Moving Forward in Truth: Her Story – Our Story

“Race is not a southern or northern or American problem. Race is a universal and human problem. If we are to be true to our Christian principles, we need to reach the point in our spiritual maturity where we see people without regard for racial factors.”

—Bishop Milton Richardson, 1966

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” – Matthew 13:31-32

Years ago, I heard a minister tell a story about his young son. According to the speaker, he’d been preaching a sermon to his congregation when his son, then five or so years old, slipped out from his seat on the pew and disappeared from view. Of course, when he made the discovery, he began to wonder where the boy could have possibly gone. When his son finally wandered back into the sanctuary, the father called from the pulpit to him (cause in those days that’s what preacher-fathers would do) and asked, “where have you been.” The boy innocently answered, “Looking for Jesus. He must be here. I was just trying to find him.” I might have thought that was just a story where the minister had taken creative license with the telling of his story until my grandson, as a 4 or 5 year old said to me one day in the absence of the priest that Sunday, that Jesus wasn’t there that day. So much unfiltered wisdom can flow from the mouths of the innocent.

I was reminded of that story when I was reading through a testimony shared by Francene Young during the 2001 Diocesan Council. During the time, Francene was a faithful member and former Senior Warden of Trinity Church, Houston and had been asked by Bishop Claude Payne to share a testimony from her experiences as an African American Episcopalian in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When addressing Diocesan Council in 2002, Bishop Payne recommended that the Council ask every missionary outpost to share this testimony given by Francene and to discuss racism, which he offered, at that time, still permeated “our culture and our Church.” Some would argue, as evidenced by numerous recent events, that it still does. Francene, who has continued to not only worship in, but faithfully serve this diocese and the Church, going on to become an ordained priest and serving for a time as Transition Minister for the Diocese, working with the congregation leadership team in the search process for a new priest or vicar, has given me permission to share her story here.

Francene’s story

My journey in the Episcopal Church began at age 10 when my family moved from an all-Black neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio to a housing project. The housing project was purposely set up to be racially integrated. It included Whites, Blacks and Hispanics who were mostly Puerto Ricans. I share the ethnic make-up because to me it was a blessing to grow up with children and as part of a community that included such a variety of cultures.  It has had a profound impact on who I am today. Somehow, we made our relationships work, and many of them are still intact today. We succeeded despite our parents struggles to keep up apart.

My family had lived in the projects almost 7 years before any church, except the Jehovah’s Witnesses, dared to approach us. One day, a balding middle-aged White man with a tattoo on his arm knocked on the door and explained he was the new priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “Episco what,” we asked? He went on to tell us about the new summer youth program the church was about to start and to invite us to get involved. That got my mother’s attention, as she frequently had to leave us alone while she worked. It certainly got my attention because, as the eldest sibling, I spent my teen-age summers working part-time jobs and caring for my 5 siblings.  “Relief for me,” I thought!

As a result of our participating in this youth program, my siblings and I became further involved in and eventually confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Within a couple of years, our mother joined us, as well. We became active members of St. John’s, serving as acolytes, lay readers, lay Eucharist ministers, choir members, parish workers, day camp counselors, altar guild members, delegates to council, ECW leaders, and members of the Brotherhood of St. Andrews. The church opened a Second-hand store for the surrounding community and a food pantry for the homeless.  Donations for the clothing store and the food pantry came from other Episcopal churches.

I WAS IN HEAVEN, in the midst of, what some may have considered, a life of poverty. It was not a poverty that I realized at the time, however. Poverty, like so many other assigned values placed on others’ lives, is often a judgment placed there by those looking from the outside in, rather than those living within. I loved that our church had so many different types of people who worshipped the Lord following the same liturgy, while at the same time being allowed room for each group to express its cultural differences.

Growing up in such a culturally diverse community, however, did not prepare me to deal with the harsh reality of the rest of the world or the world of church beyond its safe and protected confines. Perhaps there were hints given, had my view not been obstructed by the clouds of youthful optimism, that may have better prepared me for and lessened the pain of discoveries I would later make. As I became older, I began to notice subtleties of racism and classism even while still at my home church. I will never forget receiving a grand contribution of clothing for our second-hand store from one of the “supporting” Episcopal churches. Among the clothes were birth control devices. I will never forget the look of rage on the face of our priest and the tears in his eyes. I will never forget the anger in his voice as he called the priest of the donating church demanding an explanation.  

I continued as an active member of St. John’s until I left to go to graduate school in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, I would, for the first time, have to look for an Episcopal Church to attend. To help me in deciding, I developed a screening process which included showing up at about 15 minutes before the service started. I would park across the street from the church and watch to see who would enter the church. If I saw no other Blacks or other people of color, I usually did not enter. It did not feel safe to me. On the few occasions I did enter, I usually regretted it due to the cool reception I received. Eventually, I stopped looking and instead, stayed home, read the lessons and sang my favorite hymns. I did not have to worry about others complaining about the music or about being made to feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After graduate school, I moved to New Orleans, where I put the same church screening process in place, but there, I never gained the courage to enter.  I could not bear the thought of rejection. During this period, I attended church only when I returned home for family visits.

From New Orleans, I moved to Houston. After arriving in Houston, I did not even bother to look for a church. I knew I was in the Deep South then. After a couple of years, I moved to Galveston to work for the Sisters of Charity at St. Mary’s Hospital where I was able to worship at work.  How Cool, I thought. At about 9:00 AM one of the nuns would come on the PA with the prayer for the day. After a while, this caused me to want to go back to church. Then, one weekday, while exploring the island, I spotted a small building with the sign “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”  It was across the street from the hospital, but it didn’t look like a church, and, besides, the name on the building was William Temple. I saw a Black woman enter the building. Still, I must have stood outside for 30 minutes before getting up the nerve to go in behind her. Once inside, I asked if she worked there and if Black people attended this church. She assured me that she worked there. She was, in fact, the receptionist and was a member of the church. She invited me back to meet the Vicar who was away at a meeting.

The following Sunday I attended the service and found a great diverse group of Episcopalians. So, I attended St. Luke’s the Physician at William Temple until I moved back to Houston. There, my search started all over again. Fr. John Caskey gave me the names of family and friends to contact in Houston so I could find a new church home. Because of his support, I became braver in my search and entered churches even when my stomach had butterflies and I saw no other blacks entering or sitting in the pews. I eventually landed at Trinity, Mid-town and began attending there in 1987.

Since that time, I have visited other churches in my travels throughout Texas, and I have participated on parish and diocesan committees. I continued to struggle with a sense of safety, but felt myself growing stronger. So when I became the first woman and first Black person to be Senior Warden, I was able to manage the pain and sadness when a prominent member of the congregation transferred out, sending me a letter documenting his displeasure. There were also other ways in which I was reminded by my fellow White parishioners of my “blackness,” or of my “otherness.” One Saturday morning, I received a call at home from a parishioner with a concern, and while getting a Saturday morning call from a parishioner to the Senior Warden wasn’t unusual, what she said at the end of her call took me aback. I don’t recall the purpose of the call, but I remember her ending it with, as she said, “an old southern saying.” “Well, as they say, there is a Nigger on the woodpile,” or something to that effect. 

There were times, as well, outside my own parish, where insult was added to my injury as a Black woman, follower of Jesus Christ, and member of the Church. I recall visiting a church while on a short vacation in another Texas town, when I overheard someone say, “I hope they don’t drink out of the cup.” During the passing of the peace, I extended my hand to a woman in the pew behind me; she stared at me and turned to the pew behind her. And this was during the sharing of God’s peace.

I recall riding with a group of  Cursillistas to a Clausura, the closing celebration of a Cursillo weekend, and having the driver of the van in which we were riding yell, “damn nigger,” to the White driver in the car beside us when it was getting too close. Probably the most painful thing I experienced was when I was visiting another Texas church, and I arrived a bit early. A young couple sat next to me in the pew, and we struck up a conversation. We exchanged niceties, asking and answering questions like, “Where are you visiting from?” ‘Where did you grow up?” The conversation was pleasant, and we were getting to know each other. But, just as I was relaxing my fears and beginning to feel my defenses going down, all of a sudden the woman said, “I could tell you are not from here, you are different from the rest of them.”

This was the most painful of all! It confirmed to me that I will only continue to be accepted as long as I am the exception. This realization affects not only the faith of an individual, but that individual’s willingness to share that faith with others. If I am the exception, how do I invite others in who risk being found unacceptable? I can’t invite people I care about and allow them to possibly become subject to stares, comments, and slurs,  Yet, I love the Episcopal Church. This is a terrible dilemma for me!

