A Reflection On the Work of Racial Justice and Healing

The Rev. George McDonnell

A Reflection On the Work of Racial Justice and Healing

My parents grew up in New York City and when the time came to choose somewhere to raise their children, they intentionally chose an integrated, diverse town suburb in New Jersey, which caused some raised eyebrows amongst their friends and family. Because of that decision, I have sojourned with people of color all my life.

In high school, when a friend of mine was thrown out of his house, my dad didn't think twice of having that young Black man come and live with us until he started college. Some of our neighbors said ugly things to us, and some even went so far as to tell us we were no longer welcome in their home. That was my first experience of racism. That episode both surprised and wounded me deeply. My friend Lewis simply looked at me one afternoon and said, "Welcome to my world." Lewis and so many other friends over the years have shared with me painful stories of ways they have been treated by others simply because the skin they wear has more melanin than mine.

I told this story at the Racial Justice and Healing retreat weekend in late September as we shared over lunch stories of our saints in our lives. Deep in my being, I have always known and felt that it was my Christian calling to do this work of anti-racism. My mentor, Father Kenneth Leech, whom I met years ago on a retreat, talked about the spirituality of anti-racism work in his book, To Heal the Sin Sick Soul. It’s a classic that reflects on the dimensions of doing just that. At our retreat the Racial Justice and Healing Commission met my long-held yearning for our church to fully engage the beauty of our tradition to take on and engage the ugly principality and power that is white supremacy.

It is not easy to talk about racism and white supremacy that is at work in our world. We feel shame, guilt, anger, powerlessness, and a million other tough emotions. Why would anyone want to engage in feeling such awful things? And what's more, so often people say doing the work of learning about the pain that people of color are forced to carry is political work or give it some trendy name.  Right now people call it "woke." The thing is, we don't do this work because it is political or because it is some trendy thing to do—progressive or woke. We do the work of learning and naming racism and white supremacy because racism is a sin. Racism corrupts and destroys the creatures of God. It destroys those of us who have known power in our lives who are white and, of course, those who are not. What made the burden and pain of talking about this sin lighter was placing it in the context of our beautiful tradition and our liturgy. What made it joyful was hearing Jesus ask us, do you want to be made well?  

I was moved to tears of joy and gratitude as we prayed with icons and used the Book of Common Prayer to pray even as we talked about the terrible realities of living in the Jim Crow North. Anne Gerber, a parishioner at Ascension and one of the Commission members, helped us, even in the midst of our discomfort, notice what we were feeling, name it, and gave us practices to manage our feelings. These embodiment practices make the journey more meaningful, and give us the freedom to have more courageous conversations, which we so badly need.

Fr. Craig Lemming invited us to reimagine liturgy in a way that allows us to reflect God in God’s fullness—all people are made in God’s image, and incorporating a multiplicity of people, faces, and cultures into our worship can only deepen our understanding of and relationship to God.

The beauty of our tradition fills my soul with great resolve and strength to engage the evil that white supremacy is in our world. That is what I need to be equipped with to do the work I am called to do by my baptism and help to heal the sin sickness that racism causes in me and the world around me. I am so deeply grateful that I attended the weekend. I know I will always have more work to do but, through the beauty of the Eucharist and the strength that I find in the diverse body of Christ I will, with God's help, persevere.