Larry James Speaks at Historic Symposium
The Absalom Jones Symposium and Ecumenical Service was held at Allen Temple AME Church on February 15. This is an annual celebration of the father of the African Episcopal Church. This year was a joint celebration of the founding of two Black Churches in the US. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were two Black men who were friends that were both thrown out of a predominantly White Methodist church for refusing to sit in the balcony, where Blacks had been relegated seating. After this incident, the two friends went on to form two separate denominations, Jones formed the first African Episcopal Church and Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
This year’s celebration was the first to include members of both Churches, and Larry James, St. Barnabas parishioner, was given the honor to introduce Becoming Beloved Community to our AME friends and reintroduce it to members of our Church who had either forgotten this movement or had never been introduced to it.
It is a great honor to be with you all today, on a day we have set aside to commemorate the modern-day descendants of two historically relevant Black Christian denominations, the African Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We celebrate these two churches today, as we seek to discover, learn, and discern their respective roles in both our past and continuing journey toward racial justice, reconciliation, and healing; a journey we pray will bring us ever closer to Becoming God’s Beloved Community.
Now, no doubt, some of you have heard that phrase before, “Becoming Beloved Community.” But exactly what are we referring to when we say we are Becoming Beloved Community? Well, I believe our understanding of this phrase starts with Jesus, the son of God, who laid out the most basic Christian teaching of all, when a young man asked him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” and Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). The Beloved Community is the body within which all people can grow to love God and love the image of God that we find in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in creation. It provides a positive and theologically based ideal that orients the work of racial healing, reconciliation, and justice. It is the end toward which the Jesus Movement points. But, that’s not all.
The Beloved Community is also a term popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to signify a just and equitable society – in the here and now – based on requited love and respect between all people, regardless of social, gender, and racial distinctions.
And, finally, Becoming Beloved Community is a direct response to the resolution passed by the Episcopal Church during its 2015 General Convention, conveying the following:
First, the resolution acknowledges the Church’s failure in its repeated efforts at anti-racism training, racial justice, healing and reconciliation; efforts that have been commissioned by 30 previous convention resolutions, dating back to 1952,
Second, the resolution recognizes that, despite all previous resolutions, and our efforts behind them, the abomination and sin of racism continues to plague our society and Church at great cost to human life and dignity,
The resolution also affirms the Church’s continuing commitment to address the challenging and difficult work of racial reconciliation, through prayer, teaching, engagement and action as a top priority in the upcoming triennium,
It confirms the Church’s understanding that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation and creation conservation is integral to our witnessing the gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant, and finally,
This resolution empowers the Church’s leadership, without exception, to be responsible and accountable for leading, directing, and being fully present in carrying out of this work.
Now, I don’t know about you but, to me, such a resolution, not only reflects a profound embarrassment to the Church; it represents an undeniable declaration that failure to make meaningful progress, against the above stated goals, is, no longer an option! But, how can anyone be assured that the net results of our actions behind such ambitious goals won’t mirror the failed results of past resolutions? I believe the answer to that question lies within the path that the Church has chosen to take toward realizing more positive and meaningful results.
And, the Path that the Church has chosen to take toward Becoming Beloved Community is several things:
First, it is not programmatic but, strategically conceived to take us through four distinct phases that will lead to our personal and structural transformation,
Second, it is also not linear; but instead progresses like the labyrinth shown in your program; winding back and forth through the following four phases:
Telling the Truth: about the harm our Church has done and continues to do, that we may heal together,
Proclaiming the Dream: by changing the conversation to go deeper to embrace conflict as opportunities for growth and transformation
Repairing the Breach: or moving beyond a helping model toward authentic relationships and,
Practicing the Way of Love: by effectively examining Whiteness as a strategy in dismantling White Supremacy with both, action and advocacy
Now, upon examination of these four quadrants, telling the Truth might appear to be the most likely point of entry for this labyrinth but, it is not always the only point of entry a parish might take (my parish, St. Barnabas, for instance, has chosen to enter the labyrinth at Proclaiming the Dream)
In most cases, however, repairing the Breach is seen as the eventual effort that bends us back into the work of Telling the Truth and, effectively back to Practicing the Way of Love and Proclaiming the Dream
Regardless of the point of entry, though; it is the Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community vision that frames the path for Episcopalians to address racial injustice and grow as a community of reconcilers, justice-makers, and healers, who share a passion for the dream of God. And because this is the work of spiritual transformation, and not simply completing a training or implementing a program, we encourage individuals and congregations, of all faiths, to embrace the journey ahead as a long-term commitment. It may be helpful to imagine this labyrinth as you reflect, act, and reflect again. After all, on the road toward reconciliation and healing, we are bound to travel around corners, make sharp turns, pass fellow travelers, and double back into quadrants we have indeed visited before, each time discovering a fresh revelation or challenge.
