Prayers, tears and song mark Episcopal repentance for slavery

October 3, 2008

Expressing "profound regret that the Episcopal Church lent the institution of slavery its support and justification based on Scripture," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a public apology October 4 for the church's involvement in the institution of transatlantic slavery.


She went on to state that "after slavery was formally abolished, [the church] continued for at least a century to support de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination."

The historic gesture of remorse drew hundreds of Episcopalians, both black and white, to St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia October 3-4 for the Day of Repentance -- a two-day solemn observance which included presentations that examined racism in the past, present, and future. Jefferts Schori's complete homily is here.

"It is an immense honor and joy for St. Thomas to host this two-day solemn observance and most fitting that it is being held here at the nation's first black Episcopal church," said the Rev. Martini Shaw, rector of St. Thomas.

St. Thomas, founded in 1792 by the Rev. Absalom Jones, a former slave, is the oldest African American Episcopal Church in the United States and the first black church in Philadelphia. Jones was the first person of African ancestry to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. He and Richard Allen, the nation's first African-American Methodist preacher, changed history when they initiated a walkout from St. George's Methodist Church after blacks were denied full membership.

Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies (the national legislative house that includes clergy and lay members), was in attendance for both days and said, "This is an amazing day that has been long in coming."

However she emphasized that although "this is a great start to a new beginning," no one should view it as being over. Understanding that the "work is hard" and can be emotional she stressed that "it must continue" for the betterment of the Episcopal Church.

"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."

Seventeen bishops participated in the event which welcomed the following ecumenical partners: Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarian Universalist and Christian Methodist.


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.

Through tears Loretto VanGrasstek, 72, of Church of the Ascension in Stillwater, Minnesota, said, "I cried from the moment I sat down to the last song we sang."

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, VanGrasstek of Creole and Choctaw descent, said, "It's overwhelming to hear white people admit the things I'd only heard my grandmother speak of."

Loretto's husband Skye said when his wife recalls the memories of her great grandmother Josephine Starks, a former slave who lived to be 113 years old, she remembers brushing her hair and asking where the "ridges" she felt on her back came from and the answer would always be that "master beat her" sometimes "cause she had done something wrong and sometimes cause he just felt like it."

At the other end of the spectrum is Skye who discovered four years ago that his great, great, great uncle was a slave trader in the Caribbean in the early 1800s.

Skye said despite the commonality of Loretto's family "living with the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan and his living under Nazi brutality in Amsterdam during World War II" he is "taking care of Loretto so everything just comes around."

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.

C. David Williams, president of the Union of Black Episcopalians, who Jefferts Schori also referred to in her homily, described the day as "sublime."

"It [the day] was offered to God from hearts and minds of black and white people who had need for this apology and received it," he said. "But we have a long way to go in making the apology real and I'm pledging myself to it."

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.

'Springboard for future action'
The gathering began October 3 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 an 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.

Browne said Jefferts Schori's mention of her film in the homily "was an honor."

"What has been striking about the power of the film is how it seems to resonate with people's truth," she said.

In speaking on the future, Rushing told those present that "the course for a future of awareness of the foundation of slavery to our society winds through remorse." He said that remorse, as opposed to apology, "requires truth today and tomorrow mark the public announcement of this winding course."

"Nothing is being accomplished by us today except beginning," he explained.

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."

"What would make me most proud is if people draw from this event and use it as a springboard for future action," said Oasin.

She said a DVD will be available in a month but programs of the gathering will be distributed to dioceses in the coming weeks.

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