Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Remembrance and repentance at former church of the Confederacy

Over the past two years I have been part of a History and Reconciliation Initiative at St Paul’s Episcopal Church. A deep dive into the archives reveals the extent of the congregation’s involvement in Richmond’s slave economy, its promotion of the Lost Cause mythology and racial hierarchy, as well as significant work in recent decades to promote dialogue and to address needs in education and housing.

On Saturday, March 10, we welcomed the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry at a public forum, “Bending toward truth: a forum on race and religion in Richmond.” Curry, who is the first African American primate of the Episcopal Church, came to affirm the work of St Paul’s. Up to 500 people from across the region heard panels of historians, clergy of various denominations, the leader of a foundation focused on health, and the CEO of a museum. As part of the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise, Initiatives of Change-Hope in the Cities partnered with St Paul's. 

Historians Chris Graham and Elizabeth O’Leary told the forum that the resources that made the church came directly from the profits of factories and businesses built on the backs of enslaved African Americans. One of the benefactors, Joseph Reid Anderson, owned 75 slaves who worked at his Tredegar Iron Works. Graham said that little is known of the people who built the church, “but this story is less about how slavery built the church and more about how the church built race.”

St Paul’s supported a widely-held theology that claimed God ordained racial inequality and that it was the moral duty of whites to govern blacks. “They defined the enslavement of humans not as an act of violence, but as benevolence, which they justified by their Christian faith,” said Graham. People at St Paul’s were “fully invested emotionally, financially, spiritually in the Civil War.” Confederate leaders worshipped in our pews, and after the war the congregation installed an iconography of the Lost Cause and used magnificent stained-glass windows to tell a false narrative of former glory which denied slavery as the primary cause of the war – an early example of fake news. The land for the Lee monument was donated by a member of the congregation. Members of St Paul’s were delegates to the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention which disenfranchised huge numbers of African Americans though poll taxes and literacy tests to re-assert white supremacy; this led to 86 years of rule by the Democratic party.

In the first part of the 20th century, the church was eager to improve “race relations” and promoted charitable causes but only within the context of Jim Crow segregation. St Paul’s members were involved on redlining that prevented blacks from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods, and in the decision to construct a highway though the heart of the thriving African American business district.

However, in recent decades St Paul’s has incubated important efforts such as the Micah Initiative which inspired scores of area congregations to support elementary school children and teachers, particularly in high poverty areas, and the Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center which has become a vital place of spiritual renewal and racial reconciliation. Members of the congregation were also instrumental in the development and support of Hope in the Cities. Indeed, Rev. Ben Campbell, the founder of Richmond Hill, was my closest ally in the early development of Hope in the Cities as it launched its campaign for honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility, including Richmond’s first walk through its racial history.

Disrupting the narrative

The forum featured panels of historians and scholars including Edward Ayers, president emeritus at the University of Richmond, Corey Walker, dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, as well as clergy of different denominations, and Mark Constantine, president and CEO of Richmond Memorial Health Foundation and Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum.  

Among the insights I noted:
  • It is irrelevant to focus on the personal qualities or motivations however noble of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, because if they had won the result would have been a vast nation built on perpetual bondage.  
  • What happens to a people who forget their holocaust? America as a whole does not believe that it had a holocaust, but African Americans know. The Germans have done deep work in remembering their history. We built monuments to losers.
  • The African American community is not a problem or pathology to be solved by public policy. The critical question is how do we understand what it is to be human?
  • The individualizing of faith divorces it from social consequences especially among white evangelicals.
  • White fragility is very strong. We need to say we are not afraid to repent not just for our personal sin but for the historic and institutional sin.
  • The consequences of our history include a 20-year difference in life expectancy in different parts of the city; lack of affordable housing; an ongoing segregation in our schools; and lack of access to employment because of inadequate public transportation.  
  • We must “disrupt the narrative.” This is a day of reckoning. It is an opportunity to take our history and build a new narrative that grapples directly with white supremacy.

In a call to action, Bishop Curry told the forum, “This is important not only for Richmond but for the nation and the world. We must find a better way; you are modeling a better way.”

A statement printed as the introduction for a service of remembrance and repentance on Sunday summarized the key findings of the historical research. It concluded: “While our church is rooted in great injustice, our story reveals great transformation and courage among our members who we have not remembered as we do our famous war heroes. Taken together this whole story provokes us to think about repentance. To repent is to turn around. We are turning. There is more turning yet to do… We humbly acknowledge that this service of remembrance and repentance is but a step along a journey.”

