Tensions flare publicly between former Absalom Jones Center director, Atlanta bishop

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 19, 2024
Absalom Jones Center

Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright speaks Oct. 11, 2017, at the opening celebration of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. He is joined for the ribbon cutting by Catherine Meeks, the center’s founding executive director, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Photo: Diocese of Atlanta

[Episcopal News Service] Catherine Meeks, known churchwide as a leading figure in The Episcopal Church’s racial reconciliation efforts, revealed last week that she had filed a disciplinary complaint against Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright, whose diocese worked with Meeks to launch the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing in 2017.

Meeks’ complaint, filed in December 2023 under the church’s Title IV clergy disciplinary canons, accused Wright of “ageism, ableism, microaggressions and abuse of power,” she said in a March 13 email to her newsletter subscribers. Her complaint was “dismissed and characterized basically as a personality conflict,” Meeks said.

By detailing her allegations in public, Meeks has drawn churchwide attention to what appears to have been long-simmering tensions within the Diocese of Atlanta between two of The Episcopal Church’s most prominent Black leaders. Meeks, as the Absalom Jones Center’s founding executive director, is a much-sought trainer and speaker in dioceses across the church on dismantling racism. Wright, as the first Black bishop of Atlanta, has led the Georgia diocese since 2012. He also has served a past term as board chair of General Theological Seminary in New York, and since 2020 has hosted a popular podcast on faith and life.

Meeks’ letter and a written response from Wright suggest their conflict was partly rooted in differing understandings of the Absalom Jones Center’s function – as a diocesan ministry or rather a ministry belonging to the wider church. Its homepage indicates it is both. Based on the letters, the conflict seemed to come to a head last year after Meeks announced her plans to retire. Meeks described sharp disagreements with Wright over the proposed salary of Meeks’ successor and over her push to establish the center as an independent nonprofit.

Wright’s March 16 statement was sent from the Absalom Jones Center’s email account and posted on the diocese’s website. In it, he said he remains “truly grateful” for Meeks’ work as the center’s founding executive director. He clarified that he and Meeks had been informed Feb. 22 by the church’s Title IV Reference Panel that the panel was dismissing Meeks’ complaint with “no action … other than appropriate pastoral response.”

“This rupture in a formerly very generative partnership and the subsequent events sadden me deeply,” Wright wrote. “I remain committed to building on the good work Dr. Meeks and our colleagues began at the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing.”

Meeks was 70 in 2017 when she and the diocese founded the Absalom Jones Center. Now 78, she accuses Wright of openly doubting her leadership from the start because of her age. She also alleges he undercut the center’s process of recruiting someone to replace her when she retired at the end of last year, and he has failed to maintain the center’s robust programming after she retired. Meeks added that Wright has said “things about me that were unprofessional and hurtful” to the center’s staff, board and search committee.

Her descriptions contrasted sharply with the celebratory tone struck in early January by Meeks’ many admirers when they, including Wright, showered her with praise upon her retirement. Meeks now suggests Wright’s own words belied a hidden antagonism.

“I cannot imagine why someone would offer what appeared to be enthusiastic public accolades for me and then would be so disparaging in private,” Meeks wrote. “It will be a long while before I recover from the last six months of my work which should have been a time of celebration and preparing for the next chapter for myself and the center. I became quite ill as a result of the toxicity and stress from it.”

The center has operated without a director since Meeks retired, though Wright said in his written statement that the diocese was close to selecting an interim executive director and continues to serve the church’s racial reconciliation efforts.

ENS reached out to Wright and his staff by phone and email seeking additional comment for this story. Easton Davis, Wright’s canon for communications and digital evangelism, responded by email and highlighted several diocesan online posts and videos demonstrating the center’s continued activities this year.

Davis also pointed to a 40-minute documentary about the history of the Absalom Jones Center that was produced by the diocese and released in December. It opens with a 2014 speech by Wright about the diocese’s commitment to racial reconciliation work.

