Episcopal bishop urges action on racial inequality
January 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Bishop Dorsey McConnell
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh on Friday issued “A Pastoral Letter on Race,” decrying racial oppression and suggesting ways that the church and members of its congregations could move society closer toward reconciliation.
“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. [That] we have done enough,” Bishop Dorsey McConnell said in an open letter to the 9,000 members of 37 Episcopal congregations in the 11 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania. (See episcopalpgh.org.)
“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.”
Bishop McConnell noted recent anger in African-American communities over black youths who have been killed by white police officers, sparking nationwide protests and rallies calling for changes in the justice system.
“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,” the bishop wrote.
“The issue of race relations has been on the bishop’s mind ever since he arrived in Pittsburgh more than two years ago,” Rich Creehan, spokesman for the diocese, said Friday night while the bishop was traveling out of town. “He sees the role of the church as addressing the needs of society, especially playing a role in bringing together sectors of society that can have an influence in bringing about reconciliation — which, after all, the business of the church is all about.”
Bishop McConnell’s letter suggests three steps that Episcopalians could take.
“First, every year we celebrate Absalom Jones Day, the commemoration of the first Episcopal priest of color, ordained in 1804,” he wrote. “This year I not only invite you to join me, I entreat you, I urge you to do so.”
This service, he said, will be at 10 a.m. Feb. 7 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 328 Sixth Ave., Downtown, with guest speaker the Rev. Kim Coleman of Virginia.
Second, he wrote: “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.”
“He’s very much interested in beginning the conversations within congregations themselves,” Mr. Creehan said.
“The third step is the hardest,” Bishop McConnell wrote. “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.’ ... Simply find out who they are and make a commitment to walk with them in this life.”
Mr. Creehan said the letter was distributed by email to all the diocese clergy as well as to “many folks in the pew.” It also will be posted in the churches.
A similar letter was released last week by the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ with the hope that it would be read in 5,100 churches nationwide on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend or on Sunday, which marks the conclusion of the church’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
“Born in the midst of the civil rights movement and having deep roots in the 19th-century struggle to abolish slavery, the United Church of Christ has a lasting engagement in the struggle for racial justice,” read the UCC’s Pastoral Letter on Racism, signed by five of the church’s leaders. “We are theologically and spiritually compelled to seek the elimination of racism within ourselves, in the church and in society.”
The UCC letter expressed sympathy for communities and families that have been impacted by violence recently, including Cleveland, where Tamir Rice, a black youth, was shot and killed by a white police officer. It also lamented slain police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York.
“We seek healing, too, but recognize that wounds not fully cleansed will not heal properly,” the letter said.
“We also confess as a denomination that is majority white in membership that we have not lived into our commitments to be an anti-racist church and an intercultural, multiracial church to the extent that God has called us to be. On matters of race and racism we have lapsed into complacency in part because racism seems intractable. It won’t go away. Or because we want to believe that we are living in a ‘post-racial era.’ If we are able to embrace this confession as our own, our calling as Jesus’ disciples then inspires and even compels us to be accountable and responsible in pursuit of the end of racism, however long it takes.”
But these are not the first calls for racial conciliation by religious leaders.
In 1979, Catholic bishops wrote “Brothers and Sisters to Us: U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism in Our Day.”
“Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world,” the bishops wrote at the time. “To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”
In 2004, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, marked a yearlong commemoration of the letter’s 25th anniversary with a special Mass April 3 at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, attended by representatives from local religious and secular groups. The Mass aimed to help Catholics reflect on what they could do to address racism in their own lives and communities.
Mr. Creehan said Bishop McConnell was familiar with such calls from church leaders.
“I know he’s read some of them, and he has been in conversations with fellow bishops in the church about them,” Mr. Creehan said. “But he’s very much an independent thinker, and this is what he’s feeling in his heart.”
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