Repentance for slavery has a long way to go, say advocates

Convention resolutions would extend process
July 11, 2009

Efforts to deal with the Episcopal Church's legacy of complicity in slavery have been difficult and slow, and the church needs more time to deal with the issue, say several resolutions pending in the Social and Urban Affairs Committee.

In recent hearings at General Convention in Anaheim, members of the committee have considered resolutions A142, A143 and C050, which would extend and expand the Episcopal Church's exploration of its role in the institution of slavery and its modern-day repercussions.

General Convention 2006 passed several resolutions on the subject of the church's complicity in slavery as well as other forms of exploitation and abuse of non-white peoples. The resolutions called on dioceses to explore the history of slavery and its aftermath and to find ways to seek reconciliation and healing.

"The reality is that the two resolutions [on slavery] that were passed in 2006 have elicited a paucity of response," the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, a retiring member of Executive Council, told ENS. "Only 12 or 13 dioceses began to do the work."

On July 9, representatives of several of those dioceses -- New York, Mississippi, North Carolina and Maryland -- outlined how they have worked to study racism and the repercussions of slavery.

The dioceses explored the legacy of slavery and racism in various ways, many of them involving screenings of "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," a film created by Katrina Browne, a descendent of the DeWolf family of Rhode Island, longtime Episcopalians who were slave traders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The film follows Browne and members of her extended family on journeys to Ghana and Cuba and into their own hearts and minds as they wrestled with how they continue to benefit from the buying, selling and labor of enslaved people.

In addition, dioceses created study guides, video programs and other resources for congregations to delve into their own histories and confront the legacies of racism and slavery. (According to Deputy Diane Pollard (New York), chair of the Social and Urban Affairs Committee, the presentations will be made available on the website of the Episcopal Church archives in the future.)

The idea of "reparations" for slavery is a sticking point for many people. However, reparations means more than money, according to a definition prepared by the Diocese of New York: "Reparations is the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is an historical reckoning involving acknowledgement that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice."

Dioceses that have begun the process have found creative ways to connect the study and repentance called for in the resolutions with social action in the present day. Nell Bolton, chair of the church's anti-racism committee, said that her home diocese of Louisiana "had the mask taken off its perennial racism after [Hurricane] Katrina," which pushed the diocese to examine both history and present-day reality.

It's a difficult journey for dioceses, congregations and individuals to undertake, said several speakers. The Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, retired bishop of Mississippi, now assisting in North Carolina, said that in his diocese, some congregations have embraced the process, and some are not even thinking about it. "It varies," he said. "There's a lot of denial, people asking, 'Why do we need to visit our past -- they did it.' The attitude is certainly prevalent. Some are taking it very seriously."

But it's a vital process, he said. "The only healthy past is the one that is acknowledged, confessed, repented and forgiven."

A new addition to the conversation is "Repairing the Breach: The Episcopal Church and Slavery Atonement," a new short documentary created by Browne as a companion to "Traces of the Trade" that was screened on July 11 in Anaheim. The new film, which is narrated by Rodman, outlines the Episcopal Church's complicity in slavery -- for example, churches constructed by slave labor and with money made by slave owners -- and features reactions and comments from a number of prominent Episcopalians, including former Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold.

"Repairing the Breach" also features footage from the November 2008 Service of Repentance and Reconciliation for slavery, during which Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, representing the Episcopal Church, knelt in the nave of St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, to pray for forgiveness for the church's historic complicity in slavery.

A painful legacy: a difficult conversation
Advocates for the continuation resolutions say that the work of addressing the legacy of slavery, racism and exploitation is barely begun. Rodman, who is African-American, addressed the matter of response in "Issues," a General Convention newsletter published by the The Consultation, a coalition of 13 diverse peace and social justice organizations, organized following the General Convention of 1982 (not to be confused with the Chicago Consultation).

"I would hope that we all would be alarmed at the total lack of response to … resolution A127 [from General Convention 2006] that called the church to address the stories of pain and marginalization of the many other groups whose oppression also benefited the church," Rodman wrote.

Others expressed doubt that the resolutions would do much good. Even the service of repentance failed to help, according to R.P.M. Bowden, an African-American Episcopalian and retiring Executive Council member from Atlanta, Georgia, representing Province IV.

"The liturgy they used was not appropriate," he said. "It was written by a white person who had no empathy for the pain that we went through." He said he conveyed his disappointment in many aspects of the service to Executive Council. "It's a matter of planning for us instead of with us."

Reacting to the film, Deputy Mitzi Roy of Milwaukee said she was uplifted by the jubilation of the repentance service, but also doubtful that it had changed anything. "It was too easy," said Roy, who is white. "We're good at ritual."

Several people in the post-screening discussion pointed out that racism -- especially racism aimed at African-Americans -- is still pervasive, in spite of the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

Katrina Browne says that her nine-year journey of discovery that culminated in "Traces" made her deeply aware of the matter of white privilege and institutional racism. Her own family's story illustrates the involvement of the northern states in slavery through the "triangle trade" from Africa to Cuba to the North. Every part of the United States, she said, is involved, even areas where neither slave trading nor slaveholding took place, because the legacy of slavery, especially inequality in education, still causes inequality. "The playing field has not been leveled," she said.

"I am still humbled every day by my blinders," Browne said, "and by what I still have to learn right now, in the midst of absorbing how my sense of entitlement impacts how I walk in the world."

On July 11, she said, she was deeply moved to see news reports of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visiting Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where her ancestors traded in African men and women to bring to America as slaves.

"It was striking that Presiding Obama remarked on being impacted by the sight of a church built over the slave dungeons," said Browne. "Christian churches played a central role in condoning and justifying slavery. There is much reckoning to do in Protestant and Catholic churches, and the Episcopal Church has courageously taken on that work for the last several years, and will hopefully continue to do so."

Even though the progress towards repentance and reconciliation is slow, said Rodman, it's essential that resolutions calling for this work be passed. "If you don't have this mandate on the books," he said, "there's no chance that anyone will do anything about it out of the goodness of their own hearts.

"General Convention has the responsibility to face this, for the soul of church."