Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Isaiah 58 12
On Thursday, March 17, members of the newly formed Task Force on Black Ministries convened for the first time to consider its charter mission “to study the revitalization of Black churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington…and make recommendations to the Diocesan Council to enhance, revitalize, and empower Black churches and Black parishioners [in the diocese]…” by September 1, 2022.
We began by sharing our thoughts with one another about what the work involved would entail. Immediately the power of listening became apparent as we began to see ideas coalescing and building on one another. The Rev. Antonio Baxter, one of the cosponsors of the resolution that brought this task force into being, shared his passion for ensuring that the Black church continues to evolve and play a role in our communities, particularly in the lives of rising generations – millennials and generation Z. He described the need for the Black church to step in where, at times, there seems to be no hope. Others voiced similar visions for Black churches to once more serve as centers of community support.
From this rich conversation, our first essential task took shape–to reach out to members of our Black congregations for one-on-one conversations. What issues do they see affecting the Black church? What can we do as a diocese to enhance, revitalize, and empower Black church and Black parishioners? And where do we hear the Holy Spirit in this shared work?
The task force members agreed: it will be a challenge to fulfill its mission in the relatively brief timeframe between now and September 1. But each of us is grateful that this task force has been formed. And I am personally grateful for the task force members’ commitment to this important work and the space they’ve made in their busy schedules. We are all motivated to get our work underway.
We invite your prayers for the work ahead, the Black church, and the lay and clerical members of the Task Force on Back Ministries:
Sonia Anderson, St. John’s Mount Rainier, MD
The Rev. Antonio Baxter, Atonement, DC
Timothy Q Grandy, Calvary, DC
The Rev. Caron Gwynn, UBE representative
The Rev. Canon Michele Hagans, Washington National Cathedral
The Rev. John Harmon, Trinity, DC
Rosemary Latney, Our Savior, Brookland
Sibyl Moses, St. Augustine’s, DC
Diane Quinn, St. Luke’s, DC
Charmaine Romear, Trinity, DC
Paul Ruffins, St. John’s, Mount Rainier
The Rev. Ricardo Sheppard, Atonement, DC, Chair of the Task Force
Andrea Thomas, St. Georges, DC
The Rev. Canon, Anne-Marie Jeffery, EDOW staff liaison
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
On January 29 the Convention of the Diocese of Washington approved a resolution establishing a Task Force on Black Ministries. Task force members will be appointed by the Diocesan Council from congregations that are historically Black or have a predominately Black membership and will also include a representative from the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE).
The Task Force on Black Ministries is charged with the priorities of looking at past injustices and recommending strategies and the resources needed to make Black parishes viable in the diocese. The sponsors of this resolution thought it was critical to enhance the vitality of Black parishes. According to an article in the Philadelphia Tribune, 75 percent of Black priests come from Black parishes. Black parish vitality is critical to ensure the representation of Black clergy in the diocese. The Task Force on Black Ministries will examine practices and models in evangelism, worship, and mission that would be more conducive to Black parish revitalization from the Black church perspective.
This task force will open opportunities for Black parishes throughout the diocese to collaborate and strategize together about how best to live out mission and ministry in the 21st century of the Jesus Movement. The task force will report its recommendations to the Diocese of Washington in September of 2022.
Task Force on Black Ministries Application (submission deadline is 5:00 p.m., Friday, February 25.)
The Rev. Antonio Baxter
Deacon, Church of the Atonement, DC