Meeks, when reached by phone, confirmed details about the center’s nearly seven-year operation but declined to elaborate on her allegations against Wright. “I’m just trying to tell the truth and move on down the road,” she told ENS.

Meeks’ Title IV complaint against Wright has coincided with renewed churchwide scrutiny of those Episcopal canons over concerns that bishops are not held to the same standards of behavior and accountability as other clergy. Under Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s direction, the church launched a new public webpage on Feb. 22 aimed at improving the process’ transparency while including chronological information on six cases pending against bishops. Each of those six cases had already become public in various ways. The Title IV page does not mention Meeks complaint against Wright, which never advanced to a hearing and was not widely known until Meeks revealed it last week.

Complaints against bishops typically are received by an intake officer, who is assigned by the presiding bishop. Since August 2023, Curry has assigned that role to the Rev. Barbara Kempf, who filled a newly created position on Curry’s staff. Canons require the intake office to refer the matter to the three-member Reference Panel when the allegations, if true, would constitute a canonical violation of “clear or weighty importance.” The panel’s three members are the presiding bishop, the intake officer and chair of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, currently Bishop Chilton Knudsen.

The Reference Panel can choose from a range of follow-up options, from closing a case with no discipline to referring it to a hearing panel, which then conducts proceedings similar to a trial. An “appropriate pastoral response” is one possible recommendation when no other action is taken, as was in the case in Meeks’ complaint against Wright.

Absalom Jones Center becomes key church institution in reconciliation efforts

The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing is named for Absalom Jones, the first Black Episcopal priest, whose feast day is celebrated every Feb. 13. The Diocese of Atlanta and churchwide leaders, including Curry, attended an opening celebration for the center in October 2017, at a time when the church appeared to be gaining momentum in realizing its long-stated goals of confronting its past complicity with white supremacy and fostering greater understanding and healing across all races.

The Episcopal Church first formalized its support for the Absalom Jones Center in a 2017 memorandum of understanding with the Diocese of Atlanta. That document, which acknowledges the leadership of both Wright and Meeks, affirmed that the Absalom Jones Center would be “a part of the Diocese of Atlanta and under the direction of the bishop of Atlanta. The Diocese of Atlanta shall have complete discretion as to the details of the operation of the Center, including decisions as to personnel, materials and expenses.”

Memorandum of understanding

The Episcopal Church has formally supported the Diocese of Atlanta and the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center since 2017 through a memorandum of understanding that has gone through several updates in recent years.

The Episcopal Church also has committed a total of $200,000 to the center through that initial agreement and subsequent annual updates. A proposed update for 2024 is being finalized and would include an additional $40,000 of support, according to the church’s Office of Public Affairs.

Curry, the church’s first Black presiding bishop, embraced racial reconciliation as one of the church’s top three priorities, along with evangelism and creation care, when his nine-year term began in 2015. In 2017, his staff launched Becoming Beloved Community, which now is the church’s cornerstone framework for engaging dioceses and congregations with the work of reconciliation. The Absalom Jones Center is listed as a resource in its summary document.

Meeks, a retired professor of African American studies, already was well known in the church for her anti-racism work as chair of the Diocese of Atlanta’s Commission on Dismantling Racism. Starting in 2016, she also led the diocese in a series of pilgrimages to historic sites of racist violence to honor the 600 or so people documented to have died from lynching in Georgia.

“Racism is a spiritual issue, and it needs to be dealt with in that way,” Meeks told Episcopal News Service in 2016 for a story about the commission’s trainings. “Dismantling racism is part of spiritual formation, the same as going to church every Sunday.”

To support that work, the Absalom Jones Center was established as “a new resource for the worldwide Episcopal Church” in a diocesan-owned building surrounded by four historically Black colleges in an area of the city known as Atlanta University Center. It’s stated mission was to “provide parishes and dioceses around the world with the support to address racism head-on through racial reconciliation and healing.”

“The creation of the center aligns with The Episcopal Church and our diocese’s commitment to reach across the borders and boundaries that divide the human family of God,” the Diocese of Atlanta said in an online post announcing the center’s creation.

