A Wilderness People Seek Holy Ground

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Photo by Don Wayne – Mt. Rainier National Park

Results of Our Six Diocesan Resolutions

Circles of Color sponsored six resolutions to Diocesan Convention. We led a preconvention workshop on the Thursday evening before the Friday/Saturday convention schedule. During Convention, we provided a Friday morning introductory workshop to the Circles of Color and a panel discussion on Saturday. The sum of work was intensive, but the rewards were exponential.

The overarching intention of the six resolutions was to draw collective attention to the needs for diocesan institutional reform to support the work, leadership formation, and ministries essential to the communities and people of color in our diocese. Before 2007, this work had been facilitated by the supervision of a fulltime ethnic missioner, a fulltime suffragan bishop, a full-time assistant, and a part-time dedicated communications assistant. From 2007 onward, staff cuts and budget cuts served to deconstruct the centralized programing and support that had previously existed for our Episcopalians of color. In the absence of a proactive staff presence for providing advocacy, support and connection, the recruitment and leadership formation BIPOC people suffered as did several of our faith communities of color. In short, an administrative goal to cut costs had the impact of deconstructing ethnic ministries, which had been a vital community for BIPOC people in the diocese that provided significant partnerships, education, and consultation resources throughout the diocese.

The Circles of Color resolutions addressed the importance and need to keep BIPOC concerns and needs in the forefront of diocesan mission and commitment. During our panel discussion on Saturday, we heard from a member of the Diocesan Budget and Finance Committee that a diocesan survey some years ago indicated that ethnic ministries was a low priority for our diocese. However, based on the outstanding support of members of Convention this year, I believe the sense of diocesan priorities may have changed somewhat in response to the current issues of our time – most especially the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and revitalized interest in the intersectionality of indigenous peoples concerns and environmental justice issues.

Convention passed all six resolutions sponsored on behalf of Circles of Color. The resolutions themselves provided an important opportunity for reflection and education. They served as a lens through which to view and understand the needs of BIPOC Episcopalians. The majority of the diocese was likely unaware of the disenfranchisement experienced by our BIPOC church members and communities. I believe that I speak for all members of Circles of Color that we felt deeply grateful and were very emotionally and spiritually moved by the Convention’s support of the resolutions and by the witness and testimony provided by white allies who spoke in support of the resolutions. Many tears of gratitude were shed, and by the end of Convention we felt that we had been seen, heard, and valued. We hope that the community gift of being seen, heard, and valued will continue as we all grow in the depth of our relationships with one another in the Diocese of Olympia.

Whoever’s in Charge is Who’s Responsible

The greatest organizational challenges for needed changes are in areas of governance and leadership, getting to the heart of addressing issues of systemic racism in the church. Bishop Rickel has noted that now that the resolutions have been passed, the real work begins. From a values and community perspective, the work of addressing systemic racism is all of ours to do and rests with no single individual but with every individual, wherever we are on the organizational flow chart, however much social power we have, and whatever color we are. In our Baptismal Covenant, each of us has made the promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Fulfilling our Baptismal promises constitutes the work of a lifetime.

However, from a leadership and organizational perspective in which the reality of church hierarchy determines institutional and budgetary priorities, the bishop and his office as well as the dean and the diocesan cathedral need to do some soul searching. People of color in the Diocese of Olympia are asking for mutuality in our relationships with church leaders, input into institutional operations that directly affect us, and pastoral responses from diocesan and cathedral leadership. Asking for mutuality and decision-making that cares for the needs of the marginalized – which are community value of our faith – is at odds with the hegemonic nature of a hierarchical institution that equates leadership with higher authority possessing greater power and control.

In terms of systems theory, it is not possible to reconcile issues of inequality within a hierarchal structure that by its nature derives authority from the unequal social strata over which it has power. The democratic principles that seemingly empower the bicameral decision making of diocesan conventions and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church may be legislative bodies that attempt to balance the hierarchical influence of bishops and other leaders. Yet, the canon law that undergirds the Church polity and empowerment of hierarchal decision making is cumbersome and time consuming to change in response to the facile and rapidly changing needs of our time – including adapting to real-time needs of our growing communities of color.  Therefore, organizational adaptation is highly localized and is utterly dependent on how a given diocesan bishop or leadership system is willing to flex in the way in which authority operates on a continuum of unilateral hierarchical decision making to allowing for corporate influence in decision-making and collaborative organizational management.

