The church is poised to take another step in providing equality for all God’s people, but the struggle continues, Bishop Steven Charleston told a crowd gathered at the Church of the Gethsemane to honor recipients of Episcopal Peace Fellowship and The Witness awards.
Speaking on the eve of House of Deputies confirmation hearings on Bishop-Elect Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, Charleston, the dean and president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., predicted success in one of the major battles facing the church: “on the question, ‘Do we believe that all people are created equally in the image of God?’”
“We are about to succeed in a moment of that struggle, and many of us would be proud that the answer that comes from this church is, ‘Yes, we take another step in believing that,’” he said in a keynote address interrupted repeatedly by applause.
“But pay attention. We succeeded with women, but the struggle continues. ... We said we had succeeded with people of color, and I submit to you that the situation of men and women of color in our church is going backward, not forward, and that there is a great deal yet to be done.
“So when we succeed for the gay and lesbian, bi[sexual] and transgendered community, as we will,” he said, “... let us recommit to the coalition of unity among all people who have had to struggle. ... The continuing struggle will only be won when we win it together and prove the theology that we are all created in the image of God.”
Charleston warned listeners to be wary of two other kinds of victories our society claims.
“We think in this society that we have succeeded in winning victories,” he said. “We’re winning wars. Oh, it’s just like the movies we used to watch, ... when John Wayne would storm the beaches of Guadalcanal.
“What we are succeeding at doing is creating the mask of a patriotism that covers the face of oppression,” he said. “Beware your civil liberties and civil rights.”
Watch for a return of McCarthyism, he said. “Beware of the faces of the enemies that they create for you” to distract us from growing poverty, endemic racism and “many other issues we are ignoring to our peril in order to maintain the fiction of an imperial state and to return to the glory days of the white state.”
Finally, he said, “We say that we are succeeding in spreading Westernization around the world and that all the peoples of the world are being more like us. God help us, and God help them.”
What we’re really achieving is the return of the “dreadful disease” of colonialism, he said. “We are watching Africa die. We are watching war reach into Asia and the Middle East.” People in the southern part of our hemisphere are treated merely as “expendable commodities,” he said.
“Beware. This homogenous single entity that is celebrated to us by the multinational corps who run our governments have snatched our democracy from us and left us with those pale and impotent political parties that we still every two to four years go through the motions of pretending to govern in our name.”
Sayre award to Margaret Lawrence
Earlier in the program, EPF gave Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence its Sayre award, named after a founding member of the U.S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a man instrumental in founding EPF in 1939. Presenter Janet Chisholm lauded Lawrence for her peacemaking efforts and for representing both “hands” of nonviolence: that of resistance and that of reconciliation.
President of the EPF executive board, Chisholm said she worshipped with Lawrence in Rockland County, N.Y., and served with her in both EPF and FOR. She recalled arriving early for a meeting and discovering Lawrence, then in her 70s, standing on her head practicing yoga. During the last Lambeth Conference in 1998, Lawrence, who turns 89 on Aug. 19, was the oldest pilgrim among a group of peace activists who walked from London to Canterbury.
“On Sundays, sometimes we have very violent psalms. And Margaret has been known to stand up to say, ‘Are you sure we should be paying attention to this?’” she recounted. “Margaret is a person of great joy and some mischief.”
After summarizing Lawrence’s many accomplishments, Chisholm said the significant issue for conferring the Sayre award was “her journey as a peacemaker and a speaker for justice.
“She has struggled against racism and sexism to be the accomplished child psychiatrist that she is,” Chisholm said. “All along the way, she has acted nonviolently. She has served children and their families – rich and poor, black and white, those who have been victimized in our culture – and she’s been an advocate for them.”
During World War II, Lawrence and her late husband, Charles, who served as president of the House of Deputies in the early 1970s, were known pacifists. “St. Paul’s where we worship now is known as the ‘peace parish’ for their leadership,” Chisholm said.
Rockland County has two white parishes and the predominantly black St. Paul’s, “and St. Paul’s is the one with the wealth,” she said. While St. Paul’s easily could go off on its own instead of working collaboratively, she said, Lawrence always has insisted: “We belong together.”
