Twenty years ago within the span of time from then until now, ethnic ministries in the Diocese of Olympia has experienced significant change from a highly energized set of communities of color connected through diocesan communication, full and part time staff responsible for the portfolio of ethnic ministries work, several congregations/missions founded within minority communities, diocesan programs and committees that were moderately well funded and supplemented through organized fundraising events, and driven by a diocesan leadership proactively committed to supporting people of color in the diocese and forming them for leadership in the church.
In 2007, we elected a new bishop, who was tasked with (among other things) the need to address financial management needs including bringing burgeoning costs and parochial loans under control. In 2009, the suffragan bishop (responsible for the overall supervision of ethnic ministries and execution of its organizational goals) resigned. This was accompanied and followed by a reduction in the position of Canon for Ethnic Ministries from full time to quarter time. Certain ethnic missions were closed while others were significantly altered in leadership model and form, resulting in the loss of the historical cultural identities that shaped them. Over the course of a decade, our clergy of color have dwindled from more that twenty to less than ten. The diocesan staff and central communication that went with that position were subsumed within the diocesan staffing structure, the ethnic committees, the multicultural gathering, the networks of mutual support and connection evaporated within the machinations of financial and organizational restructure. Ethnic communities and clergy of color became isolated from diocesan leadership and from one another, islands toughing it out until – after ten years of disconnection and organizational neglect (with no vision or strategic plan that sought input from the people of color the bishop’s office professed to want to serve), some of us began to reach out to reconnect in the fall of 2019. We longed to rekindle the fire, the former passion for the mission of ethnic ministries, and to envision what it would be to regather the Beloved Community and re-forge partnerships.
Then George Floyd was murdered, and the movement within civil society that followed was like a burst of sudden flame as with a bomb, back lighting just how unprepared our diocese and leadership had become; how corporately disassociated we had all become due to lack of genuine relationships and connectivity; how understaffed and without any mechanism in place to find us, to assess our needs, and to comprehensively equip prospective allies among white clergy and members of our churches.
The bishop’s office will soon respond, and many are looking for that response – hungry to be partners, longing for support and encouragement, hoping for leadership to care in meaningful and empowering ways. And that’s the critical point of why I am writing, to speak to three pitfalls into which all well-intentioned efforts (in any organization) can become trapped.
Firstly, in addressing issues of systemic racism, consultation with the people of color in your diocese is foundational for successful empowerment of them – if leadership only consults within its own bubble or with outside consultants, your target group will be excluded within the creation of vision and strategic plan; in case you wondered, that’s bad. As one African American priest in our diocese expressed, “This is my church; please stop inviting me into it through language of inclusion. I’m already here. Talk to me.”
Secondly, forming successful collaborative partnerships requires an organizational leadership model that proactively invites that collaboration. People of color must not be paternalistically and colonially viewed as the “other” that the church or its leadership needs to serve (as though in some vision of reversed positions between the privileged and the poor, in which white people become penitent servants). Rather, genuine collaboration and partnership requires the abandonment of all such hegemony. Mutuality is predicated on letting go of paternalistic and authoritarian structures, which the church – by its hierarchical and dominant cultural nature – has difficulty managing. The leader who claims to be in charge, needs to stop being in charge within strategies of mutual appreciation and organizational transformation.
Thirdly, while the spiritual work of anti-racism must by necessity include supporting and equipping white people with what they need emotionally and intellectually to do their inner work, the focus of anti-racism must be ever fixed on the experiences, perspectives, and realities of people of color. My dear white allies, anti-racism is not about saving people of color from the injustices of white society; it’s about empowering people of color to be and bring fully who they are into the shrines of American society – including government and the church – to burst the walls, change the space, make it colorful, fill it with diverse music and images of God, bless it with wild grace in the liberating tide of decolonialized forms of liturgy, worship, and leadership formation.
The development and full breadth of the work that was once ethnic ministries many years ago was driven by the vision and commitment of the diocesan bishop; the work was directed and supported by an assisting bishop or the suffragan bishop that followed; the people and congregations of color in the diocese were connected and gathered around a full time ethnic missioner who advocated for our funding in the diocesan budget as a given (not in competition through a grant process), supported our additional fundraising efforts, and was the rally point around which our committees and communities gathered regularly. There is no possible way that the burden and scope of all that previous work could be accomplished through what became a single one-quarter time FTE diocesan position. In the same way, with all ethnic ministry staffing eliminated, it is an unreasonable expectation that either the Canon to the Ordinary or the Diocesan Bishop carry the specialized and demanding work of ethnic ministries and anti-racism. The work of ethnic ministries cannot be accomplished by either wishful thinking or in isolation as a product of the bishop or his/her office. A true organizational commitment to the work of ethnic minisries and anti-racism requires a commitment of staffing and must have the infrastructural support of broad-based strategic planning and reflected as a moral priority in the diocesan budget.
If you are a person of color in the Diocese of Olympia and want to be part of creating a new vision and direction for the work of ethnic ministries (various ministries of support and empowerment of people and missions), I invite you to become a part of the visioning process and the journey towards what God is calling us to be for one another, for our diocese, and for our communities. In conversation with our diocesan leadership (and having the support of the bishop), the time is upon us all to contemplate this time of socio-cultural reckoning within our civil and ecclesiastical life.
If you would like to learn more about an upcoming visioning and planning retreat for people of color in the Diocese of Olympia, please contact me for information about “Regathering The Beloved Community.”
For now, I conclude with this Gathering Prayer from the Disciple’s Prayer Book of the Native Ministries of The Episcopal Church:
Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation. In Jesus, you place the Gospel in the center of this sacred circle through which all of creation is related. You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life. Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen
We must leave both our perceived power and our perceived poverty outside of the circle in order to create a The Beloved Community of genuine mutuality, ministering side by side – in order to truly become the living Body of Christ, enrobed like Joseph in a coat of many colors.