In December, more than 100 Episcopalians from across the partnership dioceses completed Sacred Ground, a dialogue series about race launched in 2019 by Becoming Beloved Community, the Episcopal Church’s long-term initiative on racial healing, reconciliation, and justice.
During the twenty-week program, participants met ten times, completed readings, and watched videos about race and American history. To go deeper, some also took part in optional discussions on specific course topics.
“Sacred Ground was a powerful experience as I witnessed my fellow siblings in Christ wrestle with the realities of white privilege and systemic injustice that has plagued us as a nation since its conception, and then vow to change their lives to help build God’s Beloved Community,” says the Very Rev. Derrick Fetz, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, who served as a facilitator. “I was heartened by the transformation in them and in me.”
“As a Filipino-American, I was at first unsure of whether or not to enroll in the Sacred Ground webinar series, because it’s described as primarily intended for a white audience,” Emily Sityar, a member of Calvary, Williamsville, says. “But, encouraged by a fellow parishioner, I attended the preview session and was immediately reassured by the first touchstone guideline to ‘extend and presume welcome.’”
Sityar, one of five people of color who participated in the program, ended up filling an entire composition book with her notes. “There’s so much of American and church history that I had never learned and so many complex viewpoints and experiences that I hadn’t ever fully grasped,” she says. “Just reading Howard Thurman’s ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’ was so spiritually uplifting. It was so moving to be on this journey of discovery with other people, to listen to their stories and share our reactions with one another.”
For others, Sacred Ground brought familiar ideas to life. “I have known intellectually for quite some time that I occupy a position of privilege and that a lot of the success I have experienced in my life has been due to systems that have benefited me often at the expense of others,” says John Ranney, a member of St. Mark’s, Erie and the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination.
“What Sacred Ground really did for me was to bring into focus the real-world events and real-world consequences of these abstract things. What kept coming back to me as we worked through the material was that verse about ‘punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation’ and how if we don’t deal with our historical sins now, we just push these struggles and inequities off on our children and grandchildren,” Ranney said. “Through the discussions with people across the partnership, I feel like we are starting to do the work we are called to do.”
“I am not a novice to these issues, but in each session, there was something new to absorb,” Christina Castro, a member of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, says. “Particularly poignant for me was when I realized that the land grant my great-grandparents’ homesteaded in northern Maine had been taken from [Indigenous] peoples.”
Many Sacred Ground participants found that sharing ideas and experiences with people from across the partnership dioceses strengthened the program. “At my last vestry meeting, one of the points of my exit report was to urge other vestry members of Calvary to participate more in the diocesan partnership,” Sityar says. “The partnership-wide Sacred Ground course provided a good mix of rural, urban, and suburban stories and perspectives. It can sometimes be scary to speak with strangers about awkward and sensitive topics such as racism, but sometimes confessions can be easier when people don’t really know who you are. … We may have all been starved for human interaction from the pandemic, so speaking to one another about serious issues fulfilled a need for fellowship.”
“I liked interacting with others attending different churches in the dioceses and who were from different communities,” Ranney says. “It was important for me to understand that what might be the case in Erie might not be the same in Buffalo or in the smaller towns around here. I learned a lot about the region, and finding out about the history of the Native American Boarding Schools … helped me understand more about what issues we need to face as a community of believers.”
Thomas Ralabate, a member of Calvary, Williamsville and professor of dance at the University at Buffalo, found Sacred Ground directly relevant to his daily life and work. “We’re working on implementing culturally relevant curriculum in dance and in the arts, to give a more global perspective of what we offer in our syllabi, so it doesn’t have a totally Eurocentric western approach to movement,” he says. “And so I was able to make these comparative connections.”
Ralabate found not only a way to bring Sacred Ground to his work, but a way to bring his work to Sacred Ground. “I was mentoring a senior dance major named Homeria Lubin and she was telling me about being African American, and how she was so impacted by the death of George Floyd,” he says. “I was seeing what she was creating and I thought, ‘You know, let me call Rev. Twila up and see if she would be interested in Homeria presenting her work to the group once it’s complete.”
Video of the piece, titled “The Camel’s Back” and inspired by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, was presented during a November 10 Sacred Ground special session, followed by a discussion with Lupin. “Homeria talked about her work, her inspiration, and the process of creating it,” Ralabate says. “The viewers asked great questions. She was thrilled, she loved the whole experience—it was so impactful for her and for the group.”
The program’s culmination was a commissioning ceremony on December 13, during which participants took the Pledge of Faith and Action Against Racial Injustice introduced at this year’s diocesan convention. Sityar, who served as a panelist on a churchwide webinar for facilitators and organizers for Sacred Ground titled “Episcopalians of Color: Sacred Ground Best Practices,” reported that “everyone wanted a copy of the document, and they loved the idea of having a commissioning ceremony with a pledge at the completion of the course.”
“There are three parts to the work of racial justice: educate, reconcile and heal,” says the Rev. Thomas Tripp of St. Peter’s Eggertville, a member of the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination. “Sacred Ground takes us into the first step of education. Those who participate say ‘we didn’t know this, we didn’t know that.’ So everyone who completed the course should have a refined education on the topic.”
Although Sacred Ground has concluded, opportunities for education on race and faith continue. Tripp commends the grid included in the pledge document (starting on page 2), which provides guidance for participating in the work of dismantling racism. The suggestions are broken down in categories of “learn,” “act,” and “pray.”
Several new partnership events and programs also provide people the opportunity to continuing learning about race and racism:
- In January, the Commission to Dismantle Racism co-sponsored a National Day of Racial Healing Zoom event that included a message from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and remarks from commission members Justice Rose Sconiers and the Rev. Matt Lincoln. Video of the event is available online.
- Together with Canon Twila Smith, people from across the partnership are gathering on Zoom in January and February to discuss “The Thomas Indian School and the ‘Irredeemable’ Children of New York,” a book that examines the history of the school that the State of New York operated on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation from 1875 to 1957 and some of the history of indigenous people in our region.
- On February 14 from 5 to 6 p.m., the Bishop Holly Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians will host an online celebration of the Absalom Jones Feast Day. Learn more.
Watch the partnership newsletter for upcoming programs and additional resources for using the Pledge of Faith and Action Against Racial Injustice in your congregation.