Episcopal racial reconciliation event draws large crowd in Lexington, Virginia

September 13, 2017

Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center and a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Virginia Tech, speaks Sept. 13 about race and civil discourse to community members in Lexington, Virginia. Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas, whose diocese coordinated the event, can be seen standing at the back of the audience. Photo: Connor B. Gwin

[Diocese of Southwestern Virginia — Lexington, Virginia] More than 150 community members crowded a middle school cafeteria in Lexington, Virginia, Sept. 13 to hear a lecture on race and civil discourse presented by Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech and professor of sociology and Africana studies there.

The event was coordinated by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and co-sponsored by 10 community groups and ecumenical faith partners.

Reed’s lecture covered his work studying racial bias by police in Montgomery County, Virginia, as well as his proposed framework for discussing race.

“There is a great need to have productive conversations about race and … quite often these dialogues are uncomfortable,” Reed said. In fact, he argued, merely talking about racism is “supremely unproductive.”

Instead, Reed called for a focus on the institutionalized practice of racism. Using such an approach means “we can discuss these issues quite freely and across racial lines,” he said.

The talk was the first of a three-part series hosted by the diocese entitled “Pursuing the Beloved Community: A Continuing Conversation on Race.”

Plans to facilitate a conversation on racial division in southwest Virginia began after the last General Convention when then newly elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry announced he would make racial reconciliation a focus of his term. The release in May of this year of the church’s “Becoming Beloved Community” resources, as well as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, reinforced the importance of these events.

Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas recently told the diocese that diocesan staff had planned a series of events across the diocese on the topic of racial reconciliation. “The tragic events in Charlottesville have strengthened our resolve to be the hands and feet of Christ in our communities, urging one another onward in the mission of God,” he wrote. “The work of reconciliation is very hard, very necessary, and our duty as followers of Jesus Christ.”

The white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville Aug. 12 brought more attention to the issue of racial reconciliation and the rise in racist rhetoric in the past several years. The debate is not only about city parks and statues, but also the sanctuaries of churches across the United States.

One such church is R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, which has been in a heated debate for two years over the future of the parish’s name.

Curry highlighted the new urgency that has emerged following the events in Charlottesville in a meeting with Episcopalians in that city last week. “The bitter, painful reality of what we have called and known to be racism, which never went away, was like a scab was ripped off Aug. 12, and the whole country saw it,” he said during his visit.

This harsh reality was the focus of Reed’s lecture as he appealed to the facts of institutionalized racism over a conversation about individual actions.

“There is a widely held assumption that individual prejudice leads to racism. … But where does prejudice come from? No one is born prejudiced,” Reed said. “I would argue that we have racist orientations, activities and policies [in this country] that lead people to think a certain way.”

The next lecture, which will focus on racial profiling and police use of force, is scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Northwest Community Center in Roanoke, Virginia. More information will be posted here.

The unedited recording of Reed’s lecture is here. All the events will be edited into smaller portions for use in parish formation classes.

— The Rev. Canon Connor B. Gwin is the canon for social engagement and Christian formation in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

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