Q&A: Union of Black Episcopalians President Annette Buchanan

October 8, 2017

Union of Black Episcopalians President Annette Buchanan, left, waits in the procession before Eucharist at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia during the group’s recent 49th annual conference. With her is the Rev. Sandye Wilson, rector of St. Andrew & Holy Communion in South Orange, New Jersey, and an adviser to Buchanan. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Asbury Park, New Jersey] Annette Buchanan recently spoke to Episcopal News Service about her role as president of the Union of Black Episcopalians and the organization’s goals and importance within the Episcopal Church.

The Union of Black Episcopalians is the descendant of several such organizations with the church, dating from 1856 when the Rev. James Theodore Holly (who later became the bishop of Haiti) founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People. On Feb. 8, 1968, 17 black priests met at St. Philip’s Church, New York, and founded the Union of Black Clergy and Laity to remove racism from the church and society, and to stimulate the growth of black membership. The name was changed to the Union of Black Episcopalians in 1971. UBE has more than 55 chapters and interest groups throughout the continental United States and the Caribbean. It also has members in Canada, Africa and Latin America.

When UBE met in July for the 49th time, the members marked another milestone: meeting jointly for the first time with the African Descent Lutheran Association.

Buchanan is in the first year of her second three-year term as president. During her first term, she said, the organization had to rebuild its infrastructure, tackling communications, administration and financial issues. UBE also conducted a membership drive.

Annette Buchanan

Born: Jamaica, West Indies
Residence: Neptune, New Jersey
Who: President of the Union of Black Episcopalians.
Professional background: 27-year career with the telecommunication companies Bell Labs, AT&T, Lucent and Avaya; began career as a software developer and systems engineer, culminating as the director of technology strategy and development. B.A. computer science/psychology, Hunter College, City University of New York.

The union also began a collaboration with two other advocacy groups in the Episcopal Church: the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice and the Episcopal Ecological Network.

And, there is now a position on UBE’s board for a young adult, and the group is actively recruiting youth and young adult members. “We started with eight young adults three years ago and now we had 30 at this conference,” Buchanan said. “That’s part of the strength of UBE is that it’s multigenerational. I really believe that is part of our strength. We’ve found a way over the years to blend and make it work.”

In the coming years, look for UBE to focus on social justice advocacy, black church vitality and leadership development, Buchanan said. All of UBE’s efforts are focused on “being true to our mission, which is racial and social justice. And, to ensure that we are doing that at the local, regional and national level.”

First of all, what was your reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its aftermath?

Tragic but not surprising. Most of the analysis from the well-respected voices in the black community pointed out that white racial anxiety, not economic anxiety, was a major reason for the current president’s victory. Additionally, his unapologetic rhetoric as the birther cheerleader, challenging President Obama’s legitimacy [to serve], was an attraction for many. Others may have voted twice for a black president but wanted someone they could control and who would fix all their problems. So, given this toxic stew, it is no surprise that these racial hate groups have been emboldened by the bullhorn (not dog whistle) that they are hearing from the White House.

The church’s response to Charlottesville is to again acknowledge that we are not living in a post-racial society and [we must] address racism as it exists in our own sphere of influence: being reflective and thoughtful about how racism is manifested in our families, congregation, with our staff/colleagues, within the community we live and serve, and pledging to do at least one thing to eradicate that negative behavior. Starting small will prepare us for the larger battles of voter suppression, mass incarceration, environmental injustice and the many structural issue of racism within our church and society. UBE’s role is to continue to advocate within our church and community for racial and social justice reform and to be boldly engaged in the solution for the eradication of this destructive sin.

How did you come into the Episcopal Church and how did UBE figure into it?

I started in the Episcopal Church when I was in Brooklyn. My mother attended St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Avenue D. It’s one the largest, if not the largest, Afro-Caribbean churches – over 1,000 members. It’s sort of one of our megachurches. I was in my young-adult phase with a young family, and my mother encouraged us to go to church. I became semi-active. I did the Boy Scouts thing and the youth work. This would have been the mid-’80s. In the later 1980s, I got a job at AT&T. I worked for Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, and so my family and I moved to Neptune. At a Black History Month program, I met the Rev. Sandye Wilson, who was one of the presenters, and at that time, she was the rector of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in [nearby] Asbury Park [where Buchanan now is a member]. She and other members of this congregation were very active UBE members.

I attended my first UBE conference in 1991 in New Orleans. That was just mind-blowing because that was when the Rev. Curtis Sisco was alive. [Sisco was rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, New Orleans, and the liturgical editor of Lift Every Voice and Sing II.] He was the chaplain and dean for that conference. It was a very unique experience in terms of infusing the services with Afro-American-Caribbean liturgy styles.

So, I have been there since, very active at the local level. We have a chapter in New Jersey. In the local chapter, I worked my way up from secretary to vice president to president. Then I was asked to run for the Mid-Atlantic region. I then served as national secretary and then four years ago I was elected to national president.

Can you tell us about how your discernment led you to stand for election as UBE president?

There’s really two tracks. There’s a track in which I was discerning being part of a religion that upheld and invited in people who were of African descent. I was studying a lot of black history and so, for me, a denomination that was purely white [meant] there was something missing. What UBE did was bring that black Afro-American perspective, especially when you looked at the history of UBE and how it intersects with the Civil Rights Movement. The other aspect of it was, because I worked at Bell Labs and I was an engineer, there were some skills that I had developed. I was in management so I had very good training in team-building and organization skills that were well-baked – I spent 25 years at AT&T. Those skills were extremely transferable to the organization. So, it was a marrying of those two: my needing to have affirmed my blackness within the church and my leadership, teamwork and management skills. Those intersected and that’s what brought me here.