Hierarchical decision-making says, “I have decided this is how it will be – you figure out how to execute my expectation and thereby you are ‘empowered’ to do things my way, and I will hold you accountable.” Whereas, corporate input into decision making that leads to genuine collective responsibility says, “We need to hear from one another regularly and intentionally so that we keep learning what we each need from a shared commitment to creating what we envision together; in this way we empower one another to assume the responsibilities we each have toward one another through our shared leadership, holding ourselves accountable.”

When hierarchical systems are incapable or unwilling to listen to the needs of the marginalized, the people will insist on transformative change, frequently perceived as a hostile corporate takeover by those whom the system genuinely empowers. Corporate challenge is the first indicator to those in charge within a system from which only the few derive authority that the system is not serving the people. Hierarchical systems rely on a system of rewards and punishments, usually generating a cosmology that promotes fear of retribution and extends relationship only to the compliant.  Within a hierarchal church system, forgiveness is about successfully placating angry gods.

Fortunately, in the face of the hierarchical machinations of empire and religious institution, Jesus offers a compelling alternative.

New Testament Leadership is Corporate and so is God

Jesus and early church leadership introduced significant social and theological innovations to the  hierarchical values and cultural beliefs enforced during their lifetime. Their perceived attempt at corporate takeover was considered threatening enough by those in hierarchical power to get nearly all of them killed. Yet, history shows us that good ideas are hard to entomb or coopt and have a tendency to be resurrected and liberated in successive generations. Just as creation is an ongoing phenomenon not limited to the allegory of seven days, Christ’s resurrection was never limited to just three days but continues unabated in our time.

The reality that the savior of dominant culture is an articulate, educated, brown-skinned, socially progressive young adult we know as Jesus is entirely relevant to the call confronting the Church today. Having lived his entire human life as an indigenous man living under Roman occupation and frustrated by the failure of his religious leaders to take a stand on behalf of the people in order to help mitigate their suffering, Jesus empowered others through his leadership. He leveraged whatever social privilege he held to cultivate relationships with the whole spectrum of his society, subverting multitudinous dominant paradigms with the certitude of the core principles of his faith. He elevated the law to love one another into a rallying cry for social, personal, and spiritual transformation. He seemingly challenged everyone he met to garner the fortitude to grow beyond the social limitations/expectations placed upon them like manacles, while chastising those who had created those bonds.

Jesus did not seek to overthrow but to create level ground for all. For those dwelling in high places of power, level ground was an anathema. Yet, early church writers picked up the theme of human value within corporate ways of being, and a triune God in collaboration with itself became the new model for leadership and community. In a challenge to ascribed social and religious privilege, Paul deconstructed social strata in human society and in religious institution, reframing the new community as the Body of Christ:

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.  But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor 13-14, 22, 24b-25).

Identifying a basis for common ground amidst social and cultural diversity, Paul also provides a basis for unity and social leveling in the idea that all social assignments that ascribe our identity – including ethnicity and gender – are subsumed into the singular identity of Christ, whose own identity in/as God transcends all:

Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:24-28)

Surely, when members of Christ’s body are hurting, we need to tend to those wounds collectively. People of color in the diocese of Olympia are hurting. Passing the six resolutions at our convention was an important beginning. Hearing Bishop Rickel state at convention that he is aware that he is responsible for causing much of the pain that was shared during the listening session panel was incredibly important. The next step is in developing mutual relationships in which people value one another through deepening trust and understanding. However, there is no program, training module, or personal inventory in existence that can substitute for doing the actual work of relationship building. One phone call at a time. One email at a time. One Zoom at a time. One meal at a time. One conversation at a time. Jesus never said the love we should have for one another would be easy, but he did say that it’s the most important work we can ever do for God.

It is laudable and appreciated that our bishop and cathedral are developing partnerships with diverse churches and ethnic communities outside of The Episcopal Church and with Episcopal leaders of color outside of our diocese. Yet, in doing so, leadership has overlooked our own people of color in the Diocese of Olympia and neglected the need we have for being in transformative and liberative relationship with our bishop and our cathedral. I hear that some hierarchical leaders feel at risk and are afraid; I hear that some of our people of color feel at risk and are afraid. Yet, I believe that all of us long for a relationship rooted on the level social landscape as Christ’s body that is Holy Ground, where “We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” 1 Cor 15:51

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