Dear Friends in Christ:
I have always believed that the first slave to be dragged off the shores of West Africa and loaded on a ship for the New World had a moment of vision, of hope for a time when he would be free, even if only through the lives of his descendants. I do not know if that moment lasted a few seconds or many years, whether it occurred to him consciously or in his dreams. I do know that the moment has endured, lengthened by the hope of countless others across the generations, down to our own day.
Though this long moment has been disrupted by centuries of slavery followed by years of discrimination, it keeps breaking forth, sometimes into a startling and beautiful reality. It is a perception shared by millions, that true freedom for all people of every description is possible, that human beings can willingly and fruitfully share an equal dignity as the Image of God and embody that dignity in our common life. That moment found expression in the ending of the British slave trade in 1807. It came forth again in the Emancipation of 1863; again, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This long moment is characterized by an awakening across an entire nation that racial oppression is not only deeply wrong, but tears at the souls of all who support it, even if we do so merely by not speaking out.
However, history shows that every such expression of this moment is followed by a long season of complacency, characterized by a tacit conviction that we have done enough. The slave trade is ended, so we have done enough. Black people are free, so we have done enough. Segregation is illegal and the vote is secured, therefore we have done enough. These seasons are not without their urgent voices insisting that we have not done enough; but those voices are not enough to stir the conscience of society. So the long moment waits for the next occasion of its revealing.
I believe we, in America, are in such season now and have been for many years. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York have caused sporadic outrage, but so did the death of Jonny Gammage in Pittsburgh nearly two decades ago. There is a sort of sullen denial across much of our culture as if race were not a problem or, to the extent that it is, that it will someday, somehow, simply go away. We have done enough.
But we have clearly not done enough: we have heard a great deal recently about growing income inequality in our nation. This inequality of class is inseparably linked to inequality of race. When workers at our region's largest employer feel the need to utilize a food bank set up by their fellow employees, and the overwhelming majority of poor employees are people of color, we can see in a single moment the clear evidence that we have not done enough.
So if the long moment of hope is to return, what must we do?
I believe we must begin by allowing ourselves to be inspired, before we can inspire others. I suggest three next steps.
First, every year we celebrate Absalom Jones Day, the commemoration of the first Episcopal priest of color, ordained in 1804. This year I not only invite you to join me, I entreat you, I urge you to do so. This celebration will take place on Saturday, February 7th. We are honored to have the Reverend Kim Coleman as our principal speaker. The day will have events for children as well as adults, and will be a time when we can all be spiritually refreshed and equipped for our next steps together. For more information and online registration, visit www.episcopalpgh.org/ajd/. As always, clergy are invited and encouraged to vest and process at the Eucharist, and parishes may bring banners and acolytes.
Second, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church have scheduled time at our meeting in March for a full discussion of race and the Church's witness. Locally, the Council of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, bishops and judicatory heads representing over one million Christians across the region, are actively discussing how best to address this matter together. But congregations in the Episcopal Diocese can have an on-the-ground impact by reaching out to neighbors to share concerns and stir consciousness about our racial divide. I urge you to begin simply by building a bridge between your own parish and one of a different denomination to begin a discussion about race and inequality. I encourage you to include Bible study and prayer from the outset and begin asking the question of how you can together impact your local community.
The third step is the hardest. Reach out to another person of a different race whom you do not yet know, and ask if you can begin to meet with them regularly to talk and pray together. The point here is not to turn the other into a project. The point is to begin to participate in the breaking down of that invisible, intangible "dividing wall of hostility" which we know God in Christ has already achieved (Ephesians 2:14). Simply find out who they are and make a commitment to walk with them in this life.
The long moment will break in again, but not until we insist. And we know that God desires this in-breaking for one simple reason: It is He that hath made us…: We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. (Psalm 100:2) Please join me in this new beginning. Support and encourage one another as we seek harmony in the place of division, freedom instead of bondage, and a universal abundance that will overwhelm all our inequities. The more we make of this, the more fully we will rejoice in our Lord, when the Redeemer of the Nations shall come again and the long moment is ours forever.
Faithfully your Bishop,
The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh