As the tenets of the Jesus Movement spread through the Episcopal Church, it stands to reason that even legislative committees would reflect these changes. One noteworthy addition at the 79th General Convention: the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee, led by Rochester Bishop Prince G. Singh and the Rev. Edwin Johnson of Massachusetts.
Young, energetic, and approachable, Johnson readily explains the shape and function of committee hearings to newcomers and visitors. The soft-spoken Singh adds a contemplative and empathetic presence to the group. As chairmen, the two complement each other, creating an apparently accessible and focused environment where both pain and possibilities coexist.
What has been the focus of this committee?
Singh: We have been looking at resolutions that have to do with everything from curriculum for racial reconciliation, healing, and justice to issues of language, like phrases such as anti-racism — which has been seen, in some ways, as a default or negative, rather than what do we follow.
There was some really good, substantive conversation around not just about the language but the whole idea of what is racismand what do we mean when we say anti-racism. Is it a moving target? Obviously, racism is changing.
[We’ve discussed] everything from content around the training and the competency of engaging people — and making this a part of spiritual formation in congregations and dioceses — to language.
What has the work of the committee been like? How have you navigated concerns and sensitivities?
Johnson: The work has been a blessing. It has been an absolute blessing. You mentioned the challenges, and there have been challenges. We come to this work with different, particular areas of interest. We come to this work with different areas of expertise. I think there’s a deep desire to make sure that everyone who has a stake in making this church what it can be can see themselves in the work of this committee. That’s why we keep the conversation as open as we can, that’s why we acknowledge dissent as much as we possibly can, as well.
What I’m really hopeful about is our committee is diverse and spread out enough that even through the work we’ve done together, those interpersonal ripples will go forth and do as much if not more work than the resolutions themselves.
What are some resolutions the committee has put forward?
Singh: One of the resolutions we passed that’s probably one of the boldest we’ve done has asked the church to dedicate $5 million in the next triennium in order to build competency in this work — because we realize that, end of the day, that the work gets done well only when there are competent leaders who are trained with the facilitation skills.
Taking some of the best practices and moving people to come together for a summit, for instance — just as we have one for evangelism — to come and build networks, build resources, share best practices, and then to do the work so that people who are struggling in places where nothing or very little has happened will find a way to move forward in this work. It is a very significant part of us being beloved community and becoming beloved community.
The priorities laid out by the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies have been received well by this committee. It’s a very competent group, a good cross-section of the church. But also, experience-wise, a lot of people have been doing this work for a long time, and people who started doing this work more recently. It’s a good combination.
Has the $5 million ask gone before Program, Budget, and Finance yet?
Singh: It has. It caught them a little off-guard — very much off-guard, in some ways. But in some ways, no. For instance, the House of Bishops voted unanimously to support that. We have some detailing to do, but everybody is conscious that the church has an opportunity to stand up at a time like this, when there’s so much racial tension in our country; and not only in our country but across the Episcopal Church, in many other countries.
During testimony today, I heard more than one person of color talk about that tension — and feeling isolated while working for racial justice, especially on the ground. It’s not a secret that the Episcopal Church is rather white in many contexts. Yet I’ve seen more people of color involved with this General Convention than any I’ve seen before. Is this a fair statement, and do you think something’s happening right now in the church?
Johnson: I think it’s a very fair statement, and I think a lot is happening. For one, the ways that different dioceses and congregations have thrown themselves into the work of social justice has both brought forth more participation from the people of color who are already here and has brought new people of color into our church. I think this greater amount that you’re seeing is a reflection of what’s happening in our church. Also, if we look at our country — our country is moving that way, overall. Thankfully, we’re not so far behind that we’re not seeing it. I think that’s a very positive trend, and I think the work we’re trying to do as a committee is to make sure that this doesn’t just manifest as a more colorful convention, but actually it manifests as something that changes the heart of our church.
What would you like to see the heart of the church change into?
Johnson: Ultimately, I would love to see the heart of our church be more centered around the experiences of those who are most vulnerable. I believe that if we can truly, as a church, not just think but live the fact that my liberation is tied in with the liberation of other people and that none of us are free until all of us are free — if we can get to the point where everything about us — the way we live, move, breathe, and meet — can really accomplish that, then we’ve been transformed. And I think we’re where Jesus wants us to be.