Once More, with Feeling: Will Racism Get our Attention?

Episcopal News Service. June 15, 1994 [94123]

Sarah Bartenstein, Director of Communication in the Diocese of Virginia

During the opening roll call in the House of Bishops at the 70th General Convention in Phoenix, several bishops responded, "Present under protest," reflecting their belief that the Episcopal Church's triennial convention should not have gone to Arizona, then the only state in the nation without an official holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

But if many doubted the commitment of the Episcopal Church to fighting racism before that event in July 1991, convention planners and participants went out of their way to prove otherwise.

Bishops and deputies, delegates to the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women and visitors bared their souls in a survey on racial attitudes, and heard the results of that survey before they left Phoenix. Convention added a civil rights martyr -- a white seminarian from New Hampshire -- to the liturgical calendar. Much of the worship was influenced by Native American traditions. The African American hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing II, was introduced. The Episcopal Church Legacy Fund was established to provide scholarships for minority students. And the General Convention called dioceses and church bodies to conduct their own racial audits, set up racism commissions and initiate other anti-racism work.

On July 20, 1988, the final edition of the Convention Daily carried a story on page one with the headline, "What next? is question on racism." On page two, another headline read, "Long way to go, Native Americans say."

Three years later, have convention's actions made a difference? Has the Episcopal Church progressed? And will racism continue to be addressed as the church convenes in Indianapolis?

Helping dioceses lay the groundwork

Since the last General Convention, the church has been "activating work at the diocesan level -- and it's crucial work," said the Rev. Henry Atkins of New Jersey, a member of the national Commission on Racism and one of its founding co-chairs.

For convention-watchers wondering "What next?" in 1991, the answer in many dioceses was the formation of a commission on racism -- or the strengthening of a dormant one. Atkins is encouraged by the number of dioceses that have such groups (70 or so) and said that diocesan racism audits constitute "a positive beginning." He recalled that when the national Commission on Racism was formed some six years ago, "there were no more than 12 functioning diocesan commissions on racism.

"I believe that the issue of racism within the Episcopal Church must be addressed at the local level, in churches and dioceses," Atkins asserted. He added, "Some dioceses have done very impressive work... Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Oklahoma and Virginia come to mind." Atkins worked as a consultant with the Diocese of Virginia several years ago and has followed their activities.

Atkins said that he believes promising things can happen in a diocese that lays the groundwork. "I was very, very much impressed that the diocesan investment trust [the Diocese of Virginia's Diocesan Missionary Society] lent money to two black churches for building expansion," Atkins said. And when there were vacancies on the standing committee in Virginia earlier this year, Atkins was pleased to see four black men and two black women among the lay nominees.

The Hon. Byron Rushing is a state representative from Massachusetts who has been involved in anti-racism work in the Episcopal Church; he's also a member of the Council of Advice for Pamela Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies. To Atkins' list of dioceses making headway, Rushing added the Diocese of Delaware, which he praised for doing "innovative stuff."

That diocese set up an experimental multi-racial congregation -- called "the pilot congregation" -- which met in a neutral location each week for eight weeks. The members of the experimental congregation worshiped together using different kinds of readings and music, and intentionally reflected on racism within the context of the Eucharist. The follow-up to their experiment has included a thorough report to Bishop Cabell Tennis and diocesan council -- including a discussion of the insights they gained about dealing with racism -- and an offer to assist others in setting up similar experiments.

Audits have been another way for dioceses to begin anti-racism work. Diane Porter, senior executive for program at the Episcopal Church Center who coordinated the 1991 racial audit at convention, says there's no systematic reporting procedure in place, but she's aware of "35 or so dioceses" in the process of conducting an audit. Porter stressed that it's crucial to follow through on the results of such surveys, "or you may as well not bother."