In fact, if practiced religiously (no pun intended), we anticipate that the perpetual process of becoming Beloved Community will lead communities, faiths, congregations, and individuals through these four interrelated commitments, like the quadrants of a labyrinth, toward the true racial justice, healing, reconciliation and better care for God’s creation we all seek. So, now we come to the rest of the story, my story.
But, before anyone gets all excited about the prospect of being entertained by a litany of extraordinary events in the extraordinary life of an extraordinary person, you will hear none of that. In fact, there is nothing at all that is unique or extraordinary about me or my life. To the contrary, there will be more than a few in here who will think, man, he is talking about me! And that’s the point. The things that my God has led me to and through are the same things or at least similar to the things that most Black men, whose lives and careers are or have been on the same trajectory.
Case in point, I was born and raised in a loving Black family with two Black parents who lived in an all-Black, middle class community (not to be confused with a White middle-class community, a whole different thing, entirely). I spent the first 11 years of my life in that warm, safe and nurturing all-Black environment. I went to an all-Black school I could walk to, attended an all-Black Church (Baptist, not Episcopalian, that would all change when I married a cradle Episcopalian). In fact, as a child, I would have to leave the friendly confines of my community and travel a reasonable distance, in order to see more than one White person in one place. Life was good, man. But then came the late 60s and this thing called busing. Everything was changing and changing fast.
Now, I was seeing more White people than I could count, and I was going to their school in their neighborhood. But there was something else changing even more dramatically. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I can now. It was that sense of feeling unsafe, unwelcomed, and uncomfortable. It was the unspoken set of rules that was now being thrust upon me by strangers and friends alike, dictating who I could or should sit with, who I could or should talk to, who I could or should be friends with, even who of the opposite sex I could or should be seen with, let alone have a romantic interest in. Yes, that unsettling feeling had moved into my body and mind and was intent on taking up permanent residence. What’s more, the longer I was in that environment and exposed to White kids and their parents, the more unsettled I became and the warier I became of White people in general. But that’s not the end of it.
The more educated and successful I became as an adult, the more distant I began to feel from the world I grew up in. I became, what I have decided to call “the soul in the middle”; not comfortable at all in the world of the Whites and, less comfortable in the community I was raised in with each educational and career level I attained. To Whites I was viewed as nothing more than a product of affirmative action; not deserving of my place among them and clearly seen as less than. To some of my own (at least those who really didn’t know me) I was the poster child of an uppity sellout and, clearly, not one of us anymore. So, to more comfortably exist and function in both worlds, I felt pressured to constantly be “on”, which means engaging with Whites in a way that would make them more comfortable with me, in their world and, engaging with Blacks in a way that assured them that I still belonged, in our world. And, that pressure became stronger and stronger, as I found myself and my family (like most upwardly mobile Black families of our day) in predominantly White work settings, communities, churches and schools for our children. Of course, we did all the things most people in our position would do, in an effort to stay culturally and socially connected with our community, while trying to survive professionally and academically in areas dominated by their race (with all the conscious and unconscious prejudice, discrimination and racism that comes along with it). But, in the end, it almost always felt like all the efforts we made to exist comfortably in either world, were just not enough to alleviate the constant frustration of feeling ostracized (real or not) by one world or both. And, that’s no way to live, period.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting for a minute that the pain I felt and sometimes still feel as a moderately successful Black man, is equivalent to that which might be experienced by one who has been and perhaps still is, both underprivileged and underserved in our society. But pain is pain! And, no man, woman, or child deserves to have the kind of pain that they feel helpless to relieve. Additionally, I cannot begin to conceive of the pain a White person must feel, if they were to somehow realize, that their historical privilege in this country has always been at the expense of someone who doesn’t look like them. Because, the truth is, whether they want to recognize and admit it or not, they too have pain that is real. So, it is for all these reasons that I am deeply invested in Becoming Beloved Community. I am invested because, I want to help reshape a world with less pain for all people; a world where my children and their children, where everyone’s children won’t feel the intense pressure to choose sides or be in the middle of some arbitrary dividing line, which is a lonely and stressful place to be. And, you know what? I know that I am not alone because, everyone I have met on this journey so far, who is invested in and committed to Becoming Beloved Community (and there are many) wants to help shape that very same world, where everyone can just “be” and feel free to pursue their own destiny; the one that God has given to them. And together, I know that we can do this, with God’s help. And, most importantly, there is plenty of room for you in this movement.
So, come join us! Thank you.