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Vermont Clergy Treat Stubborn Wounds, Make New Efforts Toward Racial Healing

Vermont Clergy Treat Stubborn Wounds, Make New Efforts Toward Racial Healing

By the Episcopal Church in Vermont

On Tuesday, October 10, thirty priests of the Episcopal Church in Vermont gathered at Trinity Church in Rutland to embark on the first of a four-phase journey of racial healing. The Clergy Day event, which focused on Acknowledgment of open and hidden forms of racism, challenged participants to hear non-white perspectives, to discuss their lived experiences with race, and to confront the implicit biases that prevent relationship-building across racial lines. Guest speakers were the Rev. Dr. Arnold Thomas, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, and Shela Linton, co-founder of the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro.

Clergy Day focused on Acknowledgment of open and hidden forms of racism.

Clergy Day was the culmination of activities that all clergy, active and retired, were asked to engage in during the 40-day period leading up to the event. The invitation from Bishop Ely arrived in their email with a syllabus detailing the curriculum and pre-work that would serve as the foundation for the October 10 program.

The required pre-work included reading Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, or listening to the audio book; taking the Project Implicit Racial Bias Test, which is provided free online by Harvard University; viewing “Finding Myself in the Story of Race” by Debby Irving, racial justice educator and author of the acclaimed book Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race; reading an interview transcript featuring theologian Jim Wallis, author of America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America; reviewing the “Driving While Black & Brown in Vermont” report, a study that examines how the treatment of Black and Hispanic drivers differs from that of white and Asian drivers; and finally, reading “For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies,” an article by Courtney Ariel with tips for moving beyond Acknowledgment.

The Racial Reconciliation Team (RRT), which was responsible for designing the Diocese’s racial healing process, assembling the pre-work, and coordinating Clergy Day, was unabashed about the intensity of their approach, recognizing an urgent need for dignity against a backdrop of increasingly overt white supremacy throughout the United States and in Vermont specifically.

The Rev. Rob Spainhour, the co-leader of the RRT and rector of Holy Trinity, Swanton, explained, “As resolved in the 78th General Convention, we are seeking in part ‘to find more effective and productive ways to respond to racial injustice as we love our neighbors as ourselves, respect the dignity of every human being, and transform unjust structures of society. We believe the pre-work around Acknowledgment is a good place to start.”

“To help foster Acknowledgment, the Team agreed that clergy have to hear firsthand about what it means to be black in America, black in Vermont.” Maurice Harris, co-leader of the RRT and diocesan communications minister, commented, “As an African-American and someone who has experienced overt racism and micro-aggressions, I expected these stories to be difficult, especially among people who believe in justice and have a heart for change.”

To that end, clergy engaged in deeply personal small-group discussions about the Dyson book, in which the African-American preacher and Georgetown University professor shares moving personal recollections, cultural analyses, and ideas for restoring dignity. This was followed by Thomas’ presentation, which provided a nuanced perspective of what it means to be a black religious leader in a nearly all-white state with the added challenge of taking the Good News into communities that have an unwelcoming reputation toward people of color.

Linton, who identifies as mixed-race, gave personal accounts of racial harassment leading to a court case against the Brattleboro Union School District in 1994, which her parents won. Since that time, she and members of her family have repeatedly confronted issues of racial profiling in and around her hometown. She is a full-time social justice advocate and refuses to be forced out by fear.

“I started the Root Social Justice Center as a matter of personal survival,” she said. “The Root was founded as a safe place for people of color.”

White audiences wonder why they never hear these stories…They never ask.

“White audiences, especially progressive Vermonters, wonder why they never hear these stories about racism so close to home,” Linton continued. “It’s because they never ask. They may be afraid to hear the answer.”

Although the Episcopal Church in Vermont has been at the forefront of racial justice issues under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, including hosting a Racial Reconciliation Task Force in previous years, the new generation RRT has sought to revive and re-engage members and friends of the Diocese in an approach tailor-made for Vermont’s demographic.

“Racism is America’s original sin,” said Bishop Ely, quoting Wallis. “This country was founded on race, and if we are to make any real progress in the area of dignity for all people, we must acknowledge the role that we play, individually, and as members of predominately white communities, in refusing to confront racist systems and ideas.”

The Bishop held support and oversight roles in Clergy Day and the planning that preceded it, in the spirit of fostering leadership opportunities for clergy and lay persons. The Rev. Karen Montagno, director of congregational resources and training in the Diocese of Massachusetts and co-author of Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care, served as the RRT’s consultant, assisting in the development of Vermont’s racial healing process and Clergy Day curriculum.

The Rev. Beth Ann Maier of Christ Church Montpelier; the Rev. Nicholas Porter of St. Mary’s in the Mountains, Wilmington; and Jeff Hiam of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro assisted with planning and co-facilitated the day’s activities. Additionally, the Rev. Peggy Mathauer of All Saints, South Burlington; and Raquel Aronhime of St. Paul’s, Burlington served on the RRT. And Elizabeth Parker of Christ Church, Montpelier, was an early member of the RRT who helped to set the Team’s new direction.

The Diocese’s method for racial healing is a long-term, four-phase journey of Acknowledgment, Engagement, Reconciliation, Restoration, which the RRT recommended to Diocesan Council in March. The RRT hopes to roll out each phase to clergy first and  to equip clergy to emulate that work within their congregations. Retired clergy are positioned as mentors and confidants in the process, encouraged to journey with their peers currently serving congregations.

When we jump from Acknowledgment to solutions, we risk violating people’s dignity in well-meaning ways.

“There is a tendency to jump from Acknowledgment to solutions,” said Spainhour. “We may think we’re being helpful, but unless we take time to listen to people of color and to understand how their experiences differ from people who identify as white, we risk violating people’s dignity in well-meaning ways.”

As for the next steps, Clergy Day participants drafted ideas about how they would continue their personal Acknowledgment and how they might foster Acknowledgment within their congregations. The RRT will be reporting on its goals and achievements at the upcoming Diocesan Convention.

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