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News alerts from the New York Times arrive in my email, sometimes several times a day, depending on what is going on in the world. Last Friday, November 15, during the Episcopal Church’s State of Racism webinar, one of these alerts was about charges being filed against Theodore Paul Wafer in Detroit for shooting Renisha McBride in the face as she knocked on his door, looking for help. McBride, the victim, is Black. Wafer, the accused, is White. This is the quote that caught my attention: “Asked if race was an issue, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym L. Worthy, at a news conference Friday morning, said, “Race is not relevant.”
Leaping to conclusions about the irony of that news lead coming in the middle of that webinar, only later did I read the full story, discovering that the Wayne County prosecutor is herself an African-American. So how do I hold this information now? I, we as church and culture, have so far to go on this issue. Yet, would I even have checked my assumptions had I not been in that webinar and forum?
Twenty-five people gathered in the library of Easton Hall on the CDSP campus last Friday to participate in the webcast and follow up conversations on the topic of The State of Racism in America. Why were there not 250 people there? How did this slip by, virtually unnoted in many dioceses? It is now available for on-demand viewing through The Episcopal Church website at this link. It is absolutely worth 90 minutes of your life to watch it.
For those gathered at CDSP, the opportunity to watch and discuss it together created added value to the challenge of learning about the state of racism. A mix of students, faculty, alums and staff from CDSP as well as clergy and lay members of local congregations and diocesan staff allowed for a rich conversation. Thoughtful questions for small group discussion enabled participants to respond to each webinar panel. People were open, sharing personal stories and questions and comments that created a mini-climate of trust, a moment in time when defensive shields were lowered a degree and the Holy Spirit snuck in. This was an important conversation to have in a seminary. It should not be a singular event.
A CDSP alum who phoned in was part of a small group I was in. He recalled a program at Virginia Theological Seminary several years ago, part of a week-long event in which the entire seminary was engaged. The topic was VTS’s own shadowed past on race, confronting a time in when faculty and students brought their slaves with them to seminary, to serve them and care for their creaturely comforts. Examining diaries and letters and other primary source material from their own archives, the whole seminary confronted this part of their history and explored ways it has influenced that institution. The alum suggested CDSP might consider something similar—a project to be engaged at all levels of the school; one that would delve into our archives and include oral history. Together we would learn about those who came as minorities to CDSP, how their education influenced them and what influence they have carried into the church and the world. The point of this effort would be not only to break open CDSP’s own story but also strengthen our capacity for racial and cultural diversity going forward. As a Family Systems Therapist, I love this idea because I know that individuals and families and institutions that have the courage to confront the secrets and shortcomings of their past will have healthier relationships now and in the future. It is heartening to know that the experience of this webinar resulted in a challenge from an alum and offers us an opportunity to act as a result on this church-wide form. Let the conversation continue!
--The Rev. L. Ann Hallisey, D.Min. is dean of students at CDSP