The convention also established the Episcopal Church Legacy Fund in 1991 to provide scholarships for students at Episcopal institutions that have traditionally served minorities. Contributions have come from individuals, parishes and dioceses, but not from the budget, according to Porter. She reported that $76,152.87 has been awarded to each of six institutions as of December 31, 1993, including three black colleges: St. Augustine's in North Carolina, St. Paul's in Virginia and Vorhees in South Carolina; one college which serves Hispanic students, St. Augustine's in Chicago; the Episcopal Council on Indian Ministries and the Episcopal Asian American Commission.

"Every day there's reason to hope," said Porter. Anti-racism work "goes in fits and starts, but it keeps going."

'A long way to go'

Not everyone agrees that the church has made strides in the area of racism. The Rev. Fran Toy of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) said simply, "The work continues."

While she sees some encouraging signs -- such as the election of more minorities to the Executive Council -- she declared, "It's very frustrating as a person of color to have to do the same things over and over and over again. It doesn't matter whether I'm at CDSP, in the diocese or in the province. [Anti-racism work] has to be done at a personal level."

Ginny Doctor of Alaska, who chairs the Episcopal Council on Indian Ministries (ECIM), said, "There hasn't been a real aggressive effort." She's concerned that people are not really dealing with the issue when "they take something ugly like racism and try to call it something else, like multiculturalism."

Doctor is particularly disturbed by proposed cuts in the national budget which will affect ECIM and other groups involved with ministry among minorities. "It's going to throw us back 20 years. All the progress that has been made will go down the drain." She hasn't given up hope, however. "We [Native Americans] have survived as a people for 500 years. It's not going to kill us." She added that those involved with ECIM "want to come together before General Convention to strategize about what to do next."

Owanah Anderson, staff officer for Indian Ministry at the Episcopal Church Center, explained the reason for ECIM's anger over proposed budget cuts: "For hundreds of years, we had been ministered to, 'our poor little red brothers.' We had moved into a partnership relationship. ECIM members believe that partnership is threatened by the Executive Council's plans.

The Rev. Richard Aguilar of San Antonio, co-chair of the Commission on Racism, responded to the criticism of the budget proposals: "I believe they [Executive Council] have done the best they can with what they have. Obviously, these decisions will affect the Commission on Racism, and the configuration of the ethnic desks. I am saddened by [the cuts] but it goes back to the broader questions," namely, "We have not clearly defined a vision -- how we see ourselves as a church. The result is we have to deal with the reality of less money."

Porter disagreed that the plan to reduce the national staff and budget disproportionately hurts minorities. "What it has done is preserved the desks and the budgets for those desks. What it does away with is the commissions as we have known them to be. But those commissions developed at a time when the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies were not as sensitive to these issues as the current leadership. They [minority commissions] had to be the voice of voiceless persons," she said.

"Past conventions have begun major new initiatives in the areas of the environment, economic justice and racism, and never put a single staff person to them," Porter added. "I would rather have one person addressing those issues than send how ever many people to two more meetings a year, or throw $100,000 at something and think you have solved the problem."

Attention to leadership

No one thinks that the problem of racism is solved. Aguilar identified as a crucial issue, "How we raise up our leaders. What does leadership look like?" He wondered whether the church was modeling a multi-racial church.

Atkins raised a related concern. "A crying area [requiring more attention] is clergy deployment. The Episcopal Church is one of the last institutions that can track people in terms of careers. When a black person goes to seminary, it's assumed that person will be sent to a black church; a Chinese person will go to a Chinese church, and so on. If a black person goes to medical school and is told the only place to go is a black hospital, you'd have a problem." Atkins charged that the problem is "beginning to affect who goes to seminary. There's a real lack of employment opportunity in the Episcopal Church" for racial minorities.

One dimension of the problem of racism in this country is that for many people, the definition is too narrow. Asian American Fran Toy said. "It depends on a person's background, [but] the consciousness still is that when we speak of racism, we are talking about black and white."

