”You are about to be ordained into a church that thrives on its English and colonial past,” he said, ”a church which historically has sought to make its black congregations and churches invisible either by not admitting them to the councils or by trying to model them on the basis of English piety and English preaching.” – Dr. Hood, prof. General theological Seminary
Ouch. Recited at the ordination ceremony of Reverend Sandra Wilson in 1982, it’s a hard word to read, a hard word to remember.
As a second year seminarian part of my work load includes field education – a part time job at a church or organization connected to the work I hope to do in the future. I’m following a God calling to serve in the Episcopal church – but I’ll be honest, I’m scared. Although the church now actively supports and fosters the growth of black congregations, and through recruitment, training, and development programs encourages black postulants and candidates to seek vocations in lay and ordained ministries, that statement is still true.
Jesus, help me not get stuck here.
Sandwiched between two very different neighborhoods my field education site is a posh Episcopal Church on Manhattans East Side. A 10-block walk north takes you to East Harlem – half a mile, but a world away. Here economic disparity manifests itself as wounds that won’t heal. It looks like broken families, a host of preventable diseases and poorly performing schools. It looks like food and housing insecurity. And yet, East Harlem is where I call home.
My field education site is a white space. A justice-seeking, reconciliation-hungry space, but still … a privileged white space. Not just predominately, overwhelmingly.
How do I make peace with my placement? My calling? How do I silence the voice that asks – “what are YOU, doing here?” This is about race and culture and class, and I see myself at the center of a handful of difficult conversations. I am the family that churches like this seek to assist with grab and go meals, my children would be the recipients of backpacks purchased for disadvantaged youth.
We are the family wondering over the stability of programs that promise to keep our apartment from making the leap to market rate. My presence asks that I dance around those boundaries, that I step outside of the margins I live within – to be the other in this space.
And otherness is everywhere. It’s at the forefront of our national consciousness. It’s the hot topic of our political discourse and the thing many churches won’t touch. It greets me at the door when I walk into the church I’ll serve 15 hours a week for the rest of the year. The 15-minute walk from my apartment to the church is a moving meditation on dichotomy. The stark contrast between uptown and downtown is hard to face, the walk from handicap to privilege, a bitter pill to swallow. I’ve always lived in two worlds but I’ll never get used to it.
Ballet and a love of the arts kept me in, yet out of the ‘hood – that and a set of parents who both loved and disciplined well. Where we lived was one thing, what we did and where we went was another. Where you lived and how much money your parents made was a private matter. The takeaway for me … Make your way to the arena by doing the work. Period.
So here I am more than 30 years later and I’m still doing the work of living in liminal spaces- playing with the big dogs, in the big park – hoping no one notices the line I have to cross to get home. It’s exhausting.
I remember the whisper that called me to this new life and the church I’m drawn to. It found a quiet spot in my heart and lived there for three years before I was able to give it a name. Time and space shifted to accommodate my acceptance of this journey. I don’t walk into the museum-like expanse of the building on 5th Avenue without acknowledgement of the weight of this work or the great honor it is to have been offered an invitation.
Yet, I wonder about the work of reconciliation.
Am I the black body at the intersection of all this privilege and power, and if so, how do I bear the cross with grace? How do I do it with dignity? How do I get past my worries to do the work I know I’m called to do? Given the ear of a community that’s ready to hear a new song – what will I say?
At the heart of my placement I see the incredible opportunity to learn and adjust to the real world challenge of striving for something I can’t see. Reconciliation is a lot like faith, without works – it’s dead. It’s not work I can do alone or shrouded in pretense. What I want is to wrap some skin around this thing called living in harmony, I want to make it real by stripping away its irritating immanence.
And only God can do that.
The call to serve at this particular site was not the only choice. I questioned if my body, my heart and service could be best used … maybe even, needed – elsewhere. Other options fell apart despite my efforts, others never materialized, some doors stayed shut. In many ways this church chose me.
God chose me. Only God could do that.
I slipped my shoes off in the middle of the third service on Sunday. It’s still warm enough to go without socks and the ease in which I connected with the cool marble under my feet was a surprise. I spread my toes, sinking my arches into a foundation established almost 150 years ago, in a church that, at the time, would not have welcomed me. I did so, mindful of the handful of faces like mine in the congregation. I did so with peace in my heart over God’s call over my life as a contemplative activist.
I am a contemplative activist. My presence is my holy resistance to the struggle. In taking my place at this particular table I’ve accepted the charge to be the bridge to a different experience – one that could lead to reconciliation. I am charged with brining my authentic African-American self, my womanhood – my whole and holy self. I am called to be … by being. I’m called to be true to who I am, authentic in my identity – I’m called to share my much needed voice.
I’m called to be – wherever God is working among his people, wherever that may be – and to being transformed through fire or grace- perhaps many times over, before this life is done.
This time the deepest reconciliation happened first in me.