A new program offers congregations a way to explore the legacy of slavery
In 1853, the state of Illinois passed a law prohibiting free black people from settling in the state. Twelve years later, the measure was repealed, and Illinois became the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery. Those conflicting impulses continue to manifest themselves every day in communities across the Diocese of Chicago, which has its headquarters in one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
The diocese has been grappling for years with how racism affects and infects not only the communities it serves, but also its diocesan institutions and congregations. The most recent effort began with the creation of the Task Force on the Legacy of Slavery in 2009 and gained momentum when the task force published its final report, “A Call to Faithfulness: an Invitation to a Committed Journey” in 2013.
Following publication of the report, the Antiracism Commission began to develop a resource for congregational study, the Pathway to Reconciliation, and to train facilitators to bring the Pathway program into congregations across the diocese. Over the last year, clergy and lay leaders from at least 17 parishes attended the training offered at St. James Commons, St. Paul & the Redeemer in Chicago, and St. Benedict’s in Bolingbrook. Several congregations used the Pathway program during the year.
For parishes concerned about taking on subjects as sensitive as racism and white privilege, Rory Smith, a member of the Standing Committee and the Antiracism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, who has been instrumental in developing the Pathway program, has some reassuring words. “My work with the Antiracism Commission has taught me there is more than one way to approach anti-racism. One thing we talk about is the labyrinth of reconciliation … You can enter a labyrinth where everyone is at a different point along the path. Our bishop has been quoted as saying, ‘Enter where you are. But God loves you too much to leave you there,’ and I believe that.”
“You can enter a labyrinth where everyone is at a different point along the path. Our bishop has [said], ‘Enter where you are. But God loves you too much to leave you there.’”
Some congregations prepare people for anti-racism work through film or book discussion groups that help people develop a common understanding of the issue, Smith says. “Facilitators recognize the challenges that people will have with this conversation. What we tell people is, ‘have no fear because God is with you.’ This is God’s work and, as it says in Isaiah 41:10, ‘So do not fear, for I am with you; … I will strengthen you and help you.’”
St. John’s Church in the Old Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago has been involved in anti-racism work for more than six years, and its website features a large list of resources including recommended books and novels. “We built a larger number of people willing
to deal with how racism affects and infects life in the U.S.,” says Mike Underhill, co-facilitator of St John’s anti-racism team. Two years ago, Underhill, the Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer and parishio- ners Laura Singer and Eddie Dzialo attended “Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism.” The training was presented by Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism and subsidized by the diocese’s Antiracism Commission. “That’s what lit the fire at St. John’s,” Underhill said.
St. John’s, Christ Church, Waukegan, and Smith’s home parish of St. Thomas, Chicago, were among the first to employ the Pathway program. A six-session undertaking, Pathway examines the legacy of slavery in the United States, in the diocese and in its congregations through film and video, written materials and small group conversation with scripture reading and prayer woven through each session.
Topics include America’s Legacy of Slavery, What Does Our Faith Require of Us, and A Call to Faithfulness: Reimagining Our Diocese.
“They are pretty well-scripted sessions,” says Anne Smith, who facilitated the program at Christ Church, Waukegan, as part of her field work as a postulant for the diaconate. “They last anywhere from two to three hours. It really works. When I did it, it was as part of a group of people in our congregations with a pretty good commitment of coming to all six sessions and spreading them over a few months.”
The program not only enables congregations to have important conversations, but it brings members of the congregation closer together, says Diane Shalda, co-chair of the Antiracism Commission, who recently facilitated a group at her own parish, St. James Cathedral.
“You really get to know people on an intimate level because people share things that don’t usually come up in conversations over coffee,” she says. “That’s why we say, ‘What is said in the room stays in the room.’ Because this conversation isn’t always comfortable, it takes courage to speak out about our experiences.”
Some experiences are so common that it betrays no confidences to share them. “Something you hear frequently from white people who first learn about northern complicity in the slave trade is, ‘I had no idea,’” Anne Smith said. This concept is sometimes introduced by viewing the film “Traces of the Trade,” which chronicles filmmaker Katarina Browne’s efforts to come to terms with the discovery that one branch of her family, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island, was the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. (Browne also developed Sacred Ground, a film-based dialogue series on race and faith recently released by the Episcopal Church for use in congregations.)
“Every one of us has to own this,” Smith said. “Don’t fall asleep here just because your family didn’t have slaves or didn’t arrive during slavery.”
As the program progresses, participants begin to discuss the ways in which racism is not simply a matter of holding prejudicial beliefs. “One of things was getting clear on what racism is,” Underhill says. “There is racial prejudice, but there are also structural systems, policies, programs that affect who gets house mortgages and how much they have to pay for them; what are sentencing guidelines and how are they implemented; do you live in an area where the Chicago public high schools teach calculus or not?
“Those are some of the ways we think about racism. … You may have a good heart and be willing to accept other people, but you have to think at the level of systems, too.”
For many participants, the high point of the Pathway sessions is the creation of what is known as the quilt of history, although what is created is not precisely a quilt.
“We used a shower curtain,” Anne Smith says. “It’s more like a grid. What you have across the top is time periods from the colonial to contemporary, and down the side you have communities, our country, our church, our diocese, our parish. And in the grid, you have the events that were happening in those communities at that time.
“That makes it visual. You can see the themes. One of the glaring words that is in our history as a member of the Episcopal Church is ‘silence.’ Instead of standing up for what you think is right, you say nothing so you maintain the unity of the church. That was some- thing for us to look at.”
Dealing with a congregation’s history is sometimes a sensitive matter, Shalda says. “St. James had a lot of prominent white founders of Chicago in the parish, like Potter Palmer of the Palmer House. How did they benefit from the legacy of slavery? How did they benefit from silence? And in being silent about what was going on, how were they complicit?”
“Every one of us has to own this. Don’t fall asleep here just because your family didn’t have slaves or didn’t arrive during slavery.”
The study guide also asks probing questions about how the diocese allocated resources during the post-World War II period when white Episcopalians began moving to the suburbs, and diocesan resources followed them.
Regardless of the racial or ethnic make-up of the congregation, it is the practice of the Antiracism Commission to have a facilitator of color and a white facilitator work together with each group. In Waukegan, Anne Smith, who is white, worked frequently with Rory Smith (no relation) who is black.
Anne Smith says conversations about systems sometimes come more naturally in racially mixed groups. At Christ Church, Waukegan, she facilitated a group made up of African Americans, African immigrants, Caribbean Americans with African ancestors, and whites. “I have found that more fruitful than when I have done studies of books or videos where everyone is white,” she says.
But the diocese includes large numbers of parishes that are almost entirely white. Underhill says such parishes have essential work to do.
“If you are living in the Chicago or Chicago metro area, you are automatically affected by racism, and it affects our whole life together as a community and as a metropolitan area,” he says. “So … there is a significant role for white congregations to play in building aware- ness and support for positive change. It isn’t a matter of saying white people have the answers, but we can build a coalition to respond to things that are so counter to everything that Jesus teaches.”
Rory Smith says facilitators are sometimes able to observe subtle ways in which the Pathway program is helping to change attitudes. “Often what you see is that it is a process of transformation, that the aha! moment is internalized, but it happens,” he says. “Part of the issue is that we all have an image of ourselves. Everyone wants to be seen as good and righteous. So you don’t want to blame yourself and shame yourself, and none of this work is designed for blaming and shaming, it’s about sharing and learning in a place where we can talk bravely and courageously in a space full of respect for each other.”
Several congregations have completed the Pathway sessions and then found new uses for the format. St. Thomas, Chicago, is one. After using the Pathway program during Lent last year, St. Thomas met on Wednesday nights during Lent this year to consider issues of intersectionality, especially regarding authentic welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual and questioning individuals.
“We are not just black Americans or black Episcopalians, we are also black Episcopalians who have different sexualities, and we know LGBT folk have even additional problems, and those of us who are not LGBT are oftentimes oblivious to them,” says Marcus Richardson of St. Thomas.
“Intersectionality,” he says. “You could be black, you could be black and gay, you could be black, gay and female. You could be black, gay, female and poor. All of these things are reasons that people are oppressed, and they impact how you interact in the body of Christ, and they should not,” he says. “All are invited and should be welcomed.”
Shalda says issues of intersectionality and overlapping kinds of oppression arose naturally in the conversations at St. James. “People talked about being LGBTQ plus, about those intersections,” she says. “I think it is just another layer and that we always come back to race. It’s a way of listening to learn, to learn more about each other as individuals.”
The sixth session of the Pathway program offers “an invitation to a committed journey,” and features questions designed to prompt thinking about what participants might do next. Underhill says the events of everyday life prompt such thinking as well.
“One of our members was at a neighborhood park and he found some materials left by people who claimed to be affiliated with the KKK,” he says. “What does he do? What do we as a church do to counter that? Another person was standing in a line at Jewel and seeing another person mistreat someone on the basis of race. What do you do? We are working on developing training about how to respond to that.”
The program has implications not only for participants’ conduct, but for the diocese as well,” Shalda says. “Here is a program that is faith-based. That not only is it faith-based, but it is dioc- esan-based. So we can really use this program to do truth-telling about our diocese. And not just stay there, but plan. Okay, now what do we do?”
“What’s important, in my opinion, is that we create a new wayof being together and a new way of relating to one another that we take with us and that informs our lives going forward,” Rory Smith says. “We believe the work is transformational. It is like going to the eye doctor and the eye doctor says, ‘Could you try these on please? I know you haven’t worn glasses before, but try them on.’
“And suddenly you can see better.”
(photos by Vincent Johnson and Suzanne Tennant)