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Opening Space for Dialogue: Sacred Ground Reaches Midway Point

Earlier this summer, more than 200 people across the partnership dioceses enrolled in Sacred Ground,  an Episcopal Church dialogue series about race that includes readings, documentary film and short videos. Co-sponsored by the Diocese of Western New York’s Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination and the partnership Mission Strategy Advisory Group, the ten-week program includes two facilitated discussion groups that each meet twice each month.

“As we reach the halfway point, people are talking more about their desires for change, for true Beloved Community, and to be part of bringing that about,” said the Rev. Twila Smith, a co-chair of the Mission Strategy Advisory Group who helped organized the program. “It is encouraging to see people from across the partnership come together and engage in this work with courageous vulnerability. For many, this is the first time they’ve talked openly about their upbringing, issues of prejudice, regrets, biases they had not realized, and grief. Both the past and the present bring forth lament.”

During each Sacred Ground session, one participant is asked to prepare a response to the materials assigned for that week. Sharon Downey, canon musician at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie, offered the response for last Thursday’s session. “I wouldn’t normally volunteer to speak at something like this,” she said. “I’m much more comfortable at the organ!”

Downey, a native of Erie, noted the city’s visible racial inequities. “The phrase that I really took was ‘it doesn’t take evil, just ignorance,’” she said during her reflection. “And it makes me find a strange comfort in the fact that I am ignorant and can admit I’m ignorant. And that’s not evil. But it does need to be worked on.”

“Several people have talked about using this time of isolation from COVID-19 for a good purpose – learning history missed in school, becoming more knowledgeable about present-day realities – to be better prepared to act in the months ahead,” Smith said. The Rev. Diana Leiker, a deacon at St. James, Batavia, in the Diocese of Western New York’s Genesee Deanery, said “in our region, my church friends are the only ones we know using this time to talk about anti-racism.”

Mary Tyler of St. Mark’s Leroy, also of the Genesee Deanery, agreed. “I’m finding the more I do this, the more I want to know more, read more, know more, learn more.”

“I think these are conversations that many people have wanted to have and didn’t know how to connect with others to do so,” Smith said. “Sacred Ground has opened a space for dialogue, and people from across the partnership have entered in.”