Curry’s sermon focused on the power of love which is the antitheses of selfishness. He called self-centeredness “the most destructive force in the universe.” He left us with the affirmation that “St Paul’s has the capacity to speak hard words that are saturated with hope.”

Monday, January 15, 2018

Finding our moral compass

Some years ago, my colleague Audrey Brown Burton, a founder of Richmond’s racial healing movement, made this statement about hope: “Hope is spiritual and social. It is not just futuristic. It is a powerful word and concept. The more we say it, the more we become it. This is an identity for us. We become hopeful in a spiritual sense, and we apply this identity in the social fabric of this community.”*

I was reminded of this at a Hope in the Cities Advisory Council meeting earlier this month as we took time to reflect on the question, “What gives you hope as we enter 2018 in the midst of so many very real challenges that we all face personally, as a community and nationally?”

The question provoked some surprisingly deep conversation. Among the hopeful signs we shared together were friendships, children and grandchildren, the demonstration of grassroots engagement in the Virginia state elections last November, people becoming more aware that they can change things, the power of resistance, less complacency, the action of women, people in faith communities willing to stand for their convictions, significant shifts in jurisdictions that have previously held out against change, racial healing in our own lives, physical recovery, and the power of relationships. Also, the realization that we don’t have to know all the answers – it is enough to take one step.

Our new governor, Ralph Northam, set a hopeful tone for 2018 in his January 13 inaugural call to Virginians to find their “moral compass.”  “It can be hard to find our way when there is so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate, and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problem,” he told his audience. “We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And its time to summon it again, because we have work to do.”

At times the moral compass calls us to be truth tellers. Along with the governor’s remarks, the January 14 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried articles that highlight two such truth tellers. Richmond’s new superintendent of schools, Jason Kamras, pledged to talk about race. “Race matters in this world, in this country, in this district. And we are going to talk about it.” At a school board retreat leading into the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Kamras, who is the first white superintendent in decades, asked board members to read King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” According to the newspaper report, he said, “The work we are going to be doing here in the Richmond Public Schools is undoing the 400 years of injustice.”

In a commentary, Dr. John Moeser spelled out in detail the record of explicit racial discrimination in Virginia after the brief Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. In 1902 the state adopted a new Constitution designed to disenfranchise African Americans. In one stark example, the arcane literacy test reduced the number of black voters in Jackson Ward, one of Richmond’s largest black neighborhoods, from 33,000 to just 33. In the ensuing years Richmond made repeated attempts to prohibit blacks and whites from living in the same neighborhoods. African Americans whose homes were destroyed by urban renewal and highway construction could not get loans to move into neighboring white neighborhoods. Many ended up in public housing projects, all of which were concentrated in a small area of the city. Not surprisingly, Richmond’s schools are largely populated by black and Latino children from low income families.    

But the newspaper also carried a story that gave a glimpse of positive long-overdue change. After decades of resistance, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors agreed to extend bus service from downtown Richmond to Short Pump, a major commercial hub. Most new jobs as well as shopping malls are located outside the city limits, yet until now it has been virtually impossible for anyone without a car to reach them. Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson noted, “I still don’t understand why it is like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump.”

Moeser writes that the suburban counties surrounding Richmond now have rapidly growing poor communities from many countries. “What city neighborhoods experienced for decades is now being visited upon suburban counties. Resistance is all too common.” He asks whether we can create sustainable welcoming communities where the needs of everyone are met. The answer, he says, is yes, we can create such communities. “The other question, however, is much more challenging: ‘Do we have the political will to do it?’”

Governor Northam noted that Richmond was a seat of the American Revolution but also a giant slave market. “Our history is complex in Virginia. It included the good and the bad. But no other place on earth can claim it. This unique heritage endows us with a responsibility to shape the future – to leave this place better than we found it.” In the same vein as my friend Audrey Burton, he called hope “a well-spring of energy to fight for a better tomorrow, no matter the odds.”

*Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Making democracy function

In 1908 a socially conscious and ambitious young pastor from Allentown, PA, overcame deep resentment against his colleagues and decided to lay aside his ego by admitting his own wrong. The simple but difficult decision to ask forgiveness and start the change process in his own life was the spark that led to a movement that today undergirds reconciliation and social transformation efforts across the world – including my own city of Richmond, Va.

Known first as the Oxford Group, then Moral Re-Armament, and today Initiatives of Change, it has inspired other movements along way, most notably Alcoholics Anonymous which is rooted in Oxford Group principles. 

Frank Buchman believed that every individual could be a catalyst for change. There was no need to wait for others or to waste energy on blame and recrimination. It was as he put it, “the ordinary man’s opportunity to change the world.”