That’s been the story of her life and her witness, she said.
The Witness awards to four honorees
The Witness presented four awards: the Vida Scudder award to the Rev. Barbara Ramnaraine for her work on behalf of people with disabilities; the William Stringfellow award to Barbara Harris, first female bishop in the Anglican Communion; the William Scarlett award to Voices in the Wilderness for its peace missions to Iraq; and the William Spofford award to Tom Goldtooth, national coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Presenter Elizabeth Kaeton, clergy deputy and former Oasis missioner from the Diocese of Newark, lauded Ramnaraine as someone “whose vision of social reformation includes a church which is fully accessible to all, including those people with physical challenges and disabilities.
“It was an awakening for me to know that, of all the civil rights acts in the country, the Americans With Disabilities Act is the only one in which the church did not take an active role,” she said. “And guess why? Money.”
A deacon at St. Paul’s, Minneapolis, Ramnaraine was appointed to the Presiding Bishop’s Task Force on Accessibility in 1983 and has coordinated the Episcopal Disability Network since 1992.
“I accept this award as one of the more than 49 million Americans with disabilities who yearn for justice and equality,” Ramnaraine said. “I truly believe that, working together with God’s help, we will experience a church and a world in which there will be no outcast people.”
“People with disabilities comprise the largest minority in this country,” she said, adding that 20 percent of Americans have disabilities, but only 10 percent of church attenders do. Seventy percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, even though two-thirds can and wish to work, she said.
“Despite all the inequities, there is much to celebrate,” she said. “With a few exceptions, this has been a totally accessible General Convention. ... With people with disabilities becoming more active in the total church, I pray that we may receive the gifts that they offer and joyfully welcome them into the fellowship of Christ.”
Jane Dixon, former suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Washington and president of Episcopal Church Publishing, introduced her sister bishop Harris, calling her “my mentor and my friend."
“She has given her life to justice, to peace and to the honor and dignity of every human being,” she said.
Dixon recalled meeting an African woman of color at a dinner given by the Bishop of Durham while she was in England for the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The woman took awhile to understand that Dixon, not her husband, was a bishop. When Dixon informed her that a woman of color was the communion’s first female bishop, she said, “This woman looked at me, and I really thought she had forgotten how to breathe.
“Her face lit up because the power of the incarnation was real for her in a way that it had never been before,” she said.
Harris recalled standing on the same platform at Gethsemane in 1976 for a much less well-attended panel discussing racism in the church and society. “Here we are, 27 years later, still wrestling with the question,” she said. “But at least we continue to wrestle, and I hope that it is a good sign and that we will never say, ‘Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.’”
Voices of the Wilderness “brings hope to part of the world where we decided that we would bomb them into their freedom,” said presenter John Chane, bishop of the Diocese of Washington.
Since 1996, more than 80 U.S. delegations from all walks of life have gone to Iraq to see firsthand the effects of sanctions, said Tom Walsh, national media coordinator for the organization. “The purpose is to go witness and then to come back and educate.”
An Iraq Peace Team maintains a continuing presence in Baghdad today, he said.
The group also provided humanitarian aid when possible, Walsh said, noting the U. S. Treasury Department recently levied a $20,000 fine against the group for delivering medical supplies to Iraq.
Goldtooth, who heads a Minneapolis-based alliance of Native grassroots groups and communities working on environmental issues, described himself as “only the eyes and the ears of many indigenous peoples that we work with.”
“When they cannot be at a certain place, when we talk about these issues that are truly life-and-death issues for our communities, our families and our children and our elders, then I become a voice for those people,” he said.
The movement began 12 years ago when people of color and indigenous peoples joined over the issue of environmental racism, in which their communities were the first to be chosen to locate projects such as toxic-waste sites and incinerators, he said. “We said that now is the time for action, that we’re coming together in solidarity to put a stop to this, to educate, to organize our people back home and to educate white America about what’s going on, that we have to protect the sacredness of our Mother Earth.”