Rector's Ramblings May 1, 2019
I am attending our spring Diocese of GA Clergy Conference at Honey Creek with the rest of our clergy team. It’s an opportunity to gather with the clergy of the diocese for prayer and learning that is offered twice per year. Our bishop expects clergy to attend barring personal or parish emergencies. The speakers have varied from authors and theologians to musicians and storytellers. Some invite us into a new way of thinking, and others encourage a new way of being. As is true of most things, the efficacy of the presentations varies from presenter to presenter and depends upon who is listening. At the very least, it is a good time for prayerful reflection and rest, as we gather for worship four times daily.
The presenter at this conference has introduced a challenging and enduring topic for us to consider. Dr. Catherine Meeks is the Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, an initiative of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Atlanta. Her mission, and the mission of the Center is to share tools and experiences for individuals, particularly faith leaders, to lead on dismantling racism and leading racial healing and reconciliation. Her initial presentation to us was challenging to listen to, because of my natural tendency to get defensive and deny that I have a role to play in ongoing racial struggles.
Part of Dr. Meeks’ presentation to us was to share the PBS documentary, Slavery by Another Name, based on the Pulitzer prize-winning book of the same name. Both the book and the documentary describe in historical detail a segment of American history I was simply unaware of. We tend to think slavery ended with the Civil War, and while we understand the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, the history between these two eras is largely untold. I should say that I haven’t heard it described in detail, nor have most of my brother and sister clergy, many of whom have shared their own surprise and insights around this history.
For example, I was unable to fathom the scope of enduring slavery in the South after the Civil War, which enslaved black persons, legally and illegally, right up to WWII. More than 800,000 black persons are known to have lived under some form of slavery in those decades from the Emancipation Proclamation to the entrance of the United States into the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I did know that immediately after the Civil War freed slaves held a lot of political positions in the south but were quickly pushed out by white persons and systems who were not ready to share power or recognize the equality of skin tones. I wasn’t aware, however, of how organized and effective the efforts to place freed slaves back in positions of submission really were.
I have learned about the wide-spread practice of convict leasing, which became a lucrative and oppressive practice across the south; a legal form of slavery that took a lot of work to unravel. There are countless historic records that show how laws were changed after emancipation to make it easier to arrest black persons and imprison them, and then for counties and states to sell those prisoners to for-profit businesses. Records show that arrests were greater during the cotton harvesting season, and often coincided with the arrival of a convict leasing agent. I have learned about the practice of peonage continued long after it was outlawed in 1867, disproportionately affecting black persons. Many thousands of convicts in this system died from abuses and horrendous conditions. In many ways there were treated worse than slaves because slaves held economic value for the slaveowner. A convict could easily be replaced with another one. Such practices continued to foster assumptions about the value of black lives.
The ripples of these events continue to influence life in this country today, and they continue to inform opinions and assumptions about various communities. We carry a cyclical tradition of disproportionate incarceration of non-whites, assuming that those persons must be in jail because they commit more crimes than white people. Many also assume southerners must be racist because of history like that we’re hearing this week. Neither is fair or true, but such assumptions persist, nonetheless. If we are going to address modern issues, we will have to come to terms with the past in ways it seems we are largely still unwilling to do so. We tend to think of such history as long-past and resolved many years ago. Unfortunately, the ending of the pre-WWII era wasn’t that long ago, and the Civil Rights movement was even more recent. It is not possible that the culture could change so quickly, nor is it possible or fair for us to assume that such history is not still having devastating effects on persons.
The system of who holds positions of power and how those who assume superiority treat those they consider inferior is a difficult system to get our head around. Our defense mechanisms are strong and effective in this regard. If healing is to be a reality, however, diagnosis is a first step. The goal of diagnosis is not to place blame, make excuses, or create shame. And yet diagnosis may also assign blame, illuminate causal effects of history, and challenge us to let go of shame so that we can all grow in love and understanding. Such processes are not reserved for white persons alone, however, white persons will drive the success of the efforts for the foreseeable future simply because we hold more of the cards whether we want to admit it or not. This is not to assign bad intentions to those in power and the majority, but to name it for its reality. Being in the majority does not mean we are immoral or sinful in any inherent way.
The key to racial healing is, as in most things, based on relationship and understanding. It will require persistent willingness to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions and listen without judgment and defensiveness as people share their stories with one another. As Dr. Meeks suggests about the work of the Center for Racial Healing, her work is not about creating safe spaces for such conversations, but brave spaces; spaces in which we can be honest and open with each other. There is no other option.
God of justice, In your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviors, and speech which demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (Prayer from Catholic Charities, USA)