The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton brought members of his flock into a sacred space December 16 for what he knew would be a difficult but necessary conversation about race.
“I find that most whites say, ‘I don’t like to talk about it.’ And I find that most blacks also dread having this conversation,” said Sutton, the first black Bishop of Maryland. “But if the Church can’t have this conversation, who can and where can it happen?”
About 100 people gathered in the Cathedral of the Incarnation’s nave in Baltimore for what the Rev. Rob Boulter, acting dean, said was a “time for some truth-telling and some truth-hearing.”
Many echoed Sutton’s reluctance to talk about a subject that has been in the national news since a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. That decision, and a subsequent one by a New York City grand jury, has sparked protests across the nation.
Sutton did not want to limit the conversation to those judicial decisions. He began by reading a list of nearly 20 unarmed black men who had been shot dead by police or security officers in the country in the last three years.
“We need to know why this is happening, and we want to talk about that,” he said.
The session ran the gamut of emotions. The Rev. James Perra, who is white, noted his personal difficulties with the issue, as well as the challenge of bringing this subject to his parish in Locust Point. Janet McMannis said even white liberals fall into an us-versus-them mode when talking about race.
For others, the reluctance involved relating painful stories about having to give up a seat to a white person, or enduring countless stings of rejection and suspicion. The Rev. Glenna Huber, who is black, said she was angry and tired of having to fight this issue year after year.
Still, others were impressed that the diocese had decided to take on the issue.
“I’m so happy that we’re having this conversation today,” said Reba Bullock, president of the Maryland chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. “I personally feel that the Church has a moral obligation to change the hearts of people.”
The Rev. Adrien Dawson said the Church was being “called out” to model what it means to be a diverse community. She also said Sutton and other leaders had not taken the lead in responding to the grand juries’ decisions. Sutton said he wanted to have the conversation before making a formal statement.
Bishop Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said America needs to have an intentional conversation about race. Herz-Lane, who was raised in Germany, said his country dealt with the legacy of Adolf Hitler and Nazism only after having such conversations. The same was true in South Africa, he said, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped that country confront its history of apartheid. Lacking such a similar conversation, America would never get to the heart of its struggle with racism, Herz-Lane said.
Sutton said an “unholy alliance” of race, class, and violence compounds the country’s problems. He described one study in which blacks and whites misidentified a black man as being armed in a photo of a confrontation with a white man. In fact, it was the white man who was armed with a knife. The black man was unarmed.
“Racism is a disease and we are all infected, all of us to some extent,” said Sutton, who encouraged those attending to continue the conversation “You don’t have to have a black person present to have a conversation about race.”
M. Dion Thompson
The conversation is available on demand through the diocese’s website. Image: The Rev. Adrien Dawson addresses Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton during a December 16 conversation on race and violence in America. • Diocese of Maryland photo