Racial Reconciliation

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Episcopalians Gather to Apologize for Slavery

October 3, 2008
Racial Reconciliation

By: Daphne Mack

Hundreds of Episcopalians journeyed to St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on October 3 to participate in the first of a two-day solemn observance that will culminate with the Episcopal Church publicly apologizing for its involvement in the institution of transatlantic slavery.

“Our coming together shows that this is not an Episcopal problem, nor a Christian problem, but a human problem,” explained the Rev. Jayne Oasin, program officer for Anti-Racism and Gender Equality for the Episcopal Church. “We are saying that we have marginalized and oppressed others, and have not regarded every one as God’s equal creation but we’re not going to be that way anymore.”

Bob Brundige, of St. Elizabeth Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey said he felt strongly that an “apology” was not enough and what was missing from this event was some form of reparations which he felt was owed to African-Americans by the Episcopal Church for its involvement in and support of slavery and segregation. He suggested the creation of scholarships for black students to attend seminary and/or college as one type of reparation.

Karen Hardwick of the Diocese of Washington said that the question of reparations is “the hard part. It’s virtually impossible to measure injustice and the damages that flow from slavery,” she said.

Bishop Eugene Sutton, the first African American bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, called it “an emotional day.”

“It’s part of a year of turning the clock forward in Maryland and continuing the work of fighting intolerance,” he said.

Sutton, a descendant of slaves, was referring to the stain on a diocese that was first led by Thomas John Claggett, the first bishop consecrated on American soil, who owned slaves while serving as the rector of St. James’ Parish in Ann Arundel County.

In this year marking the 200th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery, John Vanderstar, Executive Council member and author of the 2006 General Convention resolution A123, which called for the occasion, said that “the church needs to confront its past in order to change its future.”

Resolution A123 declared that the institution of slavery in the United States and “anywhere else in the world” was and is a sin, and mandated that the church acknowledge and express regret for its support of slavery and for supporting “de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination” for years after slavery’s abolition. The resolution also asked the Presiding Bishop to call for a “Day of Repentance and Reconciliation” and to organize a service.

The Episcopal Church will now join other denominations and the Church of England, which in 2006 voted to acknowledge its complicity in the global slave trade.

The gathering opened with three presentations entitled “Revisiting the Past”, “Taking Action in the Present” and “Charting a Course for the Future.” Presenters included the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, rector, Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, and author of “Yet With a Steady Beat” the foundational book about African Americans and the Episcopal Church; Bishop Chip Marble, assisting bishop in the Diocese of North Carolina; Dr. Anita George, chairperson of the Executive Council Anti-Racism Committee; and Byron Rushing, member of the Massachusetts State Legislature.

In his address “Bend our Pride to thy Control: The Need of the Church to Repent for the Sin of Slavery and its Aftermath” Lewis described slavery as “that odious institution” that has been a virulent cancer that has “metastasized through the bloodstream of our society.”

“The church early on could have assumed the role of that of physician, placing herself in a position to ‘heal the sin-sick soul’ of the society to which she ministered, assuring its people that there is indeed a balm in Gilead,” he explained. “Instead, she allowed herself to be infected along with her patient, rendering herself unable to be of any assistance.”

Marble and George acted as moderators while the dioceses of Delaware, Maryland, Atlanta, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina and South East Florida reported on the current work toward racial healing happening in their dioceses.

Nearly all mentioned using the documentary film, “Traces of the Trade,” by independent filmmaker Katrina Browne as a educational tool. The movie tells the story of Browne’s New England ancestors, the DeWolfs, the most-active slave-trading family in the United States and prominent Episcopalians from Rhode Island.

In speaking on the future, Rushing told those present that “the course for a future of awareness of the foundation of slavery from our society winds through remorse.” He said that remorse, as opposed to apology, “requires truth.”

Ed Rodman, professor of Pastoral Theology and Urban Ministry at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, summed up all three topics of discussion and said “vision only comes when you learn your history.”

The observance will conclude on October 4 at St. Thomas where Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, serving as celebrant and preacher, will issue the apology.