The following are the opening remarks of President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings at the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, currently meeting through October 21 at the Embassy Suites Montgomery Hotel and Conference Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
October 18, 2019
Good morning, and welcome to Montgomery. I’m glad to be here with all of you after my long summer of recovering from shoulder replacement surgery, and I’m even more glad to have escaped, if only briefly, the clutches of my physical therapist. I suspect he actually enjoys putting me through those torturous exercises that are only for my own good.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time preparing for our visit to Montgomery. Like many of you, I’ve been reading about the deeply transformative work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which we will have the chance to learn more about and experience tomorrow when we visit the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. His tenacious commitment to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in our country’s criminal justice system is both convicting and illuminating for any of us who came of age believing that in the United States, the police and the legal system are impartial and that anyone who is innocent will emerge unscathed.
The deep injustices in our justice system are no recent invention. Stevenson’s work and witness teach us about the inextricable connections between the enslavement of Africans, the reign of terror known as Jim Crow, and the modern-day systemic racism that leads to our country incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. No matter what part of the country we live in, these racist systems have shaped our communities, our economies, and our congregations. And as a predominantly white church, they have shaped—and continue to shape—the Episcopal Church’s structures and the historic wealth and economic privilege that we, as the Executive Council, are charged with stewarding. As we consider how to use our money and our influence to fulfill our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, Stevenson’s work poses essential questions and challenges to the way we’ve always done things.
Since I was grounded this summer, I also took the opportunity to learn more about how my home city of Cleveland, Ohio, is working on issues of racial justice. In August, I attended a training presented by the Racial Equity Institute, an organization headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina. The training was sponsored by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, an organization dedicated to revitalizing communities in our city, which is one of the most segregated in the country. The event was called “Racial Equity Workshop, Phase 1: Foundations in Historical and Institutional Racism.” People—black, white, Latino and Asian people—came from across northeast Ohio for two full and intense days together. This experience was very different from the way we often approach these issues in the church, and I want to tell you about three aspects of it that challenged me and stayed with me.
First, most of the people in this group did not know each other, and the focus was not on building relationships or telling stories. There weren’t any other church leaders in this particular group, and I didn’t know anyone except one colleague who attended with me. No one knew or cared what a president of the House of Deputies is or does, and that gave me a new kind of opportunity to learn. If you haven’t stepped out of the church bubble for a while, I commend it to you. Now, because church is church, I did discover that one of the trainers was a UCC pastor who is married to an Episcopal priest, and so we played the one degree of separation game familiar to all of us. But otherwise, this was not a church kind of program.
Second, the Racial Equity Institute says that this workshop is “designed to develop the capacity of participants to better understand racism in its institutional and structural forms. Moving away from a focus on personal bigotry and bias, this workshop presents a historical, cultural, and structural analysis of racism. With shared language and a clearer understanding of how institutions and systems are producing unjust and inequitable outcomes, participants should leave the training better equipped to begin to work for change.” Over and over again during the course of the training, we were pushed beyond simply condemning individual bigotry and racist acts to face the fact that racism is “a system of advantage for those considered white, and of oppression for those who are not considered white.” This emphasis makes it far harder to think of racism as a problem of those other people—the ones we know better than, the ignorant ones, the ones we shame on social media. Once we start to understand racism as a system of advantage for those of us considered white and a system of oppression for those not considered white, things get a good deal more complicated.
Third, the history that most of us learned in school is riddled with stories—you might call them myths—that render invisible the way that race, or what we think of as race, has created and sustained our economy and our social structures, including our churches. Here’s an example: Right here in Montgomery, at St. John’s, where we will worship on Sunday, the rector and the vestry recently removed a pew that they had long believed had been in place since the beginning of the Civil War and that was known as the Jefferson Davis pew. It had a plaque—one way to make a myth into a fact is to put a plaque on it—saying that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, sat in that pew when he was in Montgomery for the few months in 1861 when this city, rather than Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy.
Now, it turns out that Jefferson Davis wasn’t confirmed as an Episcopalian until he moved to Richmond, so based on the rules of the church at that time, the plaque proudly proclaiming that Davis was a communicant of St. John’s probably wasn’t true. But more important than that—the pew wasn’t actually recognized as Davis’s pew until 1925, when it was dedicated on Pentecost Sunday. A segregationist named John Trotwood Moore, who had been instrumental in defeating an anti-lynching bill in Congress, spoke at the dedication. He was avowedly pro-lynching. This is consistent with what we know about the erection of many of the Confederate memorials that have been removed in recent years: they were put up decades after the Civil War during times when white supremacist power structures were under attack. As Jane Dailey, a history professor at the University of Chicago told NPR last year, "Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather erecting them toward a white supremacist future."
I fear that we live in that future now, and I know that God is calling us in the Episcopal Church to do something about it. We must unlearn the history we have been taught, we must step outside of our communities when we become comfortable in our self-righteousness, and we must refuse to be lulled into complacency by thinking that all we need to do to end racism is make new friends and tell old stories.
I don’t expect that what we will see and learn while we are here in Montgomery will be easy, but I am sure that it is necessary for us to continue coming to terms with what the gospel of Jesus Christ calls the Episcopal Church to be. I am grateful to be doing this hard work with all of you.