Reading Buchman’s speeches from the late 1930s and 1940s, I am startled by their relevance for today, in particular his challenge to America at a time when our democracy is threatened by partisanship, racism and greed. Speaking to students and faculty at Oglethorpe University in June 1939, he said, “The danger of our age is that we fail to listen. We talk, talk, talk. The answer is listening.” And this was before the age of 24-hour cable news! “Everyone wants to illuminate America,” he remarked, “but many want to do so without installing an electric light plant.”  

As the storm clouds of war gathered in Europe in January 1939, he called for a moral and spiritual revolution that would challenge both right and left. He described a “prejudice-free level of living,” which stands for “a common denominator of immediate constructive action for everyone, above party, race, class, creed, point of view or personal advantage.” (New Year message given at request of the British Press Association)

In 1943, with American forces fighting across world, Buchman was ahead of his time in thinking about the future of democracy. “Moral Re-Armament [now Initiatives of Change] creates the qualities that make democracy function. It is simple nonpartisan, non-sectarian, non-political.” It gives to everyone the “inner discipline” they need and the “inner liberty” they desire. (Mackinac Island, Michigan, conference center, July 1943)

What is the inner discipline and liberty that Buchman was describing? Over the years he had developed specific tools to guide his personal ministry and his program outreach. He believed that spirituality could not be divorced from the highest moral imperatives “in a day when selfishness and expediency are the common practice.” Tolerance has become the norm in recent decades, but with the daily headlines of irresponsibility on Wall Street, sexual harassment in the workplace and an opioid epidemic, it might not be a bad thing to review some basic guidelines. Relativism is actually in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect and equality and with calls to tackle corruption or uphold human rights. Buchman held up standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love as benchmarks for personal and public life.

Second, he found that regular times of inner listening or “quiet times” as he called them could provide accurate information and practical insights for action as well as personal guidance and renewal. In his speech at Oglethorpe he said, “A great new revolution came into my life when I began to listen to God every morning.”

He was speaking in the context of his Christian faith but the belief in an inner voice, a higher power, or the power of conscience is universal. Throughout history religious leaders and philosophers have striven to define the ultimate values in human behavior. Gandhi called purity of life the highest and truest art. Mohammed made selflessness and service to those in need watchwords of Islam. Jesus told his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Buchman believed that this approach to personal and social change could build for democracy “an unshakeable framework of actively selfless and self-giving citizens, whose determination to bring unity cannot be altered by any beckoning of personal advantage and who know how to pass along to others the panic-proof experience of the guidance of God.” (Mackinac 1943) He was prophetic both in his diagnosis of America’s need and his vision for what this country could become. 

All quotes are from Remaking the World, the speeches of Frank N.D. Buchman (Blandford Press 1961)   

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The place to start

I often get ideas for blogs while working in the yard. This morning, battling some particularly stubborn wiregrass, I thought about Steve Bassett, one of Virginia’s beloved singer-songwriters. 

In 1993, as our Hope in the Cities team was preparing a national conference in Richmond, we had the idea to ask Steve to write a theme song. My colleague Rev. Paige Chargois and I drove out to his home in Cartersville. We sat on the front porch and talked about our vision that the conference would help to start “an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility.” Steve listened carefully and after a while he said, “I think I’ve got it.” A few days later the phone rang in our campaign office and Steve was on the line singing:

I’ll start with my heart,
That’s where the future is.
I’ll start with my heart,
There’s healing when it gives.
I’ll start with my heart,
The differences end in there.
That’s what I’ll do to get right with you,
I’ll start with my heart.

In those few lines, Steve encapsulated the core of Initiatives of Change and its work of Hope in the Cities: the willingness to start with ourselves rather than point the finger of blame.

We have become known as a leading exponent of dialogue across racial, political and religious lines. Cricket White, our lead facilitator for many years, believes that the most powerful moment in any dialogue occurs when someone takes responsibility for what they or their group has done to create or perpetuate a problem and is able to claim responsibility for it in front of the other group. “It changes the whole dynamic because the other side knows already. It’s not news to them!”

We have seen this to be true in countless encounters such as with Muslims and Evangelical Christians or with grassroots leaders and business executives.
The refusal to be limited by a victim-perpetrator paradigm sometimes provokes a reaction. But the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman put it bluntly: “The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own back yard. What I seek to eradicate in society …I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this.”

No matter how convinced we are about our point of view, no matter how deeply we feel the wrong of injustice, we are unlikely to engender change by “continuing to glare at each other from self-righteous and isolated positions,” to borrow a phrase from columnist William Raspberry who once described America as “a nation of bad listeners.” 

