[Episcopal Diocese of Western New York] In the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision just a week ago not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown we see how differently blacks and whites view the issues of race. How different our expectations are of how we will be treated by law enforcement. There is fear in the white community and despair in the black community, and violence offers a temporary remedy and a relief from decades of pain and frustration.
The parents of white teen-age sons believe their children will come home safe at night. The parents of color have no reason for such assurance.
Our Presiding Bishop said last week, “All Americans live with the consequences of centuries of slavery, exploitation, and prejudice. The color of one’s skin is often the most visible representation of what divides God’s children one from another.”
This is a highly personal issue for me. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mississippi, in a society where the vestiges of black enslavement existed in a complete segregation of the races. As a boy I was forbidden to experience the gifts and talents and experiences of half of our state’s population. As a consequence of segregation, my early life was culturally and spiritually diminished by the reality of the separation of the races.
I saw firsthand the stranglehold of the Jim Crow laws that had kept African-Americans in an inferior status in the South for more than 100 years after the Civil War. I witnessed firsthand the hatred and violence of whites who were entrenched in power as the grip of segregation was finally broken during the Civil Rights era.
As we continue our walk through Advent and await the arrival of our Savior, we are charged to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” I can think of no better metaphor for the work we are called to do now.
We had initial conversations at our Diocesan Convention about race and poverty and inequality and how those three issues make a negative impact on the lives of all who live in Western New York.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, I thank our African American clergy for inviting our Diocese to think and talk and pray together. On November 25, the Very Rev. Gloria Payne-Carter, chair of the Diocesan Anti-Racism Commission, issued a call for prayer in our congregations for deliverance from complacency and for comfort to the wounded. Dean Will Mebane invited the Diocese to St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 30 for a special “Dialogue with the Dean: Finding Our Way After Ferguson.” Our historic African-American congregation at St. Philip’s, Buffalo invited the Diocese that same day for another discussion on Ferguson and the grand jury decision.
Future conversations in our Diocese on these topics are important because of this dismal statistic: The Buffalo metropolitan region is the most thoroughly segregated region in the United States according to a Rochester Area Community Foundation study of December 2013.
That is a mark of humiliation. That must change.
In the light of this statistic I am calling for action. At its December meeting I will be asking our Diocesan Council to develop a plan of action to further into 2015 the conversation we began at Diocesan Convention. This will be a concrete plan of action, accompanied by specific, accessible, and effective resources to help us to continue to talk about issues of race and segregation, poverty and inequality in Western New York. We must have these conversations together as a Diocese, and we need to move now from talk to action.
For us, this is a Gospel concern. A Gospel society will be a just society where the dignity of every human being is respected. We need to start talking now about how to make this Gospel society a reality.
We as a Diocese are looking at a variety of new ways to do ministry, groundbreaking ways to align ourselves with all our communities, to find places where what we can offer meets the actual needs of the people of Western New York…to be their neighbors.
The Bible is full of questions about “Who is my neighbor?” and “To whom am I a neighbor?” God offers us the opportunity of these conversations into 2015 on racial segregation to live out our faith in a way that strengthens our communities for today, and creates a better region, and a better Diocese, for our children and our grandchildren, our friends along with our neighbors—-where all they have to offer in its God-given diversity will be valued, treasured, and rewarded.
We need to proclaim the vision of a new City of Light, a region of light, and we need to be strong and courageous to do this work to make it reality.
As we move this Advent from darkness into light, my prayer is that these conversations can help us see how Emmanuel-God with us-is breaking through in new ways, all around us, so that we can find the face of God in each other.
The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin
Episcopal Bishop of Western New York