Friday, March 13, 2015


After a day of training in coaching skills – mostly listening well and asking provocative questions – we are on to Day 1 of House of Bishops proper. The theme: FOSTERING A CULTURE OF CURIOSITY, COMPASSION, AND COURAGE IN CHRIST.

First the weather report. Chilly and damp. There were occasionally brief drizzles. Most of the time it was raining pretty hard. The rest of the time it was a full-fledged gully washer by Nevada standards.

Synopsis of the day: I feel as if I have been whopped upside the head by a moral 2 x 4 – but in a good way. Sometimes the Church has to get our attention.

Following table check-ins, we prayed the daily office leading into a Meditation on Race/ Color by Bishop Robert Wright of Atlanta. Bishop Wright is always profound and engaging as I know well from my years in Atlanta and as many of us know from his presentation at last year’s conference of The Episcopal Network For Stewardship. I can’t summarize his excellent speech, but there are some points that stuck in my mind. The racial divisions in our nation are deep, painful, and destructive. To the extent the ball is in White America’s court, there are two responses that are worthless copouts (Rob put it more eloquently): denial and self-flagellating guilt. What we need instead is action that “respects the dignity of every human being” and shares power accordingly.

In the afternoon we saw Traces Of The Trade, a documentary in which the wealthy and powerful De Wolf family, blue-blooded Rhode Island Episcopalians, discovered how their forebears were the largest slave traders in America. It was about how slavery funded the building of wealth in “the Deep North.” The film was informative. The basic point is that we cannot transcend our history by ignoring it. Progress depends on awareness, uncomfortable awareness.

Thereafter we were invited by a couple from the De Wolf family to acknowledge our personal complicity in the history of racism and its current perpetuation. I am of two minds about the afternoon: On the one hand, I absolutely agree that unacknowledged evils in our past are toxic, that they must be irradiated like a tumor with the light of truth, and that awareness is the essential catalyst for change. On the other hand, I felt that we fell into precisely the kind of unproductive self-flagellation that Bishop Wright had said we do in lieu of constructive action.

We then celebrated a moving Eucharist in the Kanuga Chapel, enhanced by the music of the Theodicy Jazz Ensemble from Los Angeles, courtesy of Bishop John Bruno. (An aside. I spoke with Bishop Bruno about a personal matter and when I shook his hand to end our talk, he glanced down and said, “You’ve got a new ring.” This guy is good!)

After our afternoon reflecting on the history of slavery, I loved hearing our Bishops belt out Lift Every Voice And Sing. (Not many mostly White groups can do that.) When I say I loved it, I mean "I wept unashamedly” as Howard Cosell used to say. But the sermon by our chaplain, the Rev. Stephanie Spellars, was a surgical indictment of the history of racism in the Episcopal Church. Indeed, our ecclesiastical hands are far from clean. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I did need to hear it.

In the afternoon a panel of Bishop Wayne Smith (Diocese of Missouri), the Rev. Stephanie Spellars, and the couple from the De Wolf Family led a discussion connecting the history of slavery to the current state of race relations exemplified by Ferguson. I did not find these presentations especially helpful, though it was powerful just having Bishop Smith speak to us from his perspective as one who has been in the streets protesting and as one who knows the specific history of how wealth was divided on racial lines in St. Louis through the years. The most important piece of the discussion in my mind is the school to prison pipeline. We now have more African American men in prison than we ever had in slavery. I confess I have not yet read the seminal book on this subject, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. But this seems to be a must for anyone who wants to understand American society in our time.

The discussion question for our tables was: so what are you doing about it? At last we had gotten to the key point. But we had only a very brief time to discuss the question and someone at my table took us off point. So we didn’t really get that far. But the question haunts me.

