By Neva Rae Fox
Prayers and protests prevail across the land as people continue take to the streets to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with no end in sight. While people’s perspectives, learnings, and subsequent behavioral changes may vary, the intensity and dedication to Black Lives Matter is clearly crucial to many Episcopalians, clergy and lay, Black and white, young and old.
“We are still learning,” stated the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Ph.D., of St. Luke’s in Washington, DC. “This is a movement and not a moment. Black lives have not mattered with the exception of being beasts of burden, chattel property – more like real estate – since the 1600s.”
Fisher-Stewart, who serves as president of the DC chapter of Union of Black Episcopalians, said, “Until we are seen as human beings, participating fully in the promises of our founding documents, there is still much to learn.”
“The Black Lives Matter movement brings two important lessons to the Episcopal Church,” noted the Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. “First, none of God’s people are free, until all of God’s people are free. Right now, that means the freedom of Black people is of utmost importance to our faith.”
Jarrett-Schell, a white priest married to an African American priest, concluded, “Second, not all God’s prophets stand within the Church, or speak our familiar language of our piety.”
The Rt. Rev. Craig Loya, the newly consecrated bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, found himself at the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement when he was ordained bishop on June 6, only 12 days after the death of George Floyd.
“I am grateful to be called to the ministry of bishop in a moment when the call of the gospel is both so clear and so urgently needed,” he said. “Jesus’ way of love always calls us to stand with those who are marginalized by the structures and powers of our world. The heartbreak and the outpouring of righteous anger at the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is an invitation from the Holy Spirit for the whole church to commit in deeper ways, and for the long haul, to the work of accounting for and repenting of the systemic racism that permeates our own church, and to join with those who are working for radical transformation in the wider society.”
The Rev. Louise Thibodaux, deacon at St. Thomas in the Diocese of Alabama, offered a reflection on how the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., echo today. “I have lived for the past 45 years in Birmingham, the city where Martin Luther King penned his famous letter to clergy. These past few weeks, the phrase that has kept coming back to me is, ‘if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.’ What seems more obvious to me now is that the power of the church to define and orchestrate ‘the solutions’ is more closely related to ‘the problem’ than I had realized before.”
Thibodaux continued, “Initially, I was one who took offense at the term ‘Black lives matter.’ I would respond ‘No, all lives matter!’ What I have come to see is that ALL lives won’t ever matter until we own up to the ways that we have treated the people we have kept on the margins — kept them there for whatever reason. So, I’m not afraid to say that I personally have been part of the problem. I’m not afraid to challenge the institutional church to own that it also has perpetuated the problem. I look forward to becoming a better listener and a better observer of the world around me and an observer of the ways that God’s kingdom may just be sneaking in.”
The Rev. Karl E. Griswold-Kuhn of Church of the Messiah in Glens Falls, New York addressed the joys of fatherhood in the context of Black Lives Matter, as a white father to a Black daughter.
“In the past I was lukewarm about the #blm movement,” he shared. “I agreed with the principles and the need to be supportive for my Black brothers and sisters, but I was happy to do so from a distance. Then God brought Miss Judith into our lives and I can no longer be silent. To look at this amazing little lady and think that someone might mistreat her or do her harm simply because of her skin color makes me furious and sick!”
He went on, “I am truly sorry to the Black community for my lack of participation in standing up for justice in the past. God has allowed me to be the papa of an amazing, strong, courageous, brave, hilarious Black woman and I couldn’t be prouder! On this, her second birthday, I promise to never be lukewarm about such an important and biblical issue of justice for all God’s children, especially those from the Black community. Please forgive me and know that I now stand with you. I am grateful God has already used my daughter to bring great change to someone’s life… mine.”
Deacon Canon Jacquie Bouthéon in the Diocese of Toronto offered an international perspective: “It seems that the assault on George Floyd has become the ‘tipping point’ in a movement which has been present in our society for a long time. Whether it was the deliberate action of one police officer in one situation, the broad publicity given to it in social media and the internet or the perception of it being one act in a long and cumulative series, it has provoked reactions of varying intensity around the world.
“Some of those reactions have been logically connected to the deaths of people of color at the hands of police forces, but some of it has spilled over into a demand to erase any and all evidence of past prejudice and discrimination. As a history major, I wonder how the removal of statues, the renaming of streets and schools and the general attempts to ‘scrub’ our past can improve the future; surely it would be better to acknowledge that past, learn from it so that it is not repeated, and work together to ensure that the situation changes on all levels.
“There needs to be a deep rethinking of our attitudes to each other, especially to those who in whatever way are different from us.”