2020 may have been a year of lockdown, but it has not been a year of shut down. The Reparations Committee contributed creatively and prolifically to diocesan innovations in their approach to Diocesan Convention 2020 in November and the roll-out meetings that preceded it.
From early September to November 1st, the Diocese of New York held a series of nine roll-out meetings to space out the time for Convention business that normally would have taken place over an entire day in person. The Reparations Committee crafted opening and closing liturgies for each of the nine sessions and led these portions of the actual meetings. They also took part in crafting and contributing to the Evening Prayer for All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
The work of the Anti-Racism and Reparations Committees were featured during reports at the October 14th and October 28th meetings respectively. See reports and videos here:
- October 14th – Anti-Racism roll-out meeting transcript and video
- October 28th – Reparations roll-out meeting transcript and video
At the virtual Diocesan Convention meeting on November 7th, Bishops Dietsche and Glasspool spoke on the diocesan work of reparations, anti-racism and racial reconciliation in their addresses. (insert video links here)
The Reparations Committee of this diocese has been busy, and has made offerings over the last year to our common life that have been nothing less than transformative. Following the landmark Year of Lamentation, the Apology Retreats in 2019 and 2020 received great attention and participation, with particular mention of the Knee On Our Neck retreat led by Chuck Kramer and Masud Syedullah and held virtually in July, which attracted huge numbers, and became oversubscribed even with attendees from across the country. Then together with the Anti-Racism Committee they sponsored a diocesan-wide reading of Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be An Anti-Racist, and then actually brought Dr. Kendi himself to the diocese to engage us in conversation. This is first class work. These are world-class offerings of which this diocese should be exceptionally proud. And I believe which have put this diocese on the map in new ways and made us a wellspring of resource for the larger church.
A year ago I asked the convention for a resolution to set aside over a million dollars from the endowment of the Diocese of New York to help fund the endeavors we might take in making Reparation for American Slavery. And you did that, and the Trustees of the diocese affirmed that. Over the next weeks I was in conversation with the Reparations Committee about a process by which this might be done. We expanded the number of people on the committee, in preparation for this work. And then COVID-19 landed on us, and work that we hoped might happen in 2020, and reports that we imagined might be made to this convention are necessarily now the work of 2021. But trust. This is really happening.
So let me say something about what this means to me, coming from a slightly different direction.
In the 1850 census my great-great-great grandfather included in his household eight slaves. Two adult black women and six biracial children. You have never heard me talk about this. I don’t know how to. His son-in-law, my great-great grandfather, listed ten slaves. He ran a hotel, so they were cooks and maids and livery drivers. Every adult male across the whole extended family fought in the Confederate Army or the Confederate Navy, and some lost their lives in that service. But it didn’t end there. After the war my great-great grandfather refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States for the rest of his life. Our family threw itself into the Lost Cause romanticism of the Confederacy, including a National Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and officers in the Daughters of the Confederacy. My grandmother’s brother was elected to public office on a slate of candidates created by and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, of which he was a member. My grandmother’s brother-in-law was killed in a car accident while counter-protesting against a Civil Rights demonstration. When I came to understand this history I came also to the shocking realization that every story I had ever been told about my family was a lie. It was a lie bolstered by never talking about things, especially to the children, and by tired old Gone With the Wind fantasies of the Old South. It was Our Lie, and that thin lie was stretched over a deep well of the groans and cries of the suffering of other people.
But my mother, who was the daughter of that family, carried no hate in her heart, and raised me up to be a Christian and an Episcopalian and taught me to respect the dignity of every human being, and taught me the common and equal humanity of all people of every color. The longer she is gone the more I appreciate who she was and what she gave me. And I am grateful that I had my growing up time and my coming of age time during the earthly prophetic ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I am grateful for all those who in those violent days and by their sacrifice and martyrdom and witness guided me and forced my eyes open and helped me to rise above the bad history of my family and my country. Some of those were preachers when I was young and needed help to understand the gospel. Some were teachers, who gave me books and answered my questions. Some were just friends who were better people than I was. Or more grown up. Some are still doing these things now sixty years later. I give thanks for all those who encouraged me and sometimes admonished me and helped me to come into myself as a true Christian with a heart for justice and equality. And I give thanks for the communities of black people in the Diocese of New York who said come be our bishop and then began to teach me how to do that. And still do.
I’ve read the verse in Jeremiah which says “Never again let it be said that the fathers will eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth be set on edge.” We do not each of us have to take the blame for the crimes and offenses of our forebears. We’ve all got enough of our own stuff. We do not have to be held hostage to a history we did not make. But we do have to take responsibility for the world we have received as we have received it, and are in right now, and the hour we have been given in which to carry it forward. If we are bound to engage in the work of repair, of reparation, if that is our choice, then that’s why we have to know where we come from. We have to look into our history and own it. To see the sins and crimes done in our name, and the forces which would steal our very souls, but also the host of angels who were working all the time to save us and make us brave and strong and faithful to face the new day. To see our need for redemption and our redeemer all at once.
