On Sacred Ground: Personal Transformation Leads to Sacred Ground Program Expansion
By Andrea Lauerman
Sometimes a transformation of the heart can be so complete that it is shocking even to the one being transformed. Caroline Russell, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Maine, experienced just such a transformation in the final years of her life, and the effects are now rippling far beyond the St. Paul’s community.
A profound commitment to serving those less fortunate than herself was a hallmark of Caroline’s life, and she served as a longstanding volunteer with several charitable organizations in the Brunswick area. However, she only became aware of the pervasiveness of racial injustice over the past few years. As was the case across the country, the murder of George Floyd spurred members of the St. Paul’s community to try to understand more about the history and impact of race and racism in the United States. The church convened three Sacred Ground circles, and Caroline felt called to join. She said, “I can’t say exactly why I joined; I suppose the Holy Spirit was telling me I had work to do.” Through this program, she gained a deeper understanding of race in this country and was able to connect this new knowledge with her own life story.
Soon after her initial participation in the Sacred Ground program, Caroline received a sizable inheritance from her father’s estate. Her growing awareness of systemic racism moved her to donate the entire sum. As she explained, “I understand that the money was never mine. I needed to figure out who it should belong to.” Caroline and clergy gathered with a discernment committee at St. Paul’s to determine the best way to use the funds. The process involved a series of meetings, conversations, and prayers. Having participated in Sacred Ground, Caroline knew that the program had the power to open hearts, and the group discerned that funding Sacred Ground was the answer.
This donation has provided the necessary funding to renew the churchwide, three-year content licensing for the Sacred Ground curriculum and to expand the licensing to include other faith groups. Part of the vision of the discernment committee was to open the program to the broader community, and St. Paul’s is now in the process of doing this. Under the guidance of the assistant rector, the Rev. Katie Holicky, and an advisory group of lay leaders, the church is launching its first set of six all-community circles over the next few months, bringing together nearly 50 people from different faith backgrounds to engage in this important conversation.
In the wake of Caroline’s death this past December, the Sacred Ground community at St. Paul’s is contemplating the legacy she left behind and how others might draw inspiration from her life. Perhaps most of all, the community is more committed than ever to the Sacred Ground program and its goal of fostering deeper understanding of race and racism. Caroline effectively summed up the impact of Sacred Ground when she said, “You will be transformed. Everyone who has done it so far would testify to that.”
Andrea Lauerman is Sacred Ground program coordinator at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick, Maine.