How would you describe UBE’s importance to its members and the wider church?

We hold up to the church the fact that black Episcopalians as a group exist, that we have made major contributions the church, and that we will continue to be here and to offer ourselves and our ministry to the church at large. We’re a witness. That shows up in many ways. For example, we sponsored Artemisia Bowden as one of the saints in our calendar. If you don’t have someone advocating on your behalf, you get overlooked.

We hold the church accountable for its institutional racism that still exists. It is sort of the Obama Syndrome: because we have a black presiding bishop means we are post-racial. There’s still places where we’ve had to hold the church accountable. Many of the things we don’t make public, but one of the things we look at, for example, is our seminaries and the staff at the seminaries. We ask why there are no black professors. When you hold people accountable and ask the question, that is not affirmative action. That is just asking them to hold up a mirror and to be intentional when they’re doing their recruiting to include as part of their consideration someone who is not like the people they have had before.

We also look at the ordination process and [diocesan] commissions on ministry who need to be sensitive to the fact that they need to have anti-racism training. We’ve heard from people who go through this process that they don’t embrace them, and a lot of them feel that it’s because of who they are.

And, of course, we encourage folks to be on diocesan councils, standing committees, finance and budget. They have to be part of the decision-making of the church. Our role is to ensure that we are everywhere we need to be within this church.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been getting more and more attention in the Episcopal Church. UBE has always been connected to those institutions, but it seems the organization has become more visible in its advocacy there.

We have a strong component in our presiding bishop. He is all about HBCUs, and at last year’s conference he charged us to make HBCUs a priority. This charge reinforced our role of advocacy on behalf of their funding. We’ve only just begun to do it with our churches, to remind people that HBCUs exist [so they can] have that be a choice that families make. So many people don’t even know that they exist. The schools’ graduation rates are pretty high because of the support that their students get from the community that is there. Some can survive in the larger state schools, others really need that familial-type environment.

Our role is to be the ambassadors for the schools and have all our churches, through our chapters, be reintroduced to the HBCUs so that their students can consider these schools when they are making their decisions about colleges. [The General Convention budget] is always an issue for the church, and we have to hold the church accountable for the funds because the largest outreach that we do as a church to the black community is the HBCUs.

Why is it important for the Episcopal Church continue and even deepen its support for the two Episcopal-affiliated HBCUs?

People always ask the question: Why in 2017 do you need a black church? Why do you need UBE? Every time we host something, the comments section says: Why do you have a Union of Black Episcopalians? We don’t have a Union of White Episcopalians. That’s called the Episcopal Church.

Supporting HBCUs is part of our history of reconciliation because if you know the history of black folks in this church, supporting the remnants of the HBCUs is the least that we can do. When you know that segregation existed … we have an obligation to these schools to help them to reach out again to these students, many of whom don’t have other options or for whom other institutions of learning will not work. [We need] to honor the history of these HBCUs, and their graduates that they have produced for our community, especially for young black men to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline and to give them opportunities to be good citizens by showing that there is a community that cares for them. And, if we do it for one child, then it is worth it.

Speaking of historically black institutions, is there a difference these days between historically black churches and churches that are primarily white institutions with black members?

Originally, most black Episcopalians were in historically black churches. As people have moved and migrated, they’re in different types of churches. Some of them are in churches that are predominately white and they’re the only [black] family. Some of them are in multicultural churches. People who are in mixed congregations somehow feel like they miss out on information [from UBE] because it is easier for us to get to them when they are in historically black congregations. The infrastructure is there. We can get to the clergy, whether they are white or black.

Part of our challenge is how to reach all black Episcopalians who may not be in historically black churches. And, I think that increasingly people are not in historically black churches. What also happens to people that come into those settings, we find that most of them don’t know what the issues are and they also don’t know the history. They tend to think that everything is OK until they run into a situation. That is why they come to the conference, because that is the only time they are with other black Episcopalians. It’s a reunion.

What else didn’t I ask you that you would like the entire Episcopal Church to know about black Episcopalians and their ministries?

Our ministry extends beyond African Americans. It’s to the Diaspora – the Haitians, the Africans, [people from the] Caribbean – so our ministry now needs to speak to that and does speak to that. UBE is an umbrella organization for all of the Diaspora, even though some may have their own organizations. With that, what we hold in our hands is a plethora of ideas. People that are more conservative or people who are more progressive or more traditional or more contemporary in terms of church worship. I think that’s a model for the church to look into: that everyone can be together in the same organization and just try to balance all that it means to be Episcopalian.

We’ve just started a chapter in Haiti and [some people asked] why do we need a Union of Black Episcopalians in a black country We had to talk about having a seat at the table, and influence and reconciliation. We said to them that we are not missionaries; we have come to learn from you. Even when we are reaching out ecumenically, part of our goal is that all of us have something to learn from each other.

For instance, we know that the church is growing in Africa and in the Caribbean, and people might suggest that they are a throwback to the past and there are no [modern] distractions there, but the fact is they have the same distractions we do and the church is still strong. What are they doing in terms of evangelism and outreach to have folks be in church? Their churches are thriving, so what is that about?

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.