By Kirk Petersen

About 400 clergy and lay people from 80 dioceses gathered in Cleveland Heights March 14-17 for the Episcopal Church’s second Evangelism Matters conference. It was a program of worship, fellowship, inspiration, and advice on “practical evangelism with an Episcopal heart,” in the words of the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation, and stewardship of creation.

The conference is part of an effort to inspire “a dramatic change in culture” in the church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said. He described a culture change that has already occurred: If you asked “How does your church serve others?” of the average Episcopalian in the 1950s, the answer likely would center on worship and Sunday school, and maybe hosting an AA meeting or the Girl Scouts.

“If you asked the average Episcopalian today, the word outreach would probably come up in the conversation,” Curry said.

“That was a profound culture change in the Episcopal Church,” he said. “I pray for the day when evangelism is as common in the Episcopal Church, and comes alongside outreach and justice and service, as an equal partner as what we do as a church.”

“Evangelism is first and foremost a spiritual practice,” Spellers said, rather than a way to attract more people to church. “Here’s the definition: we seek, name, and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people — and then, invite everyone to more.” In an “Episcopal 101” workshop, participants unpacked that definition phrase by phrase.

One plenary session featured Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, interviewing each other about painful experiences in their lives, then describing how they had recovered through the evangelism of others.

Curry described how his maternal grandmother moved in with his family in the late 1960s when his mother had a cerebral hemorrhage that left her semi-comatose and proved fatal nearly a year later. His father and grandmother would take the kids to the nursing home most evenings to do their homework and watch TV in their mother’s room. “I didn’t know that they were teaching me not to be afraid of sickness,” Curry said. “And they were teaching me how to walk through death.”

“Our beloved daughter died in 2010,” Jennings said. “I didn’t really blame God,” but she found that being in church brought up too many emotions. “I can’t pray,” she told a friend who was a priest. “I just am not there.” And he said, “You know what? I’ll pray for you. For this next month, don’t you worry about it. … He really carried me through that month.”

Jennings told another story that led to one sour note. She described her revulsion at a childhood playmate, in an incident when Jennings was 9 and growing up in a privileged family. The other girl used a racial slur to refer to “Laura,” the woman who provided child care for Jennings’s family.

“Frankly, I beat her up,” Jennings said. “Laura came and pulled me off my now former friend, took me home, and sat me down, and evangelized to me about how we treat those who do not yet understand the respect and dignity of every human being. And then I got swatted with a newspaper.”

Rather than using a euphemism in recounting the story, Jennings quoted her playmate’s invective. The Rev. Marcus Halley, whose Twitter profile says he is a DMin student at Sewanee, tweeted: “I am trying to remain open, but the fetishizing of black religion and the actual use of the word … by a white woman is unacceptable. Nope. #EM2018”

This prompted tweets by people outside the room who did not know the context. Later in the day, Jennings tweeted “I apologize and ask forgiveness,” which Halley noted and said, “I appreciate her apology & the space she created to listen.”

In a wrap-up session, the Rev. Frank Logue, a co-convener of the conference who is also canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Georgia, said that while the incident was unfortunate, “it’s also sparked, I think, important conversations that in some cases are leading toward reconciliation.”

He added, “What we need to do is take opportunities life gives us, to begin to build the beloved community that we all long for.”

Throughout the conference, Curry and other speakers emphasized the need to focus continuously on Jesus in their evangelism efforts, as part of “deepening faith formation of Episcopalians.” Curry’s clarion call from the day he took office has been “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” He poked a bit of fun at himself: “I’m a one-note Charlie,” he said. “And y’all knew it when you elected me.”

Video of the plenary sessions and some workshops, along with daily recaps, is available at evangelismmatters.org.

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