Sacred Ground: Transformation on the Journey
By Mark Edwards and Avril Barker
The website for St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland, proclaims, “Everything we do at St. John’s is done through the lens of building community—helping people to connect to people. Whether we worship, learn, grow, or serve, everything is meant to help us grow into deeper community with God and with one another. We believe that building community is at the center of what it means to be a church.”
Our parish has worked with intention to give full expression to this commitment. Like many, we witnessed the stark disparity and inequities laid bare by the pandemic. We watched the growing wave of social protest and demands for justice following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others. These events propelled our congregation to look more deeply into our actions regarding race, justice, and equity. What does God want us to do in this moment? What does Beloved Community really look like?
We started small. Our first circle of 10 participants undertook the Sacred Ground series with a trained facilitator. We all came from different places, from different understandings. No one was comfortable. We grappled with culpability, accountability, guilt. After 10 weeks together with Sacred Ground, we had all experienced change.
The church’s leadership was inspired. Our vestry and clergy undertook Sacred Ground together with the same facilitator. In addition to our already heavy vestry responsibilities, we committed to the study preparation and meeting once a week over the summer. We just dove in, and our work together was truly transformative. As one vestry member wrote:
“[Sacred Ground] made a compelling case for the unique and important role of Christians and the Church in addressing racism by helping bring painful truths to light, allying with people of color, and advocating for social justice.”
We learned a lot—about our history, about each other, and about ourselves. We emerged from this work a united body, ready to become a greater force for justice in our community.
Moving forward, we invited a variety of experts to share their own racial justice and reparations work. Our archivist presented groundbreaking research on our parish’s roots in racism and chattel slavery. She now assists the Congregational History Project that is reviewing diocesan congregations and other institutions and their entanglement in chattel slavery.
We have held parishwide discussions focused on Becoming Beloved Community’s four interrelated goals: proclaiming the dream, telling the truth, practicing the way of love, and repairing the breach. We also formed a Racial Justice and Equity Task Force to engage parishioners, and we drafted a Racial Justice and Equity Statement of Belief, Acknowledgement and Action that the entire parish is vetting.
We are immensely grateful for this transformative journey.
Mark Edwards and Avril Barker are co-chairs of the Racial Justice and Equity Task Force at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland.