More than 500 people attended the diocese’s Black heritage service on Feb. 28, which was held on Zoom and YouTube due to the pandemic. The service featured music, singing, dancing and a moderated conversation between Bishop Andrew Asbil and two young members of Black Anglicans of Canada.
The service, which has been held annually for the past 26 years, first at St. James Cathedral and then at St. Paul, Bloor Street, was preceded by 15 minutes of music and singing by various artists on the piano, saxophone, guitar and trumpet. Songs included Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the Lily of the Valley, Precious Lord/Amazing Grace and Hymn to Freedom.
After a land acknowledgement by the Rev. Jacqueline Daley, incumbent of St. Margaret, New Toronto, Bishop Peter Fenty, the former area bishop of York-Simcoe, brought greetings and welcomed everyone. This was followed by a singing of the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the opening prayer by Deacon Claudette Taylor.
The theme of the service was “God’s People: Grounded in Faith, Led by Hope and Called to Action,” and that was reflected in the conversation between Brittany Hudson, Aleshia Johnson and Bishop Asbil. The conversation, which took the place of a sermon, was moderated by Br. Reginald Crenshaw, OHC.
In the first part of the conversation, the speakers were asked to reflect on one of three questions through their experience of anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, homophobia, oppression in general or white privilege, and how those experiences led them to seek change and social justice.
Ms. Hudson chose the question, “Who are you, God, and who am I?” She said, “I’m a child of Afro, Indo and Caribbean descent, and my history hasn’t been very clear. I can’t go further back than maybe a couple of generations to understand who my great-grandparents were, where they lived or who their names were. There are so many pieces of my history that I don’t know.
“I believe that if I don’t know who I am, I can’t really understand who God is,” she said. “The definition that we have for God is love, and folks say that God is anti-racist, but if we don’t really know who we are, how can we define what love is and what it means to be anti-racist? If we want to get to the place where we understand God and where we are living out love and anti-racism, we have to understand ourselves, to be honest with ourselves and move away from the lies and distorted histories that we’ve made to keep ourselves on a pedestal.”
Ms. Johnson reflected on the question, “When did God become more than a word for you?” She said, “I have a very evolving sense of what race even means. My biological father is from the Bahamas and I’ve never really known him. Unfortunately, he was never part of my life due to circumstances beyond our control. I was raised by a single mother who is Indigenous, and we are from the Six Nations of the Grand River.
“God made a strong introduction into my life when I was about 17,” she said. “I had fallen into a depression and dropped out of high school, was addicted to drugs and alcohol and engaged in self harm and eating disorders and was a victim of sexual violence. It was from those tragedies and that pain that I first experienced the grace of God and had an encounter with Him. He gave me the revelation of Jesus Christ, which I hold with me to this day and will never let go. It was through that experience that I came into a deep knowledge of who God is, breathing his words and putting into practice the precepts and principles that are outlined in scripture. In God I found answers to a lot of the questions I had been searching for: What is the meaning of life? Why is there death? Where can I find my purpose? I’m still learning who God is and still growing in my faith and spirituality. I know that God is more than a word; He is a loving and compassionate and merciful God.”
Bishop Asbil also reflected on the question, “When did God become more than a word for you?” He spoke about a childhood moment when he felt God’s presence and about how his father’s preaching and the words of the prophets from the Old Testament had made an impact on him when he was young. He said his faith has been shaped by world events such as the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti-aparthied movement in South Africa, the Oka and Ipperwash crises, and Primate Michael Peers’ apology to Indigenous people in Canada.
In the second part of the conversation, the speakers reflected on the question, “If racism makes everyone sick, what’s at stake if we fail to create the space to dismantle anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism and anti-oppression of all sorts from our Church and society?”
Ms. Johnson said race is a social construct. “It’s a myth, a lie. It’s a mechanism of colonization, a tool to create hierarchies and subordinate different ethnic groups. If race is a social construct, then it can be deconstructed. I’m deconstructing this social construct that I have embedded in myself and allowing this process to transform me. I’m unlearning a lot the false teachings that I have internalized my whole life. I think that process of unlearning the social construct and challenging our own assumptions and being willing to give up those false assumptions that we have inside of us is what the Church needs to do. Many believers of any faith would really benefit if they were to critically think about what race actually means, and to not brush unconventional ideas aside. If we don’t do that, we’re going to have another 100 years of the same old same old; we’re not going to be transforming ourselves and evolving.”
Ms. Hudson said that if the Church doesn’t put all of its effort into eradicating racism and other forms of oppression, it may not last 100 years. “If we continue moving in the same patterns and with the same mindset, we will become irrelevant,” she said. “We have to have an honest conversation. The Church is at stake, but what’s really at stake is the integrity of the Gospel and what people believe God is. When people look at us and think that God is a hypocrite, it’s because we behave in hypocritical ways. Honesty is not just words or statements: it has to be lined up with actions. If we don’t put our back into it, nothing is going to change. Look at our budgets: if they aren’t going towards reconciliation in tangible ways, then it does nothing. It can’t be a tiny little thing; it has to be in every facet of life. We can’t assume that the Church is always going to be the tool that moves God’s mission. I think God can use anything – the rocks will cry out. We should be following what God wants us to do and really listening to that – and not just with our words and statements, but with our resources and energy.”
Bishop Asbil agreed with Ms. Hudson and Ms. Johnson, saying, “I’m a firm believer that the Church is one generation from closing or taking off, and if we’re unwilling to put our shoulder into it, our whole selves into it, then we water down the Gospel. Unless we’re committed to dismantling systems of oppression, who could ever believe us when we preach the Gospel? It’s an integral part of what the Gospel is about, about honouring the spirit and God’s presence in each of us. We don’t want to miss the opportunities of doing all that we can to dismantle every form of oppression that we can imagine, and to put our shoulders into that. It’s not to save an institution – it’s about preaching the Gospel. It’s what compels us to serve our neighbour and to serve our enemies, too.”