As executive director, Meeks has been the unmistakable face and voice of the center, whether promoting its services in a booth at the exhibit hall of the 79th General Convention in 2018 or traveling from diocese to diocese leading workshops and trainings. In September 2023, for example, as Meeks was preparing to retire, she was welcomed warmly in Minnesota as headliner of that diocese’s weekend of anti-racism events.

“She is a tremendous person. I have immense respect for her,” Joe McDaniel told ENS. McDaniel, a member of the church’s Executive Council from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, first got to know Meeks in 2017 when she helped McDaniel and a co-chair establish Central Gulf Coast’s Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

“She is just a loved figure throughout the church,” McDaniel said. “I hate to see what has happened to her and the center.”

Increasing strain in relationship between Wright and Meeks

Behind the scenes, Meeks’ relationship with Wright was deteriorating, according to the letter she released last week, sent under the heading of her new venture, Turquoise & Lavender.

The Absalom Jones Center was “never simply ‘a ministry of the Diocese of Atlanta,'” Meeks wrote. She recounted the center’s many successes but said Wright’s attempts at “dismantling the center” began from her earliest days as its leader.

After the center opened, Meeks said she invited Wright to visit her in her office, and “before even taking a seat, he asked if I had found someone to replace me, a younger person?” Without a younger leader, the center already was at risk of failing, he told her, according to Meeks description of the encounter.

In early 2023, as she began to focus on her pending retirement, she discussed the center’s leadership transition with Wright and the Rev. Matthew Heyd, chair of the center’s advisory board at the time. Heyd, who had joined the board in 2022, was preparing in spring 2023 to become bishop coadjutor in the Diocese of New York.

In July 2023, the center launched a formal search for a new executive director, but Meeks said in her letter the search “was halted in a very strange manner over disagreements about the salary for the new executive director.” In the center’s posting on the ENS jobs page, the position’s salary range was listed as “$115,000-$125,000 plus full benefits,” before that post was removed from the listings.

Meeks told ENS that as an employee of the Diocese of Atlanta, she was collecting an annual salary of $75,000 when she retired. Her total compensation approached $100,000, which did not include health insurance because she was already on Medicare. Meeks declined to say more about the internal disagreements over the position’s future compensation, except that she though the salary needed to be more than $75,000.

“You couldn’t live off of that in Atlanta,” Meeks said.

After additional conversations with Wright, “the bishop halted the entire transition process on the grounds that he did not know what we were doing,” Meeks wrote in her letter. She added that Heyd resigned as board chair in the middle of these discussions “because the process was not moving forward in a productive manner.”

It is unclear when Heyd resigned, as it was not widely publicized. Heyd was ordained a bishop in May 2023 and installed as bishop diocesan of New York in February 2024. When contacted by ENS to confirm Meeks’ claims, he declined to comment on the reasons for his resignation but offered encouragement for Meeks and the center.

“I’m honored to be Catherine Meeks’ friend and I’m grateful for the time that I spent on the Absalom Jones Center board. I’m hopeful for the center’s future,” Heyd said in a written statement provided by the Diocese of New York.

 

Wright, in his written response to Meeks’ letter, said the diocese began a process in January 2023 “to determine next steps” after Meeks stated her plan to retire at the end of the year. He said he chose to pause the search for a new leader because “it became clear that the center would benefit from additional clarification around its organizational structure, financial sustainability and the scope of the executive director’s role.”

“Indeed, we are moving forward on a number of fronts and have great hopes for the future,” Wright continued. Since Meeks’ retirement, the center has appointed a head trainer for dismantling racism, launched a campaign to recruit new trainers and reduced its facilities costs. The center’s website also shows that it has maintained a full schedule of dismantling racism training classes through the end of this year.

“In addition to an expanded number of dismantling racism trainings, we are also exploring a new program partnership with the Fearless Dialogues organization, and working with the center’s staff to offer programming for both college students at nearby campuses and the wider community.

“We are actively in conversation with an interim executive director candidate. Our work begun years ago continues to bless God’s people,” Wright wrote.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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