Anderson concurred: "We [Native Americans] are not the first people of color people think of when they think about racism. We just aren't there. We're not visible. We're not present. We're an afterthought."

But Toy and Anderson both still sees signs of hope. "I think there's been progress," said Anderson, pointing to the election of an Indian as bishop of South Dakota and the huge turnout at the 1992 service at Washington National Cathedral commemorating 500 years of Native American survival.

"It's not fair to say that nothing has happened," Toy cautioned. She pointed out, "At CDSP we did a full day on sensitivity to racial diversity and culture." When riots broke out in Los Angeles exactly one week later, "it wasn't just something that was happening 400 miles away. It really gave people the opportunity to experience the agony of racism at a deeper level."

"We have moved. We can't say nothing has been done. We still have a great deal to do," Atkins concluded.

Will racism have a high profile at the convention?

Though the 71st General Convention does not have the King holiday catalyst to stimulate examination of racism, the House of Bishops recently issued pastoral letter, "The Sin of Racism," will no doubt keep the issue alive. That letter identifies racism as much more than personal prejudice -- it's a structural, institutional problem. If the church does not deal with racism with that awareness, change won't happen, said Rushing.

He argued for being intentionally anti-racist in everything we do as a church. "If we're honest about being a racist institution, anything we do, if we don't talk about it first, is going to be harmful to people of color. Budget planners need to be intentionally anti-racist." He asked, "When you start downsizing, what effect do you have on people of color? Assume if you're not being intentional, you're perpetuating racism."

Aguilar echoed Rushing, insisting that institutional racism is "more insidious. We need to address the issue structurally and that requires more commitment and more strategy."

Will racism be high profile at this convention?

"Whether racism is going to be able to compete with sex and money is a difficult one to call," said Rushing. "If enough deputies have had experience in their own dioceses with anti-racism work, then it will move forward in the agenda of General Convention."

Rushing noted that the last General Convention called for a nine-year program "to force the church to deal with anti-racism. That's why the report-back [from the Racism Commission] is so important." Rushing said that making this a long-term process rather that a one-shot program will say to dioceses who have yet to get engaged, "OK, you can still get started. Just because you haven't done anything for the past three years, you're not off the hook."

Aguilar agreed, contending that fighting racism must be a process, "not a short-term program. The tendency in the church and in society is 'fix-it' kinds of projects...This issue is so complex, 'programs' will be short-lived."

Noting that sexism is going to be raised as a major issue at this convention, Rushing cautioned: "We have to be conscious of the fact that people will try to trivialize these issues. Conservatives will say, 'This is what's wrong with the Episcopal Church. Every three years they deal with another "ism." ' We need to be prepared to explain to people how they [racism and sexism] are related. The Gospel calls us to shatter all 'isms."'

Fran Toy agreed. "You really can't separate 'isms,"' she said. "They're all intertwined." Although she doesn't believe that racism was effectively addressed at the last General Convention, she hoped that the focus on sexism, and the increasing numbers of women in the House of Deputies, will mean that all 'isms' get attention this time.

Rushing and others noted that the presiding bishop's commitment to this work will go a long way in keeping it alive. "The presiding bishop has been very supportive," he said. Both Rushing and Aguilar were impressed by the attention Browning gave to racism at a meeting last year of the heads of interim bodies. "He took extra time with it," said Aguilar. "I was very impressed, pleased and grateful."

Three years ago, a potentially divisive situation over the symbolism of the Martin Luther King holiday in Arizona was transformed into an important beginning for the Episcopal Church. There is a long way to go, indeed. Anti-racism work at the diocesan level, the commitment of the presiding bishop and the pastoral letter all promise to keep the issue on the table, if not on the front page.

"So often there is a tendency to assume that what we do makes no difference," said Atkins. "I disagree. We have begun to take some actions we need to take. "This is not say the Kingdom of God has come... but things have happened that would not otherwise have happened. We need to celebrate that and to hold that up."