Ubuntu: I am because you are.
– Southern African Proverb
Imagine a world where one sees another and identifies that there is a sacred interconnection albeit mysterious with that person based solely on being equally created in the image of God. I long for such a world. Conversely and sadly, we live in a racialized world, one that does not emulate the dream of God. The need for racial reconciliation and healing is a journey and what I call our “lifetime work.” Julian of Norwich’s popular optimism (“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”) will start to come true as members of the human family lean into ubuntu, which is translated as “I am because you are.”
Navigating the strife of a racialized world comes naturally for me, a Black Episcopal priest who is a native Mississippian serving as the rector of a large, predominately White parish in Memphis, Tennessee. Indeed, I bear myriad stories, experiences, and observations about the sin of racism. Fortunately, I am not polarized by them as I choose daily to see the image of God in all people. This navigation path was imparted to me by my parents, grandparents, and an array of wise mentors who could talk about race, hope, and the dream of God for hours.
I first encountered the work of Richard Mammana back when I was researching the Society of Saint John the Evangelist — a community of monks that had captured my attention and of which I eventually became a member. His website, “Project Canterbury” (anglicanhistory.org), contained an incredible amount of archival material not only about SSJE, but also about other out-of-print Anglican books, pamphlets, documents, and historical records. Richard is an author, archivist, and book reviewer, as well as a member of Saint Clement’s Church in Philadelphia — a church of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that was once under the care of SSJE in the late 1800s. His essay, “The Black Christ of Stamford, CT,” recently captured my attention as it highlighted the work of SSJE in Boston’s Beacon Hill, as well as our relationship with artist Allan Crite. The following is an excerpt from that piece. You can read the full essay here. – Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
In late November 2022, Br. Curtis Almquist and I undertook a nine-day pilgrimage to the South to visit sites related to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and ‘60s and beyond. Among the places we visited were the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which trace the legacy of slavery in this country from the early 1600s to the present day by examining four eras: (1) the Era of Slavery in America, (2) the Era of Racial Terror, (3) the Era of “Segregation Forever,” and (4) the Era of Mass Incarceration. In what follows, I would like to record some of what I learned, share some powerful imagery of what we saw, and name some of my reactions to the experience.
In our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Micah, we hear the prophet answering the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” In the Catechism of The Book of Common Prayer, this question is repeated: What does the Lord require of you?”[i] The answer would appear to come from the Prophecy of Micah; however there is an error. The Book of Common Prayer misquotes Micah. The Catechism’s answer to what is required of us is “to love justice, to do mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God.” That is not Micah, what we have just heard read. Micah does not say “to love justice.” Micah says “to do justice.” To do justice.
It is certainly a good thing to love justice. How important it was on Tuesday when President Biden signed the Proclamation establishing a monument honoring Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and honoring his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. We might could say it is a movement in the direction of the justice we love, those of us who do. But we are a conflicted people. We are a nation founded on genocide, built up by slavery, and still captive to rampant racism which is so apparent… except to those for whom it is not. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”; however that requires help, our help.
Going back to the Prophecy of Micah, we hear Micah answering what the Lord requires of us, “to love kindness,” and “to do justice.” We must be about justice-making as followers of Jesus. None of us here has the power of the President to sign a proclamation on behalf of the nation; however all of us have some power within our reach, not just to love justice but to do justice. Edward Everett Hale, a 19th-century historian and a Unitarian minister in Boston, had witnessed the Civil War, what led up to it, and the insidious injustice that followed when “Reconstruction” was destroyed in 1877 and the Jim Crow laws began to reign. To Edward Everett Hale this was evil atop evil and required action not just sentiment. Hale wrote:
I am only one, but still, I am one.
I cannot do everything,
but still I can do something;
and because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do something that I can do.[ii]
It is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.
[i] “An outline of Faith, commonly called the Catechism,” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 847.
[ii] Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909).
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]