Here’s what I will lose sleep over tonight and maybe for many nights to come. When the Episcopal Church in Nevada does “outreach” we mean almost exclusively charity, often for the homeless and the hungry. A few also engage in prison ministries. These are good things. I do not wish in any way to deny, denigrate, or downplay the moral virtue of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the imprisoned. That is all good. But it isn't likely to change anything. It doesn’t keep young people of racial or ethnic minorities out of prison. It doesn’t give oppressed people “a hope and a future.”

How might we do that? How might we intervene in the lives of at risk young people to help them succeed? How might we use our buildings, our own educations, our own resources to bless young people who are created in God’s image, who are God’s beloved children, and for whom Jesus died, but they are practically born with prison id numbers tattooed on the foreheads? In Ferguson, the Church is sponsoring a camp for police officers and young Black men to get to know each other. They are working on a plan for young Black men to accompany police officers on patrol. They are still just thinking, looking for ways to break out of the box of fear and violence between Black and White.

The other thing that troubles me is something I confessed at my table today. I know Southern racism well. I grew up with it. I was a Southern racist myself. And I served as a priest in Middle Georgia for 18 years. Racism in the South is old, deep, and real. But it has been tamed a bit. Since the Civil Rights Movement, there are some things White people do not say about Black people. Even if they harbor racism in their hearts, it is simply unacceptable to say such things. Their silence may not yet be sincere. But a line has been drawn, a norm established. However, I frequently hear White people in Episcopal Churches (I mean literally in the Churches, their feet on holy ground) in Nevada say exactly those things about Latinos. I confess I am sometimes shocked and dumbfounded by the things I hear our people say.

Having Latino Ministries embedded in congregations that are also Black and White is an opportunity for us to change the racial dynamics in secular society, instead of having the racial dynamics of secular society dominate our Church life. But we have not yet found a way to actually exploit this opportunity for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentle, neither is there slave nor free, neither is there male nor female for you all are one in Christ” – Do we think there is still Black or White, English or Spanish?) I have heard that one of our congregations is discussing some positive ways they might take on this mission of reconciliation. Perhaps they remember that, according to the Catechism, the mission of the Church is “to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ.” I look forward with hope to seeing what they do and whether others follow their lead.

The Diocese of Nevada never had slaves. But there was a day, amazingly recently, when Black performers, even big name stars, could not stay in the very Las Vegas hotels where they performed. The history of racism touches us. The present reality of racism touches us. What are we as the Body of Christ called to do?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon (us) because God has anointed us to . . ..” ?

Along the way, there were many good personal conversations. And I did some head hunting, horse trading, and reference checking to help match priests to congregations here and elsewhere in the Church. A positive day albeit a very hard one.


Ann said...

Thanks for this. Good to know the Bishops are tackling racism at the retreat.

Unknown said...

Don't know that I would agree that there were no slaves in Nevada. From what I have read, the Chinese used to build the transcontinental railroad were essentially, if not in fact, slaves.

Robert Dabney said...

Thank you for your very sincere and thoughtful reflections, Bishop. As a lifelong member of the church, and a person of African descent, I rejoice in the fact that our church is open to an ongoing discussion of race in both our society and in our church.

My experiences within the church family have been varied. Two years ago, I walked into Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, IL and did not leave during my tenure in that city. I was welcomed into a multicultural congregation that warmed my heart.

A few years before that, while on business in Jackson, MS., I asked a taxi driver to take me to the nearest Episcopal Church as I was there on a Sunday morning. His response took me aback as he inquired "are you sure you want to go there?

When we arrived, he asked me what time I wanted him to pick me up. Since the service was at 11:00 a.m, I asked him to return at 12:30. "I'll be back at 12:00" he responded...a response that elicited my laughter. Well, I was outside the church by 12:00. I have never felt so unwanted in a church. I was not only the object of the stares of the all-white congregation, but those who were in the pews immediately adjacent to my seat chose to move, some discretely and most with audible gasps or outright comments.

I don't believe that behavior is the norm in the church. But I do believe that it points out that yes, we still have room to move in our worship, both in mainstream churches AND in historically black congregations.