[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Church leaders already had begun thinking about spiritual responses to racism in 2015 when a shock of events underscored the urgency of that discernment.
A young white supremacist gunman with a fondness for the Confederate flag opened fire June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people. That massacre, along with news reports of arsons at black churches and police shootings of unarmed black men, helped fuel passage at the 78th General Convention of Resolution C019, which called on church officers to develop a churchwide response to racial injustice, and up to $2 million was approved for that work.
The Charleston massacre, in particular, left bishops and deputies “feeling a sense of shock and outrage because I don’t think they thought that that could happen in 2015,” Heidi Kim, staff officer for racial reconciliation, told Episcopal News Service.
Kim had been on the job about a year at that time. Since then, she has helped lead a team of Episcopal Church staff members in carrying out the mandate of Resolution C019 through a framework agreed on by church officers, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who was elected in 2015 as the church’s first black leader.
The racial reconciliation team developed the framework into Becoming Beloved Community, which now is the centerpiece of the Episcopal Church’s racial reconciliation efforts. How to follow through with those efforts will be the core question before the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee when it convenes at the 79th General Convention next week in Austin, Texas.
But racism and racial healing are such big topics, both socially and spiritually, that the discussion is expected to expand well beyond a single resolution, or even a single committee, to include meetings, events and exhibits in all corners of the convention center from July 5 to 13.
“The world needs us to get serious about racial healing, reconciliation and justice,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, said in an email. “That only happens as we tell the truth about our churches and race, proclaim the dream of Beloved Community, practice Jesus’ way of love with one another and repair the breach in our society and institutions.
“I’m eager to see our church sharing the wisdom and resources to support even more local adaptation and engagement with this vision.”
Resolution C019 was the most prominent in a series of resolutions on racism in 2015, and it was hardly General Convention’s first time addressing racism. Resolutions dating back decades have helped guide the church as it responds to racism and atones for its own complicity in racial injustice and support for racist systems, from slavery to segregation. The mandate in 2015 sought to carry those efforts a step further.
“The abomination and sin of racism continue to plague our society and our Church at great cost to human life and human dignity; we formally acknowledge our historic and contemporary participation in this evil and repent of it,” C019 reads. Another resolution, A182, called on the church to address systemic racism at all levels.
Racial reconciliation also was identified by General Convention in 2015 as one of three priorities for the 2016-18 triennium, along with evangelism and care of creation. All three priorities will be highlighted in Austin in three joint sessions of the upcoming General Convention.
Those sessions, named TEConversations, will feature three-member panel discussions on each topic. The TEConversation on racial reconciliation will kick off the series on July 6, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, with panelists Catherine Meeks, who heads the Diocese of Atlanta’s anti-racism commission; the Rev. Nancy Frausto, a “Dreamer” from the Diocese of Los Angeles who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child; and Arno Michaelis, an author and former skinhead. (The evangelism discussion is July 7. Care of creation will be the topic July 10.)
Meeks also is founder of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta. The center will hold a luncheon on racial healing at noon on July 6 at the Hilton Hotel across the street from the Austin Convention Center.
Other exhibits on racial healing are planned for the same day in the exhibit hall, Kim said.
“It’s actually kind of an exciting time,” she said. “The convention will have an opportunity to talk about what it is we’re trying to engage in.” And she expects those conversations to be lively and illuminating, as well as instructive for the coming triennium.
For example, one resolution before the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee (B004) questions whether “anti-racism” should be replaced with a term that better encompasses the spiritual transformation sought in this work. Diocese of Atlanta Bishop Rob Wright is listed as the proposer.
A resolution (A042) submitted separately by the Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism seeks to change the committee’s name by adding “Reconciliation.” A companion resolution (A043) would adjust the committee’s mandate accordingly.
Another resolution (A138) focuses on the church’s track record of diversifying its leadership. The resolution, submitted by the Task Force on the Episcopacy and assigned to the Churchwide Leadership Committee, would give dioceses 60 days after a bishop election to submit demographic info on all nominees.
“Progress towards the church’s goals and aspirations in the diversity of its leadership, including bishops, is dependent to a significant extent on gathering critical data to inform plans to achieve those goals and be faithful to those aspirations,” the Task Force said.
The church’s work on Becoming Beloved Community is detailed at length in the Blue Book report generated by church officers in response to Resolution C019 from 2015. Becoming Beloved Community is broken into four parts that are illustrated as a labyrinth: telling the truth about our churches and race, proclaiming the dream of Beloved Community, practicing the way of love in the pattern of Jesus and repairing the breach in society.
— Frank Logue (@franklogue) October 20, 2017
That framework was finalized in early 2017, Kim said, and it was released to the church that May. About half of the $2 million approved for this work has been spent so far to implement Becoming Beloved Community at the diocesan and congregation levels, and implementation is expected to continue in the new triennium, Kim said.
Becoming Beloved Community is referenced by the Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism in its resolutions assigned to the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee. The stated aim of Resolution A044 is “building capacity for Becoming Beloved Community,” and it recommends a certification framework for the anti-racism training that was mandated by a 2000 resolution. The Committee on Anti-Racism also submitted a resolution to this General Convention (A045) clarifying that training requirement and reminding dioceses of it. And it is proposing a racial reconciliation awards program (A046) to recognize successful local efforts.
Resolution D002 would approve $1 million to provide grants to local ministries engaged in racial reconciliation work. That kind of direct financial support is not included in the scope of the past resolutions that produced and have supported Becoming Beloved Community.
The importance of such efforts has been punctuated over the past three years by the continued shock of current events, from high-profile police shootings to the violent clashes last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters. Kim said she also sees the need for racial healing in how Americans respond to migrants at the Mexican border. And environmental issues often are interwoven with race, as seen in the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight to preserve the tribe’s drinking water and Native Alaskan efforts to protect caribou breeding grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
She also hopes Episcopalians will embrace the work of racial reconciliation as a personal spiritual journey, not as a way to shame those whom we may see as racist.
“We all have our own work to do, so we can’t just externalize the problem of racism,” she said. “We all can be better at being reconcilers and healers.”
Spellers said she finds hope in the visionary work of General Convention in measures such as Resolution C019 from 2015, and she expects that vision to carry the church through the next two weeks of discernment on systemic racism.
“When I look to our church’s work so recently begun toward Becoming Beloved Community, and when I hear today’s fierce racial justice and healing conversations among bishops, deputies and dedicated networks — I am deeply encouraged,” Spellers said.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.