It takes strength to be an African-American member of the Episcopal Church. Several years ago, I had what some would call a defining moment. I was in the midst of struggling with how I fit into the Episcopal Church. I was wrestling with questions of, “Why do I continue to be the only one?” “What is my purpose here when it is so emotionally draining to be here?” I had not shared this struggle with anyone except God through prayer. Then, one Sunday after church services, a friend and fellow parishioner asked me if I would help him with a segment of an upcoming Bible study. He asked me to read the book of Ruth and prepare an overview of the story and its personal meaning. I still believe that this assignment was God’s way of helping me with this struggle. That story kept me in the Episcopal Church.

I share my story not out of anger or to upset the apple cart.  I do not see myself as a victim. Rather, I want to raise awareness that if we are serious about growing the church, if we truly believe that our God is the God of all people, and if we can honestly say and mean it, that the “Episcopal Church Welcomes you,” then we need to be mindful of the things we do, the things we say, the things we do not do and do not say that can cause other people to feel unsafe, rejected, or not welcome. People will go elsewhere to places where they do feel safe to worship and truly welcomed.

After I completed writing down my thoughts for this story, I was very sad. I asked myself why the sadness, why the pain.  Then I remembered the poem, “We Wear the Mask,” written by Paul Laurence Dunbar that I first read as a teen-ager in an all-White school. I’ll close with that poem because it best expresses how I have felt on many occasions both in the Church and the world around me.       

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes —
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but O great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile,
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.

Francene’s story made me think of the little boy who was looking for Jesus while his father preached from the pulpit. He knew that Jesus was supposed to be there. He knew it was a church, so Jesus had to be there. Although she watched from a parking lot, Francene, too, was looking for Jesus. She was looking to see if she might venture inside and find the love, the warmth and the acceptance that we not only look for, but so desperately need when we come to Jesus and our houses of worship.

Denise Trevino, missioner for multicultural ministry, asks the question: Why now? When individuals, churches, groups want training or suggestions on how to address current racial concerns, she asks, “Why now?” It is a question worth considering. Why now? What we are seeing happening now, the disparities, the injustices, the flaws and failings of systems, and policies, of individuals and, yes, even churches are not new, but sad to say, ongoing, so why now? Why are we moved now, at this point in time, to examine our habits and our history? Why is Francene’s story and the stories of those who have not publicly shared them still relevant today, no matter the decade in which they were lived and experienced? One of the reasons I would offer is because the tree is still bearing fruit.

When we lived in Indiana, there was a tree outside our kitchen window. It provided shade and a beautiful view. A storm came through one day and blew down the tree. I mourned its loss, the loss of beauty and shade it had provided. Its roots remained, however, and though I did not know they were there, in time, the tree began to grow again. That’s what happens when we don’t dig deep enough or continue digging long enough until we have uprooted the thing that is growing. Wherever root remains, fruit will grow again. We think that because it is out of sight, the thing is gone, but in time…

What if the parable of the Mustard Seed, found at the beginning of this article, was about the Church and not a farmer? What if, instead it read, “The Church is like a mustard seed, which God took and planted in the world. Though it was just a handful of believers in the beginning, yet when it grew, it covered the whole earth so that the fluttering and the floundering and all who take flight from the world might come and nest in its branches. And find welcome there. What if?

We are reminded by Francene’s testimony that If the Episcopal Church truly wishes to live up to its signage, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes you,” and does not want to stand accused and bear the tarnish of false advertising, then its members must be mindful of the things we do, the things we say, the things we do not do and do not say that can cause  any of God’s children to feel unsafe, rejected, or not welcome.  We must be willing to do some root work – the painful, the painstaking and sometimes excruciating work – of digging below the gumline to clean out the built-up gunk that can cause decay above the surface. We must be made aware of “things done and left undone” that may bruise and scar the dignity of others – that already have – causing them to seek refuge and a nesting place in the world instead of looking to the church to find it. This we do, not only for the sake of adding to the rolls of our churches, but for the sake of adding to God’s Kingdom.

In his opening remarks to introduce Francene’s telling of her story, Bishop Payne said: “Although many people consider racism a thing of the past, it is most definitely still with us. It has been more subtle and institutionalized in recent years.…Not everyone feels warmly and accepted in many of our missionary outposts as we gather for worship.” For too many, these things continue to ring true on too many occasions, and because they do, this is yet another answer to the question, “Why now?”

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