Moving Forward in Truth: The Long Road to Austin

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes, it will
There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes, it will.
–From “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

 I would like to see this Council go on record in establishing a policy that WHERE WHITE AND NEGRO DELEGATES CANNOT BE SERVED TOGETHER AT A COMMON MEAL, THE COUNCIL, AS A GROUP, WILL FOREGO THAT MEAL…If [such] a policy be adopted – I honestly believe that it will give flavor and power and reality to another common meal, the Supper of the Lord, such as it has not had with us before.

– Bishop Coadjutor John Hines, 98th Annual Council Episcopal Diocese of Texas

The Convention had ended and reviews were in: “What is undeniable is how welcoming and hospitable Texans were to the thousands of Episcopalians who made their way to Convention. In particular, the Diocese of Texas and its many volunteers went out of their way to make us feel at home – and we did,” the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, Secretary of the General Convention, said in his remarks in the Convention Journal. For nine days in July of 2018, an estimated 10,000 attendees participated in some or all of the 79th General Convention held in Austin, Texas. They spent time worshipping together, fellowshipping together, meeting, greeting and eating together. Further, the Secretary commented, “The convention center and hotels were designated as gun-free zones during our time in Austin, and all-gender bathrooms were available throughout. Staff, volunteers, and others had been trained in recognizing unconscious bias, and hotels and vendors met our high standards for employee relations and nondiscrimination.”

It had to be the type of review that Bishop Clinton S. Quin and his Coadjutor, Bishop John Hines had longed to hear or to read in print some six decades earlier when they, along with the Deputies, from Texas extended an invitation to the 1952 Convention to host the 1955 Convention in Houston. In 2018, a number of convention veterans shared this sentiment about the Austin Convention: “This was the best General Convention I’ve experienced.” There are many reasons why that may have been so, but surely a major contributor is that The Episcopal Church is in a very different place than it was, even as recently as 2015.”

“In a different place,” leads you to at least wonder, where had we been, and in what ways are we no longer there. Apart from format changes, certainly the priorities and conversations have changed. Joint sessions were held to provide time and space to hold deep conversations on evangelism, racial reconciliation and care of the earth, priorities established at the previous General Convention. Perhaps, the most notable of all changes at this Convention was that for the first time ever, the Presider over the Convention would be the first African American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, who had himself embraced these priorities as he took reigns of his episcopacy.

How far, we, the Church have come, some might say, yet the fact that the topic of racial reconciliation was still on the menu suggests that we still have a ways to go and room to grow. Our Church, this Church, The Church, has, for as long as there are records to show, been challenged by the matter of racial reconciliation: how to live together, love together, and just be together. It was the very thing or the lack of the thing that led to the Church’s refusal to accept the Diocese’s invitation to bring General Convention in 1955. When Bishops Quinn and Hines extended the invitation to host General Convention, they had hopes of showcasing the booming church in the Southwest and wanted to give local Episcopalians a chance to prove that Blacks and Whites in the South could live, eat, and work in harmony, though nearly all public facilities in Houston were segregated at the time