WE LIVE WITH A HEAVY HISTORY HERE IN THE SOUTH AND IN OUR COUNTRY AS A WHOLE. WE HAVE A LEGACY BUILT IN LARGE PART ON THE BACKS OF SLAVES.
Today, in a time and place where many people would like to put questions of race behind us because talking about it is uncomfortable or brings up ugly, shameful, upsetting, or confusing feelings, finding a way to move forward is a challenge.
However, thanks in large part to the support of the Episcopal Church, here in the Diocese of Atlanta, we are embarking on an endeavor to create spaces for conversations about race. This fall, the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing was launched. Hosted in a space formerly known as the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center and Chapel and nestled across the street from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and around the corner from Clark Atlanta University, the center now serves as a resource for the Episcopal Church worldwide.
The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, helped cut the ribbon at the renaming ceremony in October, kicking off an effort to provide parishes and dioceses around the world with the support to undertake the important and often difficult work of addressing racism head-on through racial reconciliation and healing.
AN EVOLUTION || It is only through conversations and learning about our history and acknowledging our own prejudices that we can discern and decide how we want to shape our present and future together, says Dr. Catherine Meeks, founding executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. Before undertaking her new role, she was chair of the Diocese of Atlanta’s Beloved Community: Commission for Dismantling Racism. The center will replace and expand on the commission’s work. So what is it that calls us to undertake this work? To Meeks, it is part of our spiritual formation.
He was America’s first black priest. Born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, he taught himself to read, using the New Testament as one of his resources. Jones purchased his own freedom in 1784 and went on to establish the “First African Church” in Philadelphia, which was later accepted into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Jones also founded a day school (as blacks were excluded from attending public school), and in 1800 he called upon Congress to abolish the slave trade and to provide for gradual emancipation of existing slaves.
— The Archives of the Episcopal Church
“Racism’s basic tenet is it keeps you from being what you were put on this earth to be. Christians have a responsibility to be what God intended them to be,” she says.
The Commission for Dismantling Racism’s mission described it like this: “Racism works against our baptismal call to love others in the power of the spirit and to strive for justice and peace among all people. We seek to heal this chronic illness in our faith community.”
The center will continue to offer the diocesan workshops and training for clergy and laypeople that the commission was originally known for. But in the words of Meeks, reconciling the racism in our country will not be solved through insights gained in a one-day workshop.
“It is our plan, and it is the plan that we are implementing, to get partnerships with parishes and individuals so that the work can go on because it can’t just be done by one entity,” she says. “So a commission or a center cannot get this work done. We can be a catalyst — we can support people, we can create materials, we can do programs, we can do a lot of things, but ultimately the work has to be owned by every parish.”
SHARING AND LISTENING || So how do we reconcile past wrongs? Recognize current prejudices? For the commission, part of the answer lay in suggesting books for parishes to read and form discussion groups around. They also held film screenings and collaborated with the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry to create a curriculum for youth that can be used in Sunday school.
Also, they set out on a three-year process to name and remember people who were lynched in middle and north Georgia. A marker was placed in Macon in 2016 and another in Athens this October. In the fall of 2018, an exhibit put together by the Museum for Human and Civil Rights in Atlanta, in collaboration with the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, will complete this remembrance work. It will feature the names of the more than 600 people who were lynched in Georgia — a list pieced together with the help of a University of Georgia professor, an online database, and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The exhibit will go on to travel and be displayed at other museums across the country nine months out of the year.
Meeks says these are just some of the possible ways people in other parts of the country and world might go about their own reconciliation and healing. To foster that process, some of the first visitors to the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in January will be representatives from dioceses around the Southeast. Following that, people from the Church’s 99 dioceses are being invited to come to Atlanta in March.
“We will be with folks engaging in this conversation about what are you doing, what do you wish you could do, and how could we help you?” Meeks explains.
Later, Meeks hopes to host other gatherings — perhaps of bishops and chairs of commissions from around the country. The center may also organize pilgrimages to explore the slave trade history in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. “A lot of the work that we’ll be doing going forward we have yet to imagine.”
Beloved Community is a concept popularized by Georgian and civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.
— The King Center, Atlanta, Georgia
A THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE || The move to become a church-wide resource grew over time. As the commission began to undertake its work of dismantling racism by creating some of its new initiatives over the past five years, other dioceses began to take notice. They asked to visit to understand how they might be able to create similar energy around racial reconciliation in their communities. Leading up to the launch of the center, people from the Diocese of Chicago as well as New Orleans sent representatives to Atlanta to learn about our work.
THE FUTURE || At the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, Meeks will also be leading programs and workshops for students. “We really do have to get young people excited about the work of racial healing if we want to change what is going on in this country,” she says.