In the past two weekends, I have been a part of conversations where complexity seemed as intractable and confounding as anything I have ever encountered. Increasingly, I see three essential elements to healthy ministry (and community life in general, for that matter): transparency, inclusion and mutual accountability. None of that is rocket science. It’s surprising how many relatively homogenous congregations don’t practice these disciplines particularly well. Bring together people with real differences in race, language, class, theological starting point, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation and nationality and then, stir in several years working together by the seat of our pants and I find myself in a maze of endless complexity and dead ends.
At the end of 2013, all the stresses and strains of the effort to be the New River Regional Ministry finally shook the community to its foundations and we are all still trying to figure out how in heavens name one does the work of healing and reconciliation, keeps what’s working well afloat, and continues to try to dream and build for the future. It is still not clear that the pieces will hold and a way forward will open. Even the first passes at conversations that acknowledge this complexity are hellishly painful and fraught. Not many of us have the stomach and there are so many other things that need to be done. After two weeks of mind-bending intensity, I looked forward to coming to a conference because with my ECF job, a big part of what I am doing right now is networking and getting to know who is doing what in the denomination.
The conference I am attending is called, Together, Advancing the Sacred Dream-New Community Clergy and Lay Conference. It has been organized and sponsored by the Office of Ethnic Ministries and brings together Latino, African American, Asian and Indigenous members of the Episcopal Church. The first major plenary session is titled “Building the World We Dream About–Addressing White Privilege, Internalized Oppression, Racial Justice and Reconciliation, and Capacity Building”. That’s a mouthful. I rode on a small Kanuga bus from the airport to the conference center and listened to several different conversations that clearly had to do with folks who are standing at the edges, who have a pretty significant experience of marginalization, who are more than a little raw and vulnerable. The things I was struggling with in Fort Lauderdale writ large.
Part of me wants to run as fast as I can from these topics. In fact, on some days, I seriously entertain the notion of just leaving the church completely. Isn’t racism, classism, privilege and exclusion so yesterday? Hasn’t this all been worked out? The fact of the matter is, not yet. Not enough. Not so the most vulnerable among us can came to the table and experience transparency, inclusion and mutual accountability.
In some respects, my ECF job, puts me in the very center of the life of my denomination. We are being challenged to work on leadership development programs and resources that bring lay and clergy people together beyond the clergy-centric models of the past–the ones where a clergy person with a few trusted advisors really made the decisions and so much of who was welcomed and how was implicit and resulted in congregations where everyone pretty much looked the same. If we don’t understand and build programs that respond to the extraordinarily deep roots of power and privilege and the consequences, I wonder what we will accomplish. And the same is true with NRRM: if there isn’t an honest engagement with the unexamined dynamics that drove the conversation and the decisions of the last 4 years, how can this be a work of discipleship?
So here I am. In one of the true bastions of white Episcopal privilege, a gorgeous conference center that exudes rustic elegance and Southern hospitality. Can you be at the center and on the edges both, at the same time? I think that’s one of the questions I have to answer for myself as a member of the church. The glimpses I see of the answer have nothing to do with comfort and easy dispensations…