Episcopal churches, “you should think about the fact that where demand decreases, supply contracts.” A racially reconciled church opens its doors to a broader spectrum of humanity and is less likely to die out.

When you see any white Episcopal church, you have to ask, “What black church spun off from this church?” Edwards says. Reuniting predominantly white churches with black churches founded by white Episcopalians just makes sense, he says—and can only happen when congregants actually talk about race and their past. That reunion, “the closing of the loop,” as Edwards calls it; “there’s a kind of elegance to that and that motivates me because these people all share a religion, they all share a belief in God—one God.”

— Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist based in Massachusetts.


Comments (23)

  1. Ronald Davin says:

    Would that al lof us had the faith of Robert E, Lee, and he was an Episcopalian at that.

    “We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.
    As quoted in A Life of General Robert E. Lee (1871), by John Esten Cooke”

  2. Rosemary Gooden says:

    Heidi Kim’s statement, “People of color are shamed for who they are” is unclear and problematic. What kind of shaming is going on? How is the shaming expressed? What do you mean by shame?
    What evidence exists that affirms your assertion?

    1. Tod Roulette says:

      Spend a day in my shoes, sister!

      1. Rosemary Gooden says:

        For the record, I am a woman of color who is challenging Kim’s assertion of shame.

    2. Israel Paul says:

      Afro-Americans are shamed because most Afro-Americans women wear wigs because back in the 50s when they were hired by whites, the whites would time them to cover up their hair because to whites black hair is ugly and today in the minds of black females from 4 yrs old to 90 yrs old they believe in their hearts that the hair that comes from India and other countries is their real hair and you can’t even tell them that is not their hair, black men also cut their hair shot or balled because it acceptable to whites and blacks. Don’t believe me? Look at black people on the news and see how many black women don’t wear wigs that are straight hair and black men with very short hair. we are the only race on earth that are forced to style our hair to please white people. Oh and ah’dum, Ms. Gooden. Do you wear one of the wigs?

  3. Terry Francis says:

    Instead of saying “spend a day in my shoes” why don’t you at least attempt to answer her questions, brother?

    1. Rosemary Gooden says:

      Thank you for your comment.

  4. Ben Stein says:

    Robert E. Lee kept the nation from a long guerrilla war after Appomatox. He was a genius war fighter but when the fight ended he stugged for peace blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

  5. Sarah McDermott says:

    My family has attended St. Paul’s in Richmond, and I talked to my children about the issue when St. Paul’s was having discussions about reconciliation and the worship space. My child pointed out that the primary function of the worship space is about worship, welcome, and equality in the eyes of God. That’s where my child saw some of the plaques, symbols, etc. in the worship space as at odds with the goal of providing a space of radical welcome. At the same time, my child thought there should be space to recognize the history of the space and thought an exhibit outside of the worship space with information about the history of the church and artifacts from its past should be displayed. Historic churches are places rich in history, but they are much more than that. They are places for the worship of God. Therein lies some of the tension. (By the way, I am someone who appreciates the history of place and the sense we are connected to those people who sat in the pews before we did. My ideal vacation involves visits to as many historic churches and cathedrals as possible.) I know these types of questions about history and tradition can be contentious. I do appreciate that the discussions are happening, while also recognizing they can be painful to people on different sides of the issue. Peace.

  6. Gayle Fisher-Stewart says:

    From a woman of color.. your hair is nappy, your skin looks like dirt, your lips are thick. Your men are criminals and thugs. These are just a few of the ways in which shame has been visited upon black people.

    1. Kim Glenn says:

      I have honestly never heard a white person say that to a black person. (But I have had my black friends tell me about “ashy” skin. I’d never heard that expression before gym class in 1972.) I love you Gayle. Think the world of you Gayle. But these are expressions I’ve heard black people say to each other.

  7. Terry Francis says:

    From a man of color, I have never felt “shame” from those derogatory remarks or descriptions, only pity for the people giving them. Bigoted remarks are never going to make me feel shame.

