Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Black Lives Matter and the Episcopal Church

Lately there is much conversation and soul-searching in the Episcopal Church on the topic of race and our national legacy of slavery and segregation (in which our church shares).

It is a long overdue discussion.

Our church history includes bishops who owned slaves and parishes that were very much a part of the system of racial oppression.

We even had a bishop, Leonidas Polk, who resigned his holy orders to take up arms as a general in the Confederate army. As a church, we've never have wrestled with our history and the meaning of these events.

Much of our recent conversation has been prompted by the cascade of racially-charged incidents from Ferguson to Florida. In the Southern church where I've served for the past seven years, our University students pricked the conscience – and memory – of an older generation that lived through the civil rights era of a half-century ago. "Black Lives Matter" has become a mantra not just in the streets but in our pews.

Let us also remember that our history as a church has bright spots worth celebrating. Last week we honored the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was shot down protecting an African American child from bullets in Alabama in 1965. I am also mindful that the bishop who confirmed me, James Pike, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

My parish in Charlottesville Virginia stood publicly against segregation in the 1950s when it really counted – and withstood the wrath of its bishop.

Bishop Michael Curry
I am also mindful of several amazing developments just in the last few weeks. Our national General Convention, our highest governing body, just elected the Right Rev. Michael Curry as our next presiding bishop. He will be the first black presiding bishop in the two-centuries-plus history of our church. Currently the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, Bishop Curry will begin his nine-year term at the helm of our church in November.

Bishop Curry is a dynamic preacher and a courageous leader. He will doubtless zero-in to those places and practices where we are the most uncomfortable and in need of change. He will challenge us not only to bring people of color into our pews, but will push us to get out onto the streets and into the fields where people are desperate to hear the gospel of hope that Jesus brings.

A day after his election, Bishop Curry marched in Salt Lake City with other several thousand people to protest gun violence in our country. I was privileged to also be in the march. At the end of the march, he addressed the crowd: "Do you know why black lives matter?" he said. "Because ALL lives matter."

Many of our current bishops recently went on a pilgrimage to Alabama to the milestones of the Civil Rights movement. A new wind is blowing in our church.

Finally, the death of Julian Bond is much on my mind in recent days. He was a young, thoughtful, and courageous civil rights leader in the 1960s. Many thought he was intellectual leader of the movement. Decades later he taught history at the University of Virginia, and touched the lives of thousands of students.

I made his acquaintance in 1993 when I was working on a biography of Willie Brown, who was then the Speaker of the California Assembly and arguably the most powerful black politician in the United States.

Bond gave me his perspective on the differences and similarities of the civil rights movement in the West and the South. He was unfailingly polite and patient with my many questions. A friend of mine recently observed that he might have been our first African American president had the country been ready for that in his era.

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to offer a few other thoughts on these topics and I hope you will join me in this conversation.


  1. Thank you for this and for making this Blog accessible to your new family at Incarnation