September 20 has been declared Slavery and Racism Awareness Sunday in the Diocese of Connecticut, The Episcopal Church. Here's the sermon I preached this morning. Not your usual baptism service sermon.
Sermon Pentecost 16
September 20, 2009
The Reverend Lois Keen
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37, 10:44-45
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Later, in the next chapter of Mark, he says it again, but stronger: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all...”
Nowhere, however, does Jesus say we are to own slaves.
Yet even long after the abolition of slavery in this country, scripture was the foundation of many arguments in favor of slavery, arguments which then justified the institutionalization of racism in this country.
Slavery and racism were not, however, and are not exclusively the burden of the southern states of this country. New England, including Connecticut, was an integral part of the slave connection, the circle of molasses to rum to slaves, as well as being a slave owning state. The Episcopal Church was complicit in the trade. Episcopal clergy owned slaves. Episcopal churches had slave galleries. Those not directly involved in slavery were beneficiaries of the slave trade and all it made possible.
For this reason, the Episcopal Church, in General Convention, has passed numerous resolutions about racism, among them
a resolution to address institutional racism,
continuing resolutions to require anti-racism training of all lay and ordained leadership of the Episcopal Church,
the development of appropriate anti-racism programs, and the maintenance of registers on anti-racism training and activities,
and a study of economic benefits derived from slavery, which includes the acknowledgement by General Convention of, and apology for, slavery and its aftermath,
and action toward reconciliation.
For that reason, Bishop Andrew Smith, our diocesan bishop, has asked that this day, September 20, be set aside as a day of awareness of our complicity in and benefit from slavery. He also asks we announce that November 7, 2009 will be a Day of Repentance, to be held at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford. The church’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade will be explored in the morning and a Service of Repentance will be held in the afternoon.
All parishes were asked to research their congregations’ history of complicity in slavery and/or its benefits, or its struggle for racial equality and recognition.
Grace Church was founded after the abolition of slavery so the parish itself was not complicit in slavery or the slave trade. However, we have not been free from the struggle for racial equality. I was surprised to learn that in Grace Church’s past there was a minister, a priest, who refused to give communion to people of African descent. The name of the priest is lost, but his policy is remembered.
Grace Church today is blessed to have a racially mixed congregation. We are blessed to see ourselves as welcoming of anyone who enters these doors. We are also, I fear, blissfully ignorant of the continuing legacy of the slave years on ourselves, our churches and our nation.
By law, including canon law, the laws of The Episcopal Church, forbid the blatant practice of racism. However, our internalized racism, the racism with which we United States Americans were brought up, still resides in us. If there was any doubt about it, the rhetoric surrounding the campaign for the presidency last year, and the continuance of that rhetoric surrounding the elected president puts the lie to our doubt.
My first experience of racism came when I was 14. We moved to Sussex County Delaware, where I went to high school from 1959-1963 in a segregated school system. The people there are still proud that theirs were the last schools to be desegregated. One of its towns was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and the Klan is still active there.
Newlin’s brother-in-law, in researching the Keen, the Kwick and the Hagstrom families’ genealogy, found a slave connection in the Keen family history. One of Newlin’s ancestors owned a plantation where Aberdeen Proving Ground now is in Maryland.
Alan found the man’s will. In the disposition of the man’s property were his slaves, most of whom were willed to his heir as a lot, but some of whom were named and bequeathed to individuals in the family.
For New England history, however, you can turn to a recent film by Katrina Browne. “Traces of the Trade” is a documentary about Rhode Island’s largest slave-owning family, the DeWolfs, with direct ties to the Episcopal Church and clergy families formerly or currently living in Connecticut, including one of my recent predecessors here.
You can rent or borrow the movie “Amistad” which deals directly with one of the Connecticut connections with slaving.
Or you can go with Eugenia Chinsman someday on a trip to Sierra Leone, founded for the benefit of Canadian and U.S. escaped and freed slaves, and visit Bunce Island, one of the primary stops for deportation of African men and women to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean as well as this country.
New England slavery existed for over 200 years. But even those who did not own slaves benefited from slavery. Southern cotton picked by slaves went to Northern textile mills. Banks and insurance companies played their part. Ordinary citizens bought shares in slave ships in order to make a profit from their human cargo.
The DeWolf descendants, the subjects of the film “Traces of the Trade,” are setting an example for The Episcopal Church and this country as they are confronted by questions, which I quote from the Traces of the Trade website:
“What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery – for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes who what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation?” And, I might add, how does it change our assumptions about ourselves? And, finally, “What would repair – spiritual and material – really look like and what would it take?”
We are about to baptize a baby. In this child’s name the parents and sponsors will make certain promises and take certain vows. The vows they take we will also take, as we have every time we have baptized a child here since the current Prayer Book was written 30 years ago.
Among the vows are these:
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
“Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
It will be up to this child’s family to see that this child grows up in the truth of these vows. Meanwhile, what can you do?
First, you can commit to going to the Cathedral in Hartford on November 7th to be educated in our historic complicity in slavery and take part in the Service of Repentance.
But there are other things you can do. These suggestions come from the Social Justice Ministries website of The Episcopal Church:
You can attend diocesan anti-racism workshops. Phone the Diocese of Connecticut and find out when the next one is.
You can commit yourself to being a multiculturally competent person resisting racism – that is, you can recognize in yourself your attitudes to people not like yourself, and resist the temptation to be ruled by those attitudes.
You can challenge prejudice, intolerance and racism in the church and in this community wherever it exists, and that means not laughing at racist jokes, not making racist jokes, nor making stereotypes about people not like yourself.
You can recognize the connection between racism and other forms of oppression.
You can read articles, books and publications on racism and related oppressions to sustain you on your journey.
And here at Grace Church, we are going to have education in the history of slavery and in the sin of racism. You may be tempted to avoid this education. After all, there are no slaves in the U.S. today so what does it matter?
But it does matter. We are not quite so blatant in our racism, but it is worse now because it is very subtle. It also matters because people of slave descent in this country still bear the wounds of what the ruling class in this country did to their forebears.
And as Christians, we confess that what injures even one of the members of the Body of Christ injures us all.
Each baptism we witness here is a promise of hope – hope for a better world, made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Each time we share in the baptismal vows we are about to witness, we have another opportunity to ask ourselves, “How shall I take this vow seriously?” Each time, we have the opportunity, and the hope, that this will be the day we each and every one take steps to become servants of all, for the sake of Christ Jesus, in whose name we now gather around this baptismal font.