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A Harsh Leadership Dispute at a Center for Racial Healing

The former head of a prominent racial-reconciliation center has publicly accused her bishop of an “abuse of power” for allegedly derailing the search for the center’s new executive director. Meanwhile, the bishop asserts that his actions were in the best interest of the center.

“The entire process was usurped by the Bishop,” said Catherine Meeks, the founding executive director of the Atlanta-based Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing. She said Bishop of Atlanta Robert (Rob) Wright installed himself as executive director and board chair after Meeks retired at the end of 2023. Meeks and Wright are both Black.

Meeks made the allegations in an email to clergy in the Diocese of Atlanta on March 14. The timing is significant because on April 2 a nominating committee will announce a slate of candidates to be the next presiding bishop, and Wright is widely believed to be one of the nominees. When asked to confirm that, a spokesperson for the nominating committee said: “a slate of nominees does not yet exist.”

“Please know I remain truly grateful for Dr. Meeks’ work as the founding Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center,” Wright wrote in a March 16 response to the clergy. “In the months leading up to Dr. Meeks’ retirement in December 2023, it became clear that the Center would benefit from additional clarification around its organizational structure, financial sustainability, and the scope of the executive director’s role. I made the decision to pause the process in order to focus on this work.”

Meeks and Wright both declined to discuss the matter beyond their written statements.

The Center for Racial Healing was founded in 2017 as “a collaborative ministry between the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and The Episcopal Church,” according to an archived early version of the center’s website. The current website says the center grew out of an anti-racism training program developed by the Diocese of Atlanta. Meeks was hired to develop the new center, and said in her letter that she agreed to do so for five years, adding that she was 70 years old at the time.

“At the beginning of 2023, the conversations regarding my retiring from the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing began in earnest with our Board Chair, the Rt. Rev. Matt Heyd,” Meeks wrote. A search committee identified two candidates, and decided to bring both of them to Atlanta for a second round of interviews.

“Before we could get to that second step, the Bishop halted the entire transition process on the grounds that he did not know what we were doing. This was a very strange statement,” Meeks wrote, adding that Heyd had emailed a description of the process to Wright and had received comments about it in return. “I have copies of all of those emails, so I am sure that I did not imagine this process,” Meeks wrote. “Currently there is no actual leadership.”

Wright’s letter says the center remains productive. “Since January of 2024, we have appointed a head dismantling-racism trainer, launched a campaign to recruit new trainers, reduced facilities costs, and secured a forty-thousand dollar grant from the Presiding Bishop’s office,” he wrote, adding that the center is exploring new programming opportunities and “actively in conversation” with a potential new executive director.

Meeks, who is the author of several books, is a retired professor from Wesleyan University, and is widely known in racial justice circles throughout the Episcopal Church. She received a President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022. Heyd already was board chair of the center when he was elected bishop coadjutor by the Diocese of New York in December 2022. He took over as bishop diocesan in February 2024. Wright has been Bishop of Atlanta since 2012.

Heyd stepped down as board chair during the search for a new executive director, and Meeks wrote that he “resigned because the process was not moving forward in a productive manner. He did not resign because he was too busy.” Asked if he would confirm that, Heyd responded by email: “I’m honored to be Catherine Meeks’ friend and I’m grateful for the time that I spent on the Absalom Jones Center board. I’m hopeful for the Center’s future.”

The center’s website, which had listed Heyd as chair of the board of directors, now lists a dozen people on an unchaired board of advisors, which does not include Wright, Meeks, or Heyd. Nobody is identified as the current executive director, although a long description of Meeks as “our founding executive director” remains on the site.

The formal ownership of the center is not clear from the public website, and this may be related to the rift. The center is said to be a collaboration between the Diocese of Atlanta and the broader Episcopal Church, but it appears to be managed by the diocese — and thus by Wright. Videos on the website prominently feature the bishop, although he does not appear to have an officer title at the center, he is identified only as Bishop of Atlanta. TLC could not find any bylaws or similar documents spelling out what authority the bishop has over the center.

Meeks’s letter said the center always was intended to move toward independence, and “as we continued to experience the negative vibrations that were being sent our way, the Board decided that we should pursue the route of becoming independent.” A nonprofit database indicates the center was granted 501c(3) nonprofit status in 2023, but no officers are listed.

“When we shared that we had done this work and gotten the tax-exempt status it was met with a sense of horror by the Bishop and his staff,” Meeks wrote. “Some of this seemed to be generated by the fact that the Diocese did not get to write the by-laws and dictate the process.”

The center opened a bank account and deposited some contributions for the new entity. But when Wright took over the transition process, “We closed the account and donated the money to several organizations that are in the justice and healing business, and we have clearly explained that to the Diocese.” She added that “there seemed to be great suspicion about our finances and questions were asked about our way of handling money that indicated a distrust of us which was insulting and caused our treasurer to resign.”

The dispute marks a remarkable collapse in a relationship between two widely respected people who for six years worked closely together in pursuit of racial healing.

In a video currently on the center’s homepage, a smiling Wright says “our beloved Dr. Catherine Meeks has retired, but our work continues on.” ENS reported that at a January 4 retirement event for Meeks, Wright said, “I’m particularly grateful for Catherine’s gift of sharing,” and praised her for staying “engaged in the conversation in a positive light.”

And yet, Meeks filed Title IV disciplinary charges against Wright, alleging “ageism, ableism, microaggressions and abuse of power.” She said the complaint “was dismissed and characterized basically as a personality conflict.”

Title IV of the canons governs disciplinary actions against ordained individuals. It is not a dispute-resolution process, and has no authority over lay people.

None of the alleged offenses are terms used in Title IV. There could be underlying behavior that would represent a canonical violation, but Meeks declined to provide TLC with the 16-page complaint. “I consider that a confidential document which has been summarized in the public document that I have shared,” she said by email.

Meeks said in the letter that Wright had contacted the search committee and said “things about me that were unprofessional and hurtful,” but did not specify details. “I cannot imagine why someone would offer what appeared to be enthusiastic public accolades for me and then would be so disparaging in private,” she wrote.

In his letter, Wright said he was notified February 22 that the Title IV charges had been dismissed. “That conclusion aside, this rupture in a formerly very generative partnership and the subsequent events sadden me deeply,” he wrote. “I remain committed to building on the good work Dr. Meeks and our colleagues began at the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing.”

Since leaving the Center for Racial Healing, Meeks has launched a new vehicle for her work called Turquoise & Lavender: Institute for Transformation and Healing. A website for the institute offers workshops and sales of her books, and a form to schedule her as a speaker.

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