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With New Focus, Episcopal Church Of Louisiana Addressing A History Of Racism

Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church of Louisiana spent the past year making plans for a new ministry, aiming to address its history of racism, as well as other forms of racism in society.

Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based leader of the Episcopal Church came to New Orleans for a special service. At Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest Episcopal congregation in New Orleans, worshippers committed to racial healing and racial justice. 

Louisiana Bishop Reverend Morris K. Thompson declared 2013 as a year of reconciliation for the Episcopal Church. Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, the church inaugurated a year of increased activism. Bishop Thompson says this starts with awareness.

"This isn’t a service that I want people, and nor is it an intention to make people feel guilty, but to raise the awareness of who we are," says Bishop Thompson. "I don’t apologize for being a white male — I am by birth. It wasn’t a choice, but to not be aware of the benefit of that, I think is to live in my ancestors’ heads."

Louisiana Bishop Reverend Morris K. Thompson.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Louisiana Bishop Reverend Morris K. Thompson.

Dr. KatharineJeffertsSchoriis the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. She came down to New Orleans to lead the service. She says during the Civil War many churches divided over the issue of slavery. But the Episcopal Church never split, because it never spoke out against slavery, in the north or the south.

"So the reconciliation work after the civil war was radically different than it was for the Methodists or Presbyterians," she says.

BishopSchorihas been outspoken on her policy of racial reconciliation on behalf of the church.OrissaArendserves on the RacialReconciliationCommittee. She’s a member of Trinity Church, and is blunt when describing the Episcopal community.

"The Episcopal Church was a church of the elite and has been and we still are. It's like a club, and when the other denominations came in, they appealed much more to the common man — so we remained the bastion and power and privilege."

Married couple Constance and Dane Perry came down to New Orleans from Boston specifically for this service. Constance is African-American, and a descendant of slaves. Dane has a different background.

"I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina," he says. "I used to do things back then that I am not at all proud of, and I’ve had the opportunity to have my eyes open to what the reality is, particularly in sharing my life with Constance. And that’s what this work is about — it’s about truly understanding the past so that we can understand how we’ve gotten so terribly stuck where we are today with regards to race, and move forward through a service like this morning."

Constance and Dane Perry.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Constance and Dane Perry.

The church was packed for the service, with members of congregations from all over the city. During the service thecommittee asked thecongregation to commit to a new ministry, with  focus towards race and reconciliation.

Dr. Shori delivering her sermon at Christ Church Cathedral.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Dr. Shori delivering her sermon at Christ Church Cathedral.

A sermon from the Dr.Schori addressed the history of slavery in Louisiana, and the church’s relationship to it.

"The particular challenge of Episcopalians here and across the church is to acknowledge our complicity in the institution of slavery," Schori said. "That the church here inLouisianabegan and continued as a wealthy white proclaimer of a gospel of obedience, and a loyalty to a system of domination."

Music played a large role, with the choir singing roughly a dozen hymns. Tyrone Chambers II is a NewOrleanianwho now lives in New York. He also serves on the racial reconciliation committee, and flew down just to sing in the choir. He reflected on the service at the following reception. "One can never know the effects it will have, or what people will do with the information and the things they heard here after today, but I was happy to hear the bishop speak honestly and be forthright, because all the time people don’t get the point of gathering for this service."

Some people who, as Tyrone says, 'don’t get the point' have left the church. These ex-church members feel that having these discussions is what creates a problem that otherwise doesn’t exist. But the Episcopal leadership urges that it’s ultimately about getting involved in real issues outside of the church — like educational inequalities, mass incarceration, and slavery today, such as human trafficking.

But what needs to be done inside the church? Orissa Arend is grappling with this question.

"Do we become more welcoming, do we sing more black spiritual hymns? How do we learn to actually share power and decision-making? How do we work in partnership and true equality in the moral issues that are before the city?"

For Constance Perry, it’s not just about forming a more diverse congregation.

"I don’t think it’s about packing the pews with more people who look like me," she says. "I want an acknowledgement on behalf of the church of the history, because when the church does that that sends a message to me as an African-American, and it sends a message to other African-Americans, whether they’re Episcopalians or not. It sends a message."

A message that it is necessary to acknowledge the past in order to move forward with the Episcopal Church’s goal of being more involved in the community.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer and reporter for NPR's Throughline podcast. Before joining the Throughline team, they were the host and producer of WWNO's award-winning history podcast TriPod: New Orleans at 300, as well as WWNO/WRKF's award-winning political podcast Sticky Wicket. Before podcasting, they were a founding reporter for WWNO's Coastal Desk, and covered land loss, fisheries, water management, and all things Louisiana coast. Kaplan-Levenson has contributed to NPR, This American Life, Marketplace, Latino USA, Oxford American (print), Here and Now, The World, 70 Million, and Nancy, among other national outlets. They served as a host and producer of Last Call, a multiracial collective of queer artists and archivists, and freelanced as a storytelling and podcast consultant, workshop instructor, and facilitator of student-produced audio projects. Kaplan-Levenson is also the founder and host of the live storytelling series, Bring Your Own. They like to play music and occasionally DJ under the moniker DJ Swimteam.