There are many ways to describe the work of Hope in the Cities. We teach skills of facilitation, walking through history and creating shared community narratives, understanding white privilege, implicit bias, and the use of data. But at its core is the ability to create a space where individuals feel welcome and find the courage to make an honest inventory of their own lives, to search deeply into their motivations and to identify personal blockages – or what my early mentor John Coleman called “excess baggage.”

This honest introspection is not for the fainthearted. My 1985 documentary, The Courage to Change, illustrates how it has formed the basis for our work since the beginning.   

Cleiland Donnnan, a well-known personality among the Richmond establishment as the leader of the Junior Assembly Cotillion, was deeply affected by one honest conversation: “I saw clearly my own false pride in my ancestors and all those beautiful plantations along the James River. Standing out like a bolt of lightning was the hurt and pain and suffering of slavery. But most of all, the seemingly small slights stood out – my own arrogance, slights, my thinking that the blacks in the East End had their place and I deserved my place in the West End of town.”

For Audrey Burton, a veteran African American organizer, the challenge was “to reconstruct my model, to become free of hostility, anger, hate and frustration… It was a spiritual transformation, not an intellectual one. Rather than constant confrontation, I learned to be quiet, to reconnect. My behavior and language changed. Way down, deep inside, God called me by name.”

Such moments of transformation lead to new relationships and to inspired action. The demonstration of radically changed lives and the often unexpected partnerships that can result, have done far more to transform racial dynamics in Richmond and other communities than exhaustive analysis, exhortation, or advocacy.

The essential first step is the willingness to say with Steve Bassett, “I’ll start with my heart.”  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reflections on a missed opportunity and the need for respect

I have been watching the struggle for democracy in Turkey with concern and some sadness, recalling a wonderful week that my wife and I spent there while on sabbatical in 2005. It was our first and so far only visit to that fascinating country which bridges Europe and Asia. For centuries it has been a meeting place of diverse cultures and a crossroads for trade.

Our hosts were Zeki and Cigdem Leblebici. Zeki is an architect and Cigdem taught social psychology at the Ismir University of Economics. They were generous hosts to us in a small town near Izmir and introduced us to various aspects of Turkish life. Izmir is a bustling, modern city with a large busy port. In the bazaar we drank strong Turkish coffee and sampled a specialty called “and kokorech” which is grilled sheep intestines – actually quite delicious! We also sampled a dessert made from chicken called “tavukgeysu.” We took the ferry across the wide bay and rode in one of the fifteen-seater vans that are the most common form of public transportation. They go everywhere and seem to be very efficient (we could use something like that here in Richmond!). Although American troops had invaded Iraq two years earlier, the war never came up in conversation. Our interactions everywhere were marked by warmth and good humor.

Turkey is a vast and dynamic country of 70 million people with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. The Turkish language has no relationship to Arabic and few Turks speak Arabic. Their roots are in Central Asia and have more in common with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although nearly all Turks are Muslims, the country had followed a secular path since Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in the early 1920s and the liberation from European colonialist influence. But since the advent of Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented government, the country has become divided over the role of Islam. In Ismir, all the young people we saw wore Western dress.

After years working internationally with Initiatives of Change, Cigdem returned to Turkey to pass on her vision for her country’s role in the world to a new generation. She asked us to speak to her class at the university about our work in Richmond of trustbuilding and honest conversation. It was a lively and talkative crowd. However, we noticed that open discussion about politically controversial topics was often guarded.

At one point we asked, “What would you most like to see different in your lifetime?” At first they were quiet. Then one said, “For Turkey to be in the European Union!” Others immediately voiced similar hopes. It was clear that they regarded themselves as part of Europe rather than Asia. In those days Turkey was negotiating membership with the EU. (About 46 percent of its exports go to EU countries and 38 percent of its imports come from Europe.) Sadly, its efforts met strong resistance and Turkey’s relationship with Europe has become more strained over the years as Erdogan pursues more authoritarian policies. At the same time, Europe now looks to Turkey to help ease the refugee crisis.

I don’t know to what extent the EU’s lack of welcome played a role in Turkey’s shift away from democracy; but I do wonder how different its current situation would be if European countries had been more farsighted and had not missed the opportunity to build a solid relationship with a country that has so much to offer the world.

Above all, the young Turks we met longed for respect. “Turks are always looked on as second class citizens,” said one. “I want to see an end to this. We want to be truly independent, not reliant on other countries.” “Better human rights” was another wish. One student asked, “Is the US really supportive of Turkey or just using it for strategic aims?”

Sadly, Cigdem died a few years after our visit. I often think of that interaction with her students and hope that their dreams will one day be fulfilled.