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  • The Rev. Barbara Ballenger

Rector’s Note: The Spiritual Invitation of Black History Month-2.1.24

I got my bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1988 from Kent State University, which was less than an hour from where I grew up in Akron, Ohio.  At the time I knew all about the historic shooting of students by the National Guard on May 4, 1970. But something else occurred on the Kent State Campus that year, that I only recently learned about, or perhaps only recently remembered.


In 1970, the Black students attending Kent State established February as Black History Month, after advocating for more than a year. It started as a university-wide commitment. Six years later, President Gerald Ford would make the month a national designation to coincide with the country’s bicentennial.


Over time Black History Month made its way into schools and churches and organizations. Bulletin boards with pictures of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks would be put up. Spirituals would find their way into liturgies for a brief time. It wasn’t hard for me to let the month come and go. Perhaps that’s why it never quite stuck in my personal story that Black History month originated at my Alma Mater.  As a White person, I had the luxury of forgetting, of not noticing, or not making it important.


Over the last 30 years, as I’ve done anti-racism work on both the parish and the diocesan level, I’ve come to realize that Black History is deeply woven into my own White story, whether there are people of color in the room on not. Racial distinctions, constructed as they are, rely on difference, on norms and on privilege. Black History month is a reminder to me that as a White person. In fact, I’m choosing to capitalize the terms White and Black in this reflection to remind myself that one is not a natural norm, and the other the exception. Both distinctions are created in relation to the other, and they rely on each other. Both have a painful story, and I sharei n them.


The Episcopal Church is one of the Whitest denominations in the country. Most of our churches feature a majority of one racial or cultural group, usually White. At the same time the church has a pretty robust commitment to anti-racist practice, providing resources and trainings to help White people understand their participation in racist systems, and in helping people of color to heal from hundreds of years of racial oppression. The Diocesan Anti-Racism Commission, which I co-chair, offers a five-part anti-racism training; Racial Healing Circles for African Americans; and special programs, from telling personal stories to learning to sing spirituals with integrity.


As a White Person, Black History Month for me is a time to understand and work to undo the long legacy of White supremacy and systemic racism that helped shape the Black experience as well as the White one. It is ongoing work, what I have come to understand to be a spiritual practice that involves dying to a previously unexamined way of life, and rising into new understandings and commitments – with God’s help.

Black History Month provides a time to renew that commitment, much like our church seasons bring us around to deeper understandings of the life of faith each year. Here are a few ways to mark the month:


  • Commit to reading a book or watching a movie about Black History this month. I find The 1619 Project to be a particularly compelling treatment of the various ways that racism has been made manifest in our institutions and identity.

  • Learn about and celebrate Blessed Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, the founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and a local saint to us all. The Diocese is holding a special celebration of Absalom Jones on Saturday Feb. 17.  Our Sunday liturgy on Fab. 18 will be dedicated to his memory as well.

  • Read Carol Cei’s Anthem blog this month, as she features the work of several Black composers in our hymnody.

  • Listen to the stories of others. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill (my old stomping grounds at 8000 St. Martin’s Lane) will offer a weekly program on Wednesdays in February (excluding Ash Wednesday) featuring artists of color who will share their personal experiences. Presenters include Chestnut Hill's NoName Gallery owner, Jonene Lee; the legendary organist and church musician David Hurd; and Westminster graduate conductor and educator, Vinroy David Brown, Jr.  The 7 p.m. presentations follow a 6 p.m. community meal.

Beyond February, we will continue to discuss and pray into ways that our community can enter more fully into the life-giving practice of racial justice and repair.


Blessings,

Rev. Barb

 

 

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