By Kirk Petersen
While meeting on “lands that were tended by the Taíno peoples, taken from them and renamed San Juan, Puerto Rico,” the Executive Council made two substantial commitments in support of Indigenous people at its April 20-23 meeting.
The council approved:
- A multi-year commitment to retain independent historians to study and document the extent of the Episcopal Church’s complicity in the Indigenous boarding school movement, which sought to “kill the Indian and save the man”; and
- A two-year pilot program with Bexley Seabury Seminary to develop culturally responsive theological education programs for Indigenous clergy and lay leaders.
The boarding school initiative will be overseen by a 15-person committee, a majority of them to be Indigenous Episcopalians with a variety of tribal affiliations. The effort will be led by one or more independent historians, not connected to the Episcopal Church, “to ensure the integrity of any conclusions reached, no matter how difficult those may be for the Church.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their families, sometimes by force, and shipped to boarding schools hundreds of miles from their homes. At the schools, the children were forced to cut their hair and wear European-style uniforms, and were punished for speaking their native languages. Some were subject to various forms of abuse, and some never returned home.
Many of the hundreds of boarding schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church, but the Rev. Dr. Bradley Hauff, missioner for Indigenous ministries, told the council at a previous meeting that there were at least nine Episcopal boarding schools.
The committee will make regular reports about the progress in thoroughly documenting the extent of Episcopal complicity in the assimilation efforts, and will develop advocacy initiatives to respond to the findings. The committee will continue its work through the end of the 2027 General Convention, subject to possible extension.
As for the theological education initiative, Hauff told a council committee that there currently are only four Indigenous persons enrolled at Episcopal seminaries, a situation he described as “a crisis.”
Hauff, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has multiple graduate degrees, including a masters of divinity. However, financial and cultural considerations make it impractical for many Indigenous people to pursue a traditional, three-year residential M.Div. program.
“We need an educational program that will not require us to relocate, to leave our families and our cultural context, and that also is sensitive to indigenous models of learning,” he told a committee hearing.
Under a memorandum of understanding approved by the council, the Episcopal Church and Chicago-based Bexley Seabury will collaborate in running two theological education programs: a “competency-based, mentor-assessed” M.Div. program for up to 10 students; and a “Two Plus Two” undergraduate program in applied theology for lay leaders, in conjunction with Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, also for up to 10 students.
From the Episcopal side, the effort will be led by the Rev. Dr. Mary Crist, who was hired in 2019 as the Indigenous theological education coordinator, and has been working ever since to develop the initiatives just approved by Executive Council.
Crist, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, said the programs are designed to help Indigenous students understand the connections between Anglican theology and their tribal traditions, “so they don’t have to choose to be either Indigenous or Episcopalian or Anglican.”
Each program is supported by separate $200,000 grants from Trinity Wall Street Church.
The Rev. Cornelia Eaton of the Navajoland Area Mission is one of two Indigenous members of Executive Council. The other, the Rev. Angela Goodhouse-Mauai, a member of the Lakota tribe from the Diocese of North Dakota, was one of several council members participating remotely.
Eaton told TLC that the two programs represented “a historic moment for the Indigenous peoples.” She added, “It’s a part of healing, it’s a part of coming together as community, because over 500 years we’ve had so many traumas that have come upon the people.”
Episcopal Migration Ministries
In other matters, the council heard an update from Demetrio Alvero, the operations director for Episcopal Migration Ministries, who has been leading the efforts of EMM to reinvent itself in the face of dramatic cutbacks in the flow of refugees during the Trump administration.
He evoked both sadness and well wishes by announcing that he plans to retire as of the end of September, after 14 years in leadership roles at EMM and more than four decades of experience in refugee resettlement.
“We always say no one is irreplaceable, but some are close,” said the Rev. Chuck Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church, to whom Alvero reports.
A search is already under way, with an emphasis on finding candidates with experience in refugee resettlement, who can then learn what they need to know about the Episcopal Church, Robertson said.
In late March, the Biden administration announced plans to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, and Alvero said EMM is continuing to rebuild its capacity to support those and other refugees. The agency is also developing programs to enable individual refugees to be supported by local congregations.
In an unusual public-private partnership, EMM for four decades has been one of a handful of independent agencies (currently nine), most of them faith-based, that have administered the federal government’s refugee resettlement programs.
The Rev. Patty Downing, council member from the Diocese of Delaware, touched off an extended, unscheduled conversation on the wisdom of gathering in person in July for the General Convention, given continued concerns about new COVID variants and breakthrough infections.
“What is the mission-critical issue of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that will occur at the 80th General Convention that is worth the risk? We have proven at this meeting and our previous forums that there are other options,” she said.
She said that while COVID does not discriminate based on social status, the healthcare system does. She told council that when she contracted COVID in 2020, she was hospitalized for more than two weeks, part of it in intensive care, and missed more than three months of work. Yet she never missed a paycheck, and because of health insurance, her out-of-pocket medical costs were only $2,000.
“I am a person of privilege. Many of us cannot say the same,” she said.
The Rev. Michael Barlowe, head of the General Convention Office, said church leadership was continuing to plan for contingencies and monitoring changes in federal health recommendations. Current policy, as adopted in December 2021, requires proof of vaccination or a medical exemption for all persons attending General Convention, and mandates that masks be worn in all public spaces and meetings, regardless of vaccination status.
He said some potential precautions are not canonically permissible. President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings added that virtual participation in the House of Bishops and House of Deputies is not allowed. A bishop or deputy must be physically present to be heard or have a vote.
Beginning in February, the General Convention Office has implemented online legislative hearings that will reduce the need for lengthy meetings in crowded conference rooms when the 80th General Convention convenes in Baltimore, July 7-14. The convention had been scheduled in the same location for 2021, but was postponed because of the pandemic.
The length of the convention was reduced by one day, and participation and some events have been scaled back. Instead of the 10,000 people who originally were expected to participate in some part of the General Convention, the current expectation is for 5,000 people or more.
Jennings, whose tenure as President of the House of Deputies is term-limited and will end at the closing gavel July 14, told the council that this was her 49th, and final, Executive Council meeting. She served as a member of the council for six years before her election as PHoD in 2012, and her third three-year term was extended by a year when the General Convention was postponed. Her successor will be elected July 11.
Members of Executive Council and the Church Pension Fund board of trustees will hold at least four meetings before the 2024 General Convention to “address mutual policy concerns posed by changing demographics, changing understandings of church in society, and changing expectations of and for clergy — including current and retired lay employees of The Episcopal Church.” CPF is separately incorporated, but General Convention appoints its board of directors.
The council was faced with a $6.5 million budget surplus, due in large part to greatly reduced travel during the pandemic. Several years ago the council had decided that any future budget surplus should be allocated 20 percent to short-term reserves, and 80 percent to the trust fund, income from which is an important part of the annual budget. Some council members over the past year have lobbied for spending more of the surplus on current needs, given that the church is in strong financial shape. The council voted to allocate 80 percent, or $5.2 million, to a new trust fund that would not be part of the annual budget draw, but would be available to spend on new or ongoing initiatives.
Despite long-standing concerns about the decline of religion in America, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry opened the meeting with a message of hope. He cited a national “Jesus in America” study conducted on the church’s behalf by Ipsos, a professional polling firm, that found 84 percent of all Americans — not just Christians — believe “Jesus was a spiritual teacher worth listening to.” He added that the church “has a future, whether its statistics rise or fall. I’m not worried about the Episcopal Church, because God’s been around a long time.”