    1. Tina Lajoy says:

      Exactly, those bigoted remarks never made me feel ashamed. My parents instilled pride in me for who we are as loving christians. They instilled love in us through biblical teachings I never felt ashamed when I went to school with my hair platted or because of my dark skin. I remember a teacher of color being surprised that I was not uncomfortable with my hair being neatly platted even after she made the comment that her daughter would die if she sent her to school with her hair that way I was not bothered by her comments and thought it funny but I do remember it and it was 50 years ago. I was already strongly grounded in who I was at 8 years old and have never felt inferior to anyone nor ashamed of my look I love myself and all people as Jesus taught us to even when I am disappointed in them and possibly ashamed of their less than loving ways.

  8. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    Gayle – is this still happening? I from a South Asian country. In the past, both white and black people have commented on my features & accent sometimes derogatorily – learnt not to let these offend me.

  9. Sonya Boyd3 says:

    I recall hearing a story that Lee took communion with an African -American man who approached
    the altar one Sunday morning following the end of the Civil War. The congregation sat in adtonishment until Lee, too, followed the man and received the sacraments. I hope this story is true. If it is, it demonstrates integrity, character, and a belief in reconciliation. We can all learn from this story.

    1. robert hunter says:

      The story ain’t true—-No one has produced the name of the man

  10. Ted Foley says:

    While I appreciate the reporting on the efforts of these congregations, I find the focus on ‘history’ to be problematic. While it’s important to know the history of how we got here, if we focus on it too much we might fail to recognize the racism that exists in our church today.
    For example, the article points out that the vestry decided that a “super majority” was required to consider a name change. Changing the rules of the game in mid-stream is one way that racism is perpetuated. (Think about voter ID laws. In some states US citizens cannot exercise their constitutional right to vote because the rules of the game were changed.) Would the vestry have decided that a super majority would be required if the motion before them was whether to keep the name “R. E. Lee Memorial”?
    I’m sure that the vestry did not intend to make a racist decision but that was the result. Beware of changing the rules.

  11. Doug Desper says:

    I’m curious enough to wonder why people who would take offense at Robert E. Lee would want to attend the R.E. Lee Memorial Church to start with, and then work to change the name. A young black man set fire to a cross on the lawn of a local Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia last week. That has nothing to do with African Americans as a group. So, likewise, if a racist bigot appropriates Southern imagery (a flag), that does not call for the wide brush to eradicate all things and all people Southern .

  12. Terry Francis says:

    Sonya, that story is true. The History Channel had an excellent documentary about Lee and the Civil War awhile back. He did indeed kneel next to a black man and they both received the sacraments together. It was the final scene shown in that documentary.

    1. robert hunter says:

      The story ain’t true—-No one has produced the name of the man
      Who produced the documentary for the History Channel. Who were the actors who portrayed the Black man and Lee kneeling together

    2. robert hunter says:

      The story ain’t true—-No one has produced the name of the man
      Who produced the documentary for the History Channel. Who were the actors who portrayed the Black man and Lee kneeling together
      Hope this comment is not blocked

  13. F William Thewalt says:

    I leave the name of a church solely up to its parishioners. However, it seems rather silly to remove the name of a man who was an important part of U.S. history. In my memory, it was the Soviet Union that re-wrote history to achieve its ends.

  14. William R. Peterson says:

    My ancestors fought at Vicksburg, and Northern Virginia, at Gettysburg, and they were at Appomattox at the surrender. I feel pain in my heart that this Union of North and South, borne of the Godly soul of Abraham Lincoln, is dismissed so easily by divisive secularists who have taken over the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA). My ancestors were Union cavalry and infantry fighting for preservation of the Union. Slavery was never an issue with them, one way or the other. But American unity and freedom for every person was. I have lived in many places in the South for over 60 years. ECUSA, now TEC, has done itself and us a great disservice. When you see the words “consultant” and “discernment” you know there is trouble ahead. “Guided by the consulting firm, the parish is “discerning how we more fully move to unity as a congregation, as a church family, and focus on our call to serve,” Crittenden explains.”
    Why does a congregation of Virginians need religious guidance from a consultant living in Massachusetts?
    Be careful, this is your (our) heritage you are destroying in the name of current political secularism. You can’t deny history, only understand it. At some point, if this continues, you will be asked to stand by and watch the removal of crosses from the old Custis-Lee property we reverently call Arlington Cemetery. The promotion of peace and love does not require that we destroy the memory of those who went before us.

    William R. Peterson
    Wye Parish, Maryland

Comments are closed.