Black Saints Matter   Leave a comment

This piece was first published on the website of the Diocese of California on 25 June 2015, during the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church.

Recently, comedian Mike Yard did a segment on The Nightly Show (along with the show’s host Larry Wilmore) in response to Fox News’ characterization of Dajerria Becton, the teenage girl thrown to the ground by a police officer at the swimming pool incident in McKinney, Texas, as “not a saint.” I recommend watching the piece for yourself, but the comic assertion Yard makes is that a black person would have to be an actual Saint in order to escape the automatic judgment of the media.

The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore—in case you’ve overlooked it—is modeled after The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Stewart is an executive Producer of “Nightly” and the shows run back to back on Comedy Central), but with a focus on race issues.  And of course, they’ve had plenty of material to cover.  For nearly two years, the news has been filled with stories like those of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and many others.  And most recently, the terrorist murders in Charleston.  Racism seems to be at a nadir.

Except that deep down we know it isn’t: it’s merely that white society is finally beginning to pay attention to a system that has been broken for decades—that really has never worked at all for people of color.  We are finally beginning to see that the experience of black people is quite different from that of white people—that life for those of darker skin involves daily risks and disadvantages that would never occur to those of us of paler complexion.  That in our world, black lives do not matter as much as white ones do.

Our Church—which professes to stand with the oppressed and marginalized—as Jesus did—sometimes speaks (our rather fails to speak) with two sides of its mouth on the subject.  On Wednesday morning, our Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies each spoke passionately about the need to acknowledge, repent of, and dismantle our racist system.  That afternoon, the four candidates to be the next PB were asked a long series of questions from the body of the Church: racism never came up, expect when the one black candidate, the Right Reverend Michael Curry, brought it up himself.  Where was our outrage, our determination to do something? Where was our commitment to the 4th of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission: “To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”

It was with these many events and issues in mind that I went to testify at a legislative hearing of the Prayerbook, Liturgy & Music committee at General Convention on Wednesday evening.  My subject was resolution C011, sent to General Convention by the Diocese of California to commemorate a branch of its Diocesan Family Tree, The Rev. Peter Williams Cassey and Anna Besant Cassey.  Their story was uncovered by the three-year research work of California’s Racial Reconciliation Task Force: Peter and Anna, already strong abolitionists, came to our Diocese in the 1860s, founded a school for children of color and shepherded two parishes—one in San Jose and one in San Francisco. In 1866 Peter became a deacon—the first person of color ordained west of the Mississippi—though he was barred from taking a seat at Diocesan Convention and was probably prevented from becoming a priest.

Our commemorations of saints*—historically known as “Lesser Feasts And Fasts”, currently called “Holy Women, Holy Men”, and now proposed to be rechristened “A Great Cloud Of Witnesses”—is heavy on people who reflect the dominant narrative of our church and culture: white males, presumably straight and cisgender.  Fewer are the females in the list, and fewer still are the openly-LGBTQ persons, or people of color.

And yet there are many women, LGTBQ persons, and people of color who have led inspiring lives of faith.  (Today, June 25, for instance, we celebrate James Weldon Johnson, educator, lyricist, and poet, co-author of “Lift Every Voice And Sing.”)  The stories are not widely known because we have not bothered to tell them.  It is time to start doing so, for the sake of our young people who do not fit the dominant type, that they may see images of themselves in the pantheon of our tradition.  That they may see in themselves the potential for leadership and greatness.

Commemorating people like the Casseys will not end racism—it is a tiny fragment of all that we need to do—but it is one small way of telling the world—of reminding the Church—that Black Lives Matter.

*Note the small “s”: The Episcopal Church avoids a formal “canonization” except for ancient, mostly Biblical Saints.

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