House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church

Making Safe the Road from Jericho to Jerusalem: President Jennings’s Remarks at the Deputies of Color Meeting

Good morning. I’m glad to be here with you. Thank you for inviting me to share your preparations for General Convention. I hope that I can be helpful as you learn and caucus and organize, and that I can learn from all of your as I prepare to lead the House of Deputies this summer.

This General Convention will bring us together as people of faith during a sobering time. It is, as you are all too aware, a difficult season for Christians in the United States who are committed to advancing racial justice, protecting God’s creation, and safeguarding the dignity of every human being.

People are suffering in ways that many of us hoped we would never see again in this country.

  • Immigration agents are arresting thousands more people with no criminal histories;
  • hate crimes have risen sharply;
  • Muslim people are being targeted;
  • environmental protections are being stripped away at alarming rates;
  • a record number of people are displaced worldwide while the United States has dramatically curtailed refugee resettlement,
  • and we are reeling, again and seemingly always, from another mass shooting and from the knowledge that black Americans are eight times as likely as white Americans to die from gun violence, and that most of those deaths go unnoticed by policy makers and politicians.

Many of us are not surprised to see this kind of raw, unchecked bigotry, greed, and xenophobia, because we have known for a long time about the deep divisions in this country that have brought us to this brink. But the situation feels unstable, and to many Americans, it is downright frightening.

So I am glad that it is nearly time to gather at General Convention. When we are back here together in Austin in July:

  • We need to proclaim—in word, deed, and legislation—the gospel of justice and liberation that counters the hateful rhetoric that seems some days to engulf us.
  • We need to speak explicitly and forcefully as Christians, claiming our traditions and our sacred texts that are, as we say at the Easter Vigil, the story of God’s saving deeds in history.
  • We need to counter an impoverished and vindictive interpretation of our faith that too often sows hatred in the name of Christianity with what my friend Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the loving, liberating and life-giving message of the Jesus Movement.

I am encouraged that many Episcopalians are mobilizing to resist the policies of the current administration that run counter to our gospel values and our vision of the kingdom of God. Together with our sisters and brothers of other traditions, we are standing with Dreamers, we are fighting against inhumane refugee bans and deportations of immigrants, we are demanding sensible gun reform.

Here in Texas, we were even able to play a pivotal role in helping defeat a so-called “bathroom” bill that would have had devastating consequences for the health and well-being of transgender people.

Much of this witness and this advocacy is made possible by the public policy actions of our General Convention. Those resolutions that we debate and vote on at convention liberate Episcopalians around the church to become advocates in their own communities and contexts and make it possible for them to say—“My church stands with me.” Those resolutions also give our Office of Government Relations in Washington D.C. the ability to mobilize and join other faith traditions in doing important advocacy with our legislators when it really counts. On April 25 at 2 p.m. Eastern, by the way, you’ll have the opportunity to attend a webinar just for deputies on the work of the Office of Government Relations. Watch the House of Deputies newsletter for details.

So we are all working hard, and we have to, because the issues come at us fast these days.

  • But we are organized, we are mobilizing more quickly than in the past, and
  • we are resisting for the sake of the most vulnerable people in our communities and our congregations.

In the last few weeks, as many of you know, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of women on the movement to end sexual harassment and exploitation in the church. That’s another issue that presents us with an opportunity to do gospel justice at General Convention.

  • On Thursday, I appointed the House of Deputies Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation to create legislation for General Convention on a variety of issues related to #metoo, including theology and language, structural equity including pay and benefits, the Title IV disciplinary process, social justice for women, and the creation of a truth and reconciliation process.
  • I am very grateful to Deputies Lindsey Ardrey, Cornelia Eaton, Nancy Frausto, Zena Link, Jill Mathis and Crystal Plummer who are here today and who have agreed to serve on this important committee.

You might remember that we began this most recent public discussion of #metoo in the church in late January, when the presiding bishop and I wrote a letter to the church about our need to examine the church’s history and come to a fuller understanding of how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years.

I learned a lot from the response to that letter. For example, you might remember that we cited a contextual Bible study called “The Rape of Tamar” used by African women from marginalized communities to explore and speak about the trauma of sexual assault in their own lives. And I heard from some white women who thought that the African women should call the Bible study something different, something that better suited the sensibilities of progressive white Episcopalians.

In that letter, we talked about each of us having a role to play in our collective repentance. And I heard from some white women who don’t think they have a role to play; who don’t imagine that even as they have experienced harassment or abuse themselves, they have also been part of the structures of systemic racism that oppress women of color.

So I decided that, in addition to forming a committee to draft legislation, I wanted to ask women to reflect on issues of sexual harassment and exploitation in a series of essays being published on my website. I asked particularly for essays that would:

  • amplify the voices and experiences of women of color, poor women, and others who may have been marginalized in the church
  • are conscious of the ways that white privilege in the church can distort these conversations.

Julia Ayala Harris wrote one of those reflections, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should stop listening to me right now and go find it on our House of Deputies website. And after that, you should read Crystal Plummer’s reflection, titled “Why Does #MeToo Burn Bright While #BlackLivesMatter Gets Extinguished?” But you should definitely not read the comment—never, ever read the comments—that says comparing the two movements is apples and oranges, because #metoo is “all inclusive.”

So I have been learning anew that in the church, we have a problem with intersectionality. I know—this is not an earth-shattering announcement.

We have a problem with thinking that if we fund and commit ourselves to racial reconciliation work, that’s all we have to do, because the rest of our justice work is “all inclusive” or “color blind.” We have a problem remembering that while mass shootings galvanize activism, the gun deaths of young black men are far too often invisible in our public discourse. We have a problem understanding that a white church committed to justice is still a white church, and still bound up in historic privilege and wealth borne of colonialism and imperialism and the enslavement of black bodies and the genocide of native people.

So we need to do better. And at this General Convention, we need to keep insisting that the voices and perspectives of people of color—of deputies of color, of all of you—are heard and taken seriously in all of our debates and deliberations, not just the ones that get referred to Committee 09 on Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

Three times in the last seven years, I’ve participated in gatherings in Africa of a growing network of scholars, activists, and other church leaders who are committed to conversations about religion and sexuality that are grounded in theology and more generous interpretations of the Bible. At the most recent of those gatherings—in Ghana in 2015—we issued a statement that has helped to guide me and many of us who were there. It reads, in part:

And because we understand that the church must not only act as Good Samaritans to those who are robbed and beaten but also work at the systemic level to make safe the road from Jericho to Jerusalem that is walked by everyone who strives for just and fair societies and full inclusion in the Body of Christ, we pledge to work collaboratively in opposing the legacy of colonialism and its present day manifestations, to stand against all principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12, Romans 8:38-39), and to understand that these evils are rooted in ideologies of power and domination that have no place in the church or in our societies.

Later this afternoon, after we’ve heard from Vice President Rushing about some key issues coming before convention, and after the caucus gatherings have considered priorities, I’ll be back to talk about the nuts-and-bolts of how work gets done at General Convention and how deputies can be effective in the legislative process. I hope that this will be informative and empowering, but I also realize it will happen at 4:30 p.m., and that you may want to bring caffeine.

But when the governance-speak and Robert’s Rules begin to make your head swim, I ask you to remember that our real job at General Convention—the purpose of all these canons and committees and legislation—is to make safe the road from Jericho to Jerusalem that is walked by everyone who strives for just and fair societies and full inclusion in the Body of Christ.

That is our call as deputies, and it is one I am honored to answer alongside you. Thank you again for including me in your meeting.