The opportunity to discuss and identify the challenges which prevent black and multicultural congregations from thriving drew more than 200 participants -- from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and Latin America -- to New Orleans, Louisiana on October 20 for the opening of the Episcopal Church's Black Ministries Conference.
"Sisters and brothers we are rich in diversity, gifts and talents and we have gathered here as the body of Christ because we take seriously our responsibility as Christians in the world and have chosen to take a critical look at our congregations and ourselves," said the Rev. Angela S. Ifill, the Episcopal Church's program officer for black ministries, in her opening address. She went on to say that they are assembled to "continue to build the foundation" that supports the work "they have all been called to do."
The conference, "Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage, for the Living of These Days," is meeting at the Intercontinental New Orleans Hotel to continue the work of the New Ventures Task Force which is charged with developing a strategic plan that will help congregations prepare for their role in God's mission in the world. The task force was formed on June 20, 2007 in consultation with Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina and Bishop Suffragan Chester Talton of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Ifill explained that the idea for the strategic plan was born following attendance at a Start Up! Start Over! (SUSO) seminar. She said that she and the Rev. Carleton Hayden, assisting priest at St. Georges, Washington, D.C. and the Rev. Robert Wright, rector at St. Paul's, Atlanta, Georgia, thought of a design to bring to congregations that may not have the resources to send a representative to SUSO.
Other attendees of the conference include representatives from the United Church of Christ; the Lutheran Church; a lay leadership group of nearly 30 people; a young adults group; a women's gathering; and the Network of Ministry Innovators.
The Rev. Thomas L. Brackett, the Episcopal Church's program officer for church planting and redevelopment and co-facilitator of the Network of Ministry Innovators, said that their gathering heard from Ted Mollegen who shared the original vision and passion behind the 20/20 initiative.
"We also reflected on the need to adapt that original hope to the changing realities of our world and our church -- the need to move away from the emphasis on growing numerically to a passion for transforming lives with the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth," he explained.
Brackett said they met in three small groups throughout the day to share real-time learning from local ministry experience, and answer four questions about each of the stories: what is working well for you in ministry; what are the challenges you are managing right now and how are you doing that; what are the transferable learning you would offer ministry in similar contexts; how might we (as a church) build up and/or support your ministry?
"The answers to these questions will be the core of our ongoing conversations," he said.
Ifill spoke of taking back a renewed spirit and a renewed heart to the attendees' respective congregations to continue to do the work we are called to do. She reiterated that the group's work, during the conference and beyond, is to identify the pieces of the puzzle to make valuable connections, and to use those connections as we embrace all of God's people to do his work. "It's not about us; it's about God's work. Everything we do, we do for the glory of God," said Ifill.
The Rev. Neil-Allan Walsh, assistant curate at St. Michael and All Angels, London, England, said that "black leadership in England is minimal.
"So my attendance at the Black Ministries Conference has provided me with the opportunity to proactively seek powerful reflections of myself -- black men and women within church leadership. Also, the experience enables me to share the joys and pains of ministry and the feeling of being carried by my brothers and sisters," he said.
Prior to attending plenary sessions and breaking into small groups for discussion, participants were welcomed by the Rev. David duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans who expressed his gratitude for the group's presence, and appreciation for the support of the Episcopal Church in New Orleans.
"In a world where our government has failed, on every level, the faith communities, across the board, have been the heroes in post-Katrina New Orleans," he said. "It's still those groups, who continue to come, three years after the storm, to offer their work, their witness, and their love to this battered community as we continue to recover."
In the first plenary session, the Rev. Horace Dean Ward of Holy Family in Miami Gardens, Florida provided the history of the New Ventures Task Force group and elaborated on its current mission and programming. The group's role, he said, is to "partner with congregations to ensure the life and vitality of our black congregations in the mission of Jesus Christ."
In preparation for the second plenary, breakaway groups discussed several topic areas and compiled feedback on:
- Identifying the characteristics of thriving congregations
- Sharing quality of experiences of being in a thriving congregation
- Discussing characteristics of black and multicultural congregations
- Determining the life-giving practices present in your congregation
- Naming and acknowledging hindrances to becoming a thriving congregation\
- Identifying life-giving practices that are absent in your congregation
Think globally, act locally
The day concluded with a rhythmic Eucharist service at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, where African drummers in the procession set the stage for a liturgy infused with the rich cultural influences of those in attendance.
Delivering the sermon, the Rev. Nan Peete, canon for development in the Diocese of Washington, D.C. was met with a roaring applause when she opened with the phrase, "Change We Can Believe In."
People in the church, she said, seem to "resist change, kicking and screaming the whole way," from changes in the prayer book, the hymnal, even to the ordination of women. This resistance to change, she said, is met with the marked statement of complacency, "We have always done it this way." With this mindset, she said, "we wonder why young people are not visible in the church."
Peete added that if the Episcopal Church doesn't adapt to change, it may find itself "closing its doors and selling its property to a thriving non-denominational church."
The Episcopal Church, Peete said, needs the African American church for the witness of the black church that has spoken out since slavery to present day -- this must not be compromised.
She urged the gathering to reflect on where they are in order to know where they want to go and how they want to get there, and insisted that where there is no vision, there is no church. She provided a litany of suggestions for how to offer outreach to their respective communities.
In her concluding remarks, Peete reminded the group that they are the bread that is broken out into the world to feed others the good news; and that they are the blood for those who thirst for the good news. Her final call-to-action urged the group to "think globally and act locally."
The conference continues through October 23.