This past year, the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy Committee was forced to confront its complicity in systemic racism.
As we were planning our fall outreach conference, we focused on themes of displacement and alienation – how vulnerable people get pushed to the margins, out of their homes and onto the streets, off their land and into reserves, out of their countries and into refugee camps and desperate searches for asylum. We lined up a keynote speaker and leaders for workshops addressing these issues. All were and are excellent speakers, people who have devoted themselves to the work of justice. Some have experienced marginalization in different ways. But one thing they had in common: all of them were white.
A few weeks before the conference, we were called to account by a faithful member of the black community in our diocese. How is it, we were asked, that our committee had planned an entire conference around the themes of displacement, marginalization and alienation – even using a title drawn from a psalm which has become a renowned African-American spiritual – without reflecting at all on the experiences of people of African descent? Our diocese is perhaps the most diverse in Canada and is enriched by the contributions of Anglicans of colour at every level, yet the leadership of the outreach conference did not reflect this diversity.
It was certainly never our intention, as a committee, to exclude the voices of racialized communities. But that is how racism, like other forms of systemic oppression, works. It is insidious. It looks like “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it” or “we chose the people who were available on the occasion that suited us.” And even if our actions are unintentional, they cause real damage to the Body of Christ, because when any group of people do not see themselves included in the events, committees, or leadership of the church, they may legitimately wonder if we really see them. Do we value their stories? Do we care about the challenges and injustices they experience? And if not, how can we ever come to acknowledge our own part in perpetuating those injustices and take steps to change our ways? Will the church listen when people of colour, disabled people, the LGBTQ community and the poor express frustration and, yes, anger at the systems that have excluded and oppressed them? Or will we shake our heads and say, “but they are so angry” or “they are always raising a fuss” or “if only they used different tactics”?
Recently, the Anglican Church of Canada responded to Senator Lynn Beyak’s remarks lamenting that more focus had not been placed on the “good” of residential schools. While not denying that there were some individuals working in the schools who had good intentions, and even some students who had positive experiences, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Bishop Mark MacDonald, and General Secretary Michael Thompson reminded us all that “it is Indigenous people who have the authority to tell that story. It is our duty to receive that story and let it change us.” It has taken our church many decades and the witness of thousands of survivors to get to that place with Indigenous people. Can we begin to listen to others whom we have excluded, to receive their stories and let them change us?
To do so requires drawing back from our positions of privilege to make room for others. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires real intentionality and humility, and being willing to do things differently. Yet we are meant to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who emptied Himself for our sakes rather than exploiting His position as the Son of God. As church, we are a people formed by forgiveness and reconciliation, a new people formed by the breaking down of barriers in Christ. We are called to nothing less.
The members of the Social Justice and Advocacy Committee apologize sincerely for our failure to include and lift up the voices of people of colour. We pledge ourselves to the process of reception and change, and invite Anglicans of all backgrounds to join us on this journey.