Members of the diocese’s recently reconfigured Racial Justice Commission came before the Diocesan Convention last November bearing messages from the larger advisory group that they had been meeting with regularly over the summer to put some foundations in place:
“This is justice work, identifying whatever takes away from a person’s dignity. We have to see the importance of this endeavor. Diocese, please support this commission’s work.”
“We hope you’ll join us on this transforming journey. There will be obstacles on the way, but we can move them together as God’s people. You are beloved of God, and all of us should feel beloved. Change is needed to accomplish this.”
“We can often see racial justice as just a box that we check. Rather, we hope that you will join us in deep personal transformation.”
“We want to be clear that this is an invitation that extends to persons of color. We want you to join us in addressing even internalized racism.”
“Finally, let us remember the truth of resurrection. Some things need to die and fall away. This will be painful, but it will restore us into greater relationship.”
Invitation, challenge, hope, plea.
The authentic and large-scale conversation about racism—called for by the diocesan mission strategy and necessary for healing and change—will be frustrated if structural, systemic and cultural aspects of racism in the diocese are allowed to continue, they said.
As commission member and convention presenter Constance Perry of Trinity Church in Boston put it, “We will defeat our future if we live with a comfortable gaze on the past.”
Since the convention, the Racial Justice Commission has been forming subcommittees and organizing for work in five priority areas: transparency and accountability in organizational practices and processes; just allocation of financial resources and compensation; support for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) leaders, congregations and communities; reparations; and a rethink and reprovision of formation and liturgy resources considered from an antiracist point of view.
“Because the work is large, we’ve been finding people who want to join us in the work, people who represent the whole of the diocese, people who have a particular interest in things like reparations, formation, how we integrate antiracism principles into everything we do as a church,” the Rev. Natalie Thomas said in a recent interview with several commission leaders.
“The work since the convention has also been to begin thinking about what it looks like on a very practical level to take stock of where racism is showing up in the church and what kinds of questions we can ask so we can do the work together,” Thomas said.
A deacon serving at St. Barnabas’s Church in Falmouth, she co-chairs the Racial Justice Commission with the Rev. Noble Scheepers, the rector of Trinity Church in Marshfield.
“We’re trying to be very intentional and operate in a way that’s reflective of our end goal,” added Kristina Wile, a member of the commission from St. Elizabeth’s Church in Sudbury who has been serving as an interim co-chair.
“I know there is a lot of forward energy in pockets, which is such a blessing and will enable us to succeed, and, at the same time, we kind of have to go slow to go fast,” Wile said.
The commission has also been dovetailing its work plan with the several mandates of Diocesan Convention resolutions adopted in November: To address the neglect of the seven historically Black churches of the diocese; to make recommendations for the creation of a reparations fund in acknowledgment of and repentance for the sin and legacy of slavery; and to provide a “toolbox” of resources to help the diocese’s congregations and organizations examine their historic involvement in, and financial assets derived from, the forced labor of enslaved people.
“This is the kairos moment for us. Certainly that was the impression I had after the convention, a new sense of spirit of fighting for good, for justice, for equality that was manifested in the very successful acceptance, almost affirmation, of the resolutions that were passed, but also a sense of the new manifestation of ubuntu, which is the Zulu word for being a person among persons and giving that recognition across the racial divide,” the Rev. Noble Scheepers recalled.
God-centeredness and a commitment to truth and reconciliation principles must undergird the work ahead, he said.
“There is the very, very strong tenet of practicing confession and forgiveness, and that attitude and that practice has to grow for the Racial Justice Commission to be effective in the diocese and in the dismantling of white supremacy it’s built on. That’s the journey we’re on at the moment,” Scheepers said.
He has been making regular presentations at deans’ meetings and in deaneries—including an upcoming one with the Alewife Deanery on April 29— and the commission invites inquiries from groups who are interested in learning more.
Recommendations of existing resource materials will be coming soon, the co-chairs said. Questions and contact are welcomed, even as new materials, timelines and next steps are being identified.
“If there’s a church that wants to start studying its history, for example, they don’t have to wait for the toolkit from us to be developed,” Thomas said.
“What we would like is for them to get in touch with us and let us know the work they are doing so we can learn from it and so they can be part of this community of practice we’re convening. We’re not arbitrators or gatekeepers, but we do want to be collaborative and wise in the way we work,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. Jean Baptiste Ntagengwa, who is canon for multicultural and immigration ministries and serves as the diocesan staff liaison to the Racial Justice Commission, reported that a group representing the diocese’s seven historically Black churches is meeting regularly to work on Diocesan Convention’s requests related to those congregations.
“The committee has been created, and they are doing the work that has been given. Eventually they are going to report to the whole Racial Justice Commission on their findings,” he said.
What are the messages these leaders bear for the diocesan community now at this stage of the Racial Justice Commission’s work?
“It would be good for our diocesan community at all levels, whether it’s a white community or only people of color, to know that whenever people are gathered, race is present, consciously or unconsciously,” Ntagengwa said, “and for people to start really being proactive in sensing that, in knowing that, to start thinking how to address these racial issues that are within us.”
Kris Wile spoke of the potential for “Beloved Community,” the vision held forth by Martin Luther King Jr. for achieving justice, equity and peace for all people.
“For me it is keeping our eye on this beautiful ideal, this beautiful vision of how we can be, because the work to get there may be uncomfortable. It will be uncomfortable,” she said.
Scheepers said he comes at it as "eternally the pastor."
"I’m thinking of the call of the Racial Justice Commission and why racial justice work has been so close to my heart, and it is because we come to the realization that we look at the perpetrators of white supremacy with God’s eye view, and because God ratifies this, what I call, moment of truth, this racial justice work will yield gifts in our churches, deaneries and the diocese," he said.
For Thomas, the message is about participation.
“This work really depends on the parishes getting involved, full stop. The culture change really depends on it,” she said. “So I would want people to know that we’re here to support their engagement in this work. If you’re wondering how your organizational structures or the way you work promotes racism, contact the Racial Justice Commission. If you’re thinking about adult formation and what you can do, contact us. If you’re thinking about how your finances can go toward racial justice, contact us. If you want to be a better support to your colleagues in Black churches in this diocese, that’s what we’re here for, too.”
“There are so many ways to enter this work it can feel overwhelming,” she said. “It is a mountain that we’re chipping away at, but the important thing is to pick up the ax and start chopping, wherever you are.”
--Tracy J. Sukraw
Visit the Racial Justice Commission’s developing webpage at www.diomass.org/racial-justice-commission for information, updates and forthcoming resource materials.
Read a reflection by the Rev. Noble Scheepers,"Truth-telling and repentance toward dismantling our structural racism: 'God intends us to succeed'" here.