I have a symbol of the sankofa bird in my home office that reminds me to both look back and keep my feet moving forward. This year we, as a nation, looked back to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968 death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here in our Diocese, I participated in the interfaith rally on the National Mall, April 4, 2018, as a means of looking back. Moving forward comes through my volunteer work with the Diocese as chairperson for its Race and Social Justice Task Force. Let me give you a sense of my journey.
April 4, 1968, I was in the spring semester of my first-year at a college outside of Chicago. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thrust our newly formed Black Student Association into action as foot soldiers for civil rights. As Chicago burned, we marched for equal/open housing in the all-white suburb where the college was located. In that environment, I was introduced to epithets like jungle bunny, the n-word, jigaboo, go back to Africa. To protect me, my birth family had said that only in the South could dogs “sic” Negroes, but at college I learned otherwise. Throughout my career I continued to be a foot soldier, both professionally in university settings and personally in the community. The election of our first Black President, Barack H. Obama, gave me hope that a part of King’s Dream had been realized. There was still work to be done, however, I was not clear how to pursue this work when retirement came.
How am I going to structure these 168 hours per week that are all mine? What am I being called to do now that I have more time than money? My discernment process was underway. When I asked my clergy friends how they came to be ordained, two words stood out: discernment and call. While on a pilgrimage in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the August 20, 1965 death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels in Hayneville, Alabama, I literally felt the call. At the time of this martyr’s death he was both an Episcopal seminarian and a civil rights activist. This 26-year-old white male died shielding a 17-year-old black female; both were in Alabama to register black voters. The call was clear: resume being a foot soldier, as a lay person, for race and social justice in the religious arena.
The mission of the Race and Social Justice Task Force is:
“Answering God’s call by building relationships across boundaries, advocating and educating for racial and social justice.”
Answering God’s call: Being a foot soldier in 2015, 50+ years later, means crossing more than race, black and white, boundaries. Relationships are a bridge to understanding, and like bridges, they must be built.
Building relationships across boundaries: In addition to the April 4, 2018 rally on the National Mall, I participated in the intergenerational March for Our Lives on March 24th to protest gun violence. Another boundary crossed has been to march with the Dreamers on March 5th for a Clean Dream Act. Many members of the Task Force are building relationships and seeking justice for sisters and brothers whose immigrant status makes them vulnerable.
Advocating and educating: Since October 2015, we have held seven “Seeing the Face of God in Each Other” anti-racism workshops, which have been completed by over 120 people from 28 parishes in our Diocese. Moving forward, we are preparing materials to help those interested in participating more fully in being a Sanctuary Diocese. As often as possible we facilitate ways to tell the truth, seek multiple means to repair the breach, all while practicing the way of love and proclaiming our dream of building the beloved community.
Enid LaGesse, Ph.D.