There is nothing unique about my story. It is an American story, shared by thousands of thousands, and whether a person is the descendant of confederate or union, or slave holder or abolitionist, it’s all the same story. And the dive we make back into our own deep stories, ferreting out the sinners and the saints, seeing all with unblinking eyes, will teach us something. Whether we do that as individuals or as institutions. It’s what we were doing last year in the John Jay dramatization. Looking at the lambs out there among the wolves. When I did that in my family I found evil and glory side-by-side, and what it taught me was that every person has an obligation to do something real and positive in the day they have been given to bring healing and restoration, to make justice, and with our lives and the decisions we make to begin to write a new story. Like my mom. This is the day we have been given. What did you come out to see? A reed shaken in the wind? This is the day which the Lord hath made. I came to you last year and asked for a bunch of money. Not for me, it’s not about me, but for this diocese, and for the Reparations Committee, so that all of us together could signify our faith and trust that no matter how ugly the road that brought us here, no matter how criminal the stories our forebears made, we still believe that it is possible, God being our helper, for a people to remedy some of the wrongs of the past and write a new story. And inch this tired old world a little bit closer to the Kingdom of God.
All my adult life I have heard people say of reparations for slavery that it is politically impossible or too divisive or that we’re just not ready or that we need a little more time or who gets the money and who has to pay. It was always something we would get to some day. Or not. Which I think a lot of the time what we really meant was that we were going to run out the clock and let our kids deal with it when we are gone. But those things we do now are the story they are going to have to dive into and learn and redeem. How long, O Lord? And God protect us from that day when a generation yet to come will look back at us and say, “Well, they talked a good game.” “Their hearts were in the right place.” The Diocese of New York is too small to take responsibility for that which really belongs to the United States of America. But we are big enough to own our own obligations and debts. I could not have more love or confidence than I do in the members of the Reparations Committee, and out of the work they do in the next twelve months will come the outline, the skeleton, the draft, of a story worth the telling and the living. Richard Witt and I were talking about these things last week, and at one point I said, “You know, the thing about money is that it does focus the mind.” You should be expecting great things, because that is what you are going to get.
• • • •
This country hit a tipping point in May when George Floyd was killed by a policeman who knelt on his neck until he strangled. We have seen the strongest resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement across America. A time of reckoning has come for a country and its systems rooted in White Supremacy. The Diocese of New York is not immune to this. I believe that the work and the offerings of the Reparations Committee and the Anti-Racism Committee are exactly right to help the diocese live into this moment and live into the reckoning. One more thing is needed. From this convention I will ask the Trustees to organize, with the Anti-Racism Committee, an audit of the polity and policies and practices of the Diocese of New York, and how we use our money, and how we frame our ministries, and how we raise up leaders, and equality and inequality of opportunity. That we may see ourselves anew, make correction, and frame a way forward for the diocese which more fully honors the high calling we have been given to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I am convinced that that is the work of the day, on the day we have been given. Amen.
It has been my privilege to continue to work with three of our commissions: the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, the Social Concerns Commission, and the Global Mission Commission. These Commissions are faithfully chaired by the Rev. Curt Hart, the Rev. Winnie Varghese, and the Rev. Nigel Massey, each of whom works diligently to fulfill God’s mission. The Global Women’s Fund, chaired by Judi Counts, the Reparations Committee, co-chaired by Cynthia Copeland and the Rev. Richard Witt, and the Antiracism Committee, chaired by Carla Burns, continue to function creatively and responsibly in serving the Diocese and the world. Curt+, Winnie+, Nigel+, Judi, Cynthia, Richard+, and Carla: thank you, more than I can say. I’m not the one to guarantee that your names are written in the heavenly book; but I can assure you they will be written in the Journal of this Convention – and with the gratitude of our entire Diocese.
To the business of the meeting, the Reparations Committee contributed a resolution, Remedying the Inequities and Injustices of Racism, which was amended and adopted at Convention. An additional resolution by the Church of the Heavenly Rest called for Designating the Third or Fourth Sunday in Advent as a Day to Offer God Thanks for the Abolition of Slavery and to Ask God’s Help in Assuring Always that Black Lives Matter. The Reparations Committee is preparing a liturgical toolkit on this prayer blog in response.
The Reparations Committee wishes to thank Bishops Dietsche and Glasspool and all Episcopal New Yorkers who participated this year in the conversation, spiritual and practical work of reparations and racial reconciliation in the Diocese of New York and beyond.