[Episcopal News Service] Nearly 200 Episcopalians gathered Jan. 4 in person at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and online to honor Catherine Meeks, founder and executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. The gathering was a celebration of Meeks’ dedication to dismantling racism in the Atlanta metropolitan area and churchwide for more than four decades.
Dozens of speakers, lay and ordained, shared anecdotes about their experiences working with Meeks over the years, expressing their love and respect for her, both professionally and personally.
“I’m particularly grateful for Catherine’s gift of sharing,” Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright said during his opening remarks. “This has been real serious and hard work, and she has known the sharp edges of systemic racism and to stay engaged in the conversation in a positive light. Having had that experience is really phenomenal and deserves a celebration.”
Meeks officially retired on Dec. 31. A successor hasn’t yet been named.
Meeks has engaged in racial justice work her entire adult life, beginning when she was an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. After earning a Ph.D. from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Meeks spent 25 years working at Mercer University in Macon as an assistant dean of women, instructor and assistant professor. While employed at Mercer University, Meeks led the city’s youth violence prevention task for two years. She then went on to work at Wesleyan College, also in Macon, for nine years until she retired from academia in 2008.
Episcopalians celebrate the Feast Day of Absalom Jones on Feb. 13.
Early retirement, however, didn’t stop Meeks from continuing racial justice work. She went on to lead the Diocese of Atlanta’s racial reconciliation commission before founding the Absalom Jones Center in 2017. Named after Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in The Episcopal Church and a prominent abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the center serves as a way for Episcopalians to engage in racial justice work through educational resources, including workshops and a virtual library with media on racial healing. The center also offers travel opportunities to historical sites related to racial justice.
“As a lay woman of color leader in The Episcopal Church, [Meeks] has really set the tone for what might be possible for those of us who very astutely and stubbornly resist a call to any kind of ordained ministry, and the sort of notion that one must be ordained in order to make changes within the church or to lead significant ministries within the church. Dr. Meeks has done that in really profound ways,” said Heidi Kim, chair of The Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s racial justice and healing commission. “I am so honored to call her teacher, mentor, sister, friend.”
Despite retiring from the Absalom Jones Center, Meeks said during the celebration that she still plans to continue racial justice work, albeit at a reduced capacity.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about retirement sabbatical stuff,” said Meeks’ older son, Mbye Meeks. “I know she’ll be on to the next step. We’re happy to see what that’s going to be. The work never stops.”
The celebration concluded with in-person attendees making a champagne toast in Meeks’ honor.
“The world belongs to all of us. Some of us have to be more grounded perhaps than others. But every one of us is responsible for helping to heal the planet, and we can start with ourselves by allowing as much light as possible to shine … so that our own path is a little brighter,” Meeks told the crowd after the toast.
“God bless you and keep you brave, and keep you faithful, and keep you safe, and keep you humble, and keep you understanding that God is the only center of the universe,” she said. “The rest of us are circling and need to be careful that we don’t confuse ourselves with the source of light.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.