The Education Working Group of the Committee on Diocesan Reparations

by | Jul 27, 2023

In our last article we noted that at the Convention last January, the Reparations Task Force transitioned to the Committee on Diocesan Reparations with two working groups—Education and Policy. In this post, we’ll discuss the goals of the Education Working Group in a bit more detail.

Reparations is a subject that demands discourse. And rightly so, because even just the word itself engenders a multitude of feelings for a multitude of reasons—in both Black and White parishioners. And that’s okay. We all have reasons to feel the way we feel. The concept itself is not new, and as a nation, we are finally attempting to reckon with the ramifications of centuries of systemic and institutional anti-Black racism. On a local level, our diocese has committed to exploring that impact in our particular context.

We recognize that racism based on ethnicity has negatively affected many other ethnic groups in the diocese. Our Asian, Latino, Native American, Caribbean, and African parishioners, and others, have experienced EDOW in ways that were not always welcoming or positive. But there is a specific reason that the work of this committee focuses primarily on the descendants of those Africans who were enslaved and brought to the colony of Maryland (and later the District of Columbia) against their will and who interacted in some capacity with the Episcopal diocese of the area. Until recently, the diocese’s relationship with its past was for the most part, a one-sided, sanitized, and whitewashed version. Few cared to dig deeper to piece together a complete truth that also encompassed the stories of enslaved Blacks who helped build it–and, later, the freed men and women who sustained it. In the quest for greater equity and justice, the diocese recognized the importance of looking backward in order to move forward, and committed to action as well as talk.

As a historian, the first thing you learn in history school (okay, that’s not really a thing), but the first lesson is that objectivity is fundamental and non-negotiable. That means presenting information without opinion, bias, exaggeration, etc. But it also means telling the whole truth and not leaving out the embarrassing, uncomfortable, or downright horrific parts. The parts where maybe some of the people we revere the most didn’t always do the right thing. Or, God forbid, they did really terrible things. That can be really hard—acknowledging that the people or the institutions we look up to made mistakes.
It is an indisputable fact that few people alive today are responsible for anything that happened in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington before the 1950s. It is equally true that since its founding in 1895 (1608 technically, if you count the years when parishes were part of the Diocese of Maryland), our diocese has benefited tremendously from systemic and institutional racist norms that allowed White parishes to thrive while their Black counterparts languished.

We now have an opportunity to redress some of the policies, practices, and procedures, written and unwritten, spoken and unspoken, that have carried on for generations, and make our diocese a little more equitable for all of its members, a little more genuinely just, a little more compassionate. So we owe it to ourselves and future generations to look the past squarely in the face, listen to those who have been hurt, harmed, excluded, or otherwise marginalized, and make meaningful change.

The goal of the Committee on Diocesan Reparations’ Education Working Group is to present to the parishes of EDOW historical information about the diocese, where and how it intersected with the lives of Black people within its jurisdiction, and the impact of those interactions, for good or bad. Maybe it was during slavery, maybe it was during Jim Crow. Maybe some churches benefited from local legislation that harmed nearby Black communities. Perhaps some parishes may find that they only paid lip-service to the idea of diversity or multiculturalism—or only embraced it when the diverse and multicultural populations didn’t really include Black people. Some parishes have already begun that work of looking into their historical records with an unflinching eye and telling the whole story. And no, it’s not always flattering, but it is honest.

Maybe none of this will change your stance on reparations—wherever you may find yourself in this debate. And that’s okay too. We just want to present you with information as to why the diocese chose this path, and why it matters. We are in the process of developing resources for you which will be shared as they are completed. In the coming months, you’ll have a chance to review what we’ve found, and we hope you’ll come away with a more informed understanding of EDOW’s commitment.

We want to present this information in a variety of formats—there will be handouts that you can download and print, or read online, videos you can watch, and eventually, real-time in-person conversations to talk through this. We want to provide a safe space for that honesty I mentioned earlier, because sometimes honesty is scary. Maybe we’re afraid we’re going to lose a little of our shine. Or maybe we’re afraid we won’t be sincerely heard. But without delving into our past and acknowledging it fully (the good, the bad, and the ugly), we can’t hope to truly begin to heal—repair the breach as it were—and further become Beloved Community.

I’ll close by saying that when I was invited to be part of this work, one of the scriptures that immediately came to mind was 2 Corinthians 5:18: “All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” This is the only place in the Bible where each of us, as followers of Christ, are given the exact same task: the ministry of reconciliation.

As the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and its parishes commit to learning (sometimes hard) truths about the past, our prayer is that reconciliation, equity, and justice inform the decisions of our future.

Gigi Nelson
Chair, Education Working Group
Committee on Diocesan Reparations
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC