On February 19th, 2012, ten years ago, almost to the day, I stepped into the pulpit of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as its rector for the first time.
The moment was fraught with the tensions and troubles of race. Calvary is one among the District’s few remaining historically Black congregations. Throughout their hundred year plus history, they’d always had a Black rector, a history they were justifiably proud of. I was their first white pastor, and only the second white clergyperson to serve there in any capacity.
Calvary is a congregation with deep roots in its neighborhood, a neighborhood that struggled to rebuild in the wake of the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and the governmental under-resourcing that followed. In 2012, the H Street Corridor was just beginning to see an infusion of new capital that would transform it completely. Much of that money has gone toward accommodating newly arrived white residents and white-owned businesses, fueling a demographic shift that has moved the neighborhood from majority Black in 2021, to what is either now, or very soon to be, majority white.
Exactly one week later, on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman would lynch Trayvon Martin. Outrage over that crime would galvanize a new push in this nation’s four hundred year long struggle for Black liberation.
That was the subtext of our first Sunday together, but while the contrasts and contradictions were particularly vivid in that moment, the reality is that the history and ongoing legacy of white supremacy impacts every last relationship in this nation, especially (but not only) those that take place across lines of race.
We aren’t always good at acknowledging that reality. But we must face its truth, as Jesus taught: “Know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Calvary has tried to tell that truth. Sometimes in uncomfortable conversations. Always in our shared labor to make a change.
Following Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, Calvary convened a discussion between police and community leaders about Police-Communuty relations. The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, our associate pastor at the time, launched The Center for the Study of Faith and Justice at Calvary to continue these conversations.
We formed a partnership with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to push for reform. We hosted Kojo Nmandi, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas and the community historian Dr. Jocelyn Imani to offer educational and evocational opportunities for racial justice discipleship formation. We partnered with the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) to push for affordable housing, and with Sanctuary DMV and ICE Out of DC to push for immigrant safety and rights in the city. Our leaders helped launch “Survive And Thrive,” an initiative of the Union of Black Episcopalians to cooperatively strengthen and revitalize the historically and predominantly Black congregations of the Diocese. A racial justice reading group we convened grew and transformed into The Reparations Task Force of the Diocese, which is now working to help the Diocese toward reckoning with and making restitution on the benefit it has derived from white supremacy. We’ve marched and written letters. Throughout it all, we’ve continued our ministries of feeding, mentoring and support to the neighborhood we love.
None of these efforts is new. They are of one cloth with Calvary’s rich century-old tapestry of witness: against white supremacy, and for the Gospel.
And all of that history is complicated, troubling and messy. White supremacy hasn’t left any of us with clean pictures. We get things wrong. We get complacent. We show our rough and growing edges.
Speaking personally, I continue to stumble over the tracks of white supremacy in my own thinking. And still, the threads of God’s liberating grace are visible throughout my journey.
These are the messy truths each of our congregations must learn to tell. Not so that we can understand the story of white supremacy, but so that we can find a way forward to free ourselves from it. As the man said: “Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector, Calvary Episcopal Church and author of Seeing My Skin: A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness
The life and legacy of The Reverend Absalom Jones is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, his faith, and his commitment to the causes of freedom, justice and self-determination.
From the website of The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas
On February 13, The Episcopal Church commemorates the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained in The Episcopal Church.
On January 29, Diocesan Convention passed a resolution that directs our collective energies toward the revitalization and empowerment of Black churches and Black parishioners in the Diocese of Washington.
I am persuaded that these two events are related. The church Absalom Jones founded in Philadelphia is one of the most vibrant Black Episcopal Churches in the country. I pray that Absalom Jones’ spirit, faith, and commitment will guide our work.
For those who don’t know his story, Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Delaware on November 6, 1746. While enslaved, he learned to read. When the family that enslaved him moved to Philadelphia, he was able to work evenings and keep his earnings for himself. In 1770 he married Mary Thomas, an enslaved woman, and he purchased her freedom so that she and their children might be free. 14 years later, he obtained his own freedom through manumission.
With his friend Richard Allen, Absalom Jones organized the Free African Society. Both Jones and Allen were also preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that blacks sit in the balcony.
One Sunday morning, as Absalom Jones was praying in a front pew, an usher attempted to forcibly remove him. Jones resisted removal, finished his prayers, and walked out of the church. All the Black members followed and together they formed a new congregation. Richard Allen chose to establish an independent Black church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Jones remained as leader of what became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.
Absalom Jones’ ministry was one of compassion, political advocacy and institution building. He was a compelling preacher and community organizer. He helped establish two schools. He and Richard Allen, at the request of Philadelphia’s mayor, rallied Black residents to care for the sick and dying during a yellow fever epidemic. He and others petitioned the U.S. Congress to end the African slave trade. The present day congregation of St. Thomas’, Philadelphia celebrates his feast day each year with great pride, as do many Episcopal churches and dioceses around the country.
The history of Black congregations in The Episcopal Church, including the Diocese of Washington, is complicated, marked by racism and Black self-determination. Many were established right after the Civil War, some with support of White congregations, others on their own. More were planted in the years of Jim Crow and strict housing segregation, when Black people were not allowed to live in most neighborhoods and the more affluent parts of small towns.
When housing laws changed, many of the founding families of Black congregations moved to communities with greater educational and economic opportunity. Resulting White flight re-established segregated worship as formerly White congregations became predominantly Black. That trend accelerated with new arrivals from the African diaspora who found in our Episcopal churches the Anglican Church they were part of at home. Most of our historic Black churches are now in neighborhoods whose populations have shifted again, and as with most Episcopal churches, the membership of all predominantly Black congregations is aging.
Of course many Black Episcopalians now freely choose to worship in predominantly White congregations and vice-versa. The multicultural, multi-racial reality of our Diocese makes it one of the more interesting and complex places to do this important work of racial reckoning and congregational revitalization. Across the Diocese we are all striving to come to terms with our complicity in systemic racism and racial inequities. Martin Luther King, Jr. once lamented that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. In many of our churches, that reality remains.
There were once 11 congregations in the Diocese of Washington founded by or on behalf of Black persons; 7 remain, all in Washington, DC with the exception of St. Philip’s in Prince George’s County. There are 15 additional congregations that were originally established for White Episcopalians that are now predominantly Black and multicultural.
Thus the resolution passed at Convention this January asks us to consider the lived experience and future possibilities for over 20 percent of EDOW’s congregations. There is great diversity among them, as well as gifted leaders and rich insights from which we will all benefit. They deserve our collective attention as part of the overall effort of congregational vitality. The Convention’s action will hold us accountable to this work.
The resolution calls for the creation of a task force, composed of members from Black congregations. The task force is commissioned to make recommendations to the Diocesan Council by September 2022 for the enhancement, revitalization, and empowerment of Black churches and Black parishioners.
The task force, once named, will build upon the good work of the Washington chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. It will address the new realities facing all our congregations and dynamics unique to the Black church. There are resources from beyond the Diocese to draw upon, including the example of the church that Absalom Jones founded.
The Diocesan Council is now accepting applications for this important Task Force. Members will be from historically Black or predominantly Black congregations. Please consider if God may be calling you or someone you know to serve. This will be exciting, challenging work in a Spirit-led moment not to be missed.