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Becoming Beloved Community NOW: Justice

On July 29, President Jennings made these remarks to the Becoming Beloved Community NOW: Justice online gathering, which was led by Deputy Edwin Johnson of Massachusetts. Learn more about the initiative from Episcopal News Service and watch the recording.

Thank you, Edwin, and thank you to all the members of the Presiding Officers’ Advisory Group on Beloved Community Implementation. The Presiding Bishop and I are both grateful for your leadership, especially at this critical time.

If you were able to be part of yesterday’s meeting on truth telling, you might have finished our time together feeling a bit overwhelmed. We heard about what it was like to tell the truth about the violence done to Indigenous children in residential schools, to admit the deep complicity of our churches in the institution of slavery, and to acknowledge that vast amounts of our institutional wealth was created by stealing labor from enslaved Black people.

When we begin to face the truth of our church’s complicity in systemic racism, it is easy to feel hopeless in the face of so much sin. What can we possibly do to make amends?

The prophet Micah faced such a time, when the sin of Jerusalem and Samaria seemed insurmountable. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” God’s people asked. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” What could possibly be enough?

But the prophet tells us that none of those things is required. What God wants from us is much simpler than burnt offerings, or cattle, or oil, or sacrifices. God doesn’t want extravagance. God wants something simpler, but much more difficult. “What does the Lord require of you,” Micah asks, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

And so, like the people of Jerusalem whom Micah is calling to repentance, we are here on our second day of the Becoming Beloved Community Now experience to learn how to do justice. God is calling us to face the enormity of the church’s sin of systemic racism and white supremacy by doing justice.

Now, here is something that I know about embarking on a journey of justice. You never feel ready enough. When the moment for justice is upon you, it’s easy to wish that you’d read another book or taken another class. But even though we might feel unprepared or in over our heads, we’re embarking on this journey of becoming antiracist—this journey that many of us have been late to begin and one that will have no end—with some things that will help us along the way:

Our journey toward justice is grounded in our baptism. For more than 40 years, since the authorization of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we have promised at baptism to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. When we are baptized into new life in Christ, we commit to being people who do God’s justice in the world. No matter when or how we are called to do justice, or how prepared we feel for the work, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, and that will carry us through.

Now, you know that when you invite the president of the House of Deputies to speak, you’re going to hear something about church governance. And so I want to remind us all that when we set out to do the long-overdue work of dismantling systemic racism, we carry with us decades of General Convention resolutions, representing the work of scores of activists and leaders and prophets whose ministry of governance has helped move the church forward, inch by painful inch. Yesterday, House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing and I were exchanging messages about an upcoming webinar for deputies on systemic racism, and he mentioned a General Convention commitment “to become a Church of and for all races and a Church without racism committed to end racism in the world.” I looked it up. That’s Resolution D113 from the 1991 General Convention—twenty-nine years ago.

There have been leaders in our church—particularly Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian leaders—who have been calling us all to this work for many, many years. These calls have too often gone largely unheard, ignored or forgotten. But the Holy Spirit and these General Convention leaders have been pointing toward a vision of Beloved Community for many decades now, and their wisdom, in the form of scores of resolutions, lights our path today. This is the time—particularly for white members of the Episcopal Church—to repent of our failure to listen and to commit ourselves fully to that vision.

We also carry with us the saints in light who fought for justice before us. In the last half-century, The Episcopal Church has undertaken seemingly insurmountable fights for justice in our institution, and we have moved the church just a bit closer to God’s dream. But in those struggles, most recently for women’s equality and LGBTQ equality, we failed to answer the call for justice for Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian people because our structures are too steeped in white privilege and too anchored in systemic racism. As we seek to create an antiracist church, we must do better.

Today in the church’s calendar, we celebrate eleven women who helped equip me, and many women of my generation, to seek justice in our church. Forty-six years ago today, the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained to the priesthood in a day when many people did not recognize their full humanity, much less their call to priestly ministry. That ordination service, which the House of Bishops later called “irregular,” was held at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, where the senior warden, a public relations executive named Barbara Harris, served as crucifer.

That crucifer, as you know, went on to become the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion and a great champion for justice for all people in the Episcopal Church and around the globe. In one of the early blows that 2020 had in store for us, Barbara went on to larger life just a few months ago.

In 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of her ordination to the episcopate, Barbara Harris said, “I love the church because the church has proven time after time that she can rise to new heights and be more than she has been. … There are times when the church exerts holy boldness and imagines what God can do through the likes of us, or what the likes of us can do by the amazing grace of God.”

My friends, I pray that this is one of those times. In this moment, let us, the people of God’s church, exert some serious holy boldness worthy of Barbara Harris’s memory. Let us imagine what God can do through the likes of us. Together as the baptized people of God, let us set out on this journey toward the true justice of Beloved Community that God dreams for us and for all humanity.

We are blessed today with not just the saints in light, but with some of the great minds of the church to lead our justice work. I am honored to be here today with the next two speakers you will hear from, both members of the Presiding Officers’ Advisory Group on Beloved Community Implementation and two of the most brilliant scholars I know. First we will hear from Professor Dora Mbuwayesango, and then from Professor Brant Lee, and I am grateful to both of them for their leadership in this work. After that, Chuck Wynder, staff officer for social justice and advocacy engagement on the Presiding Bishop’s staff, will speak and will introduce the rest of the leaders who will be with us today. Thanks to all of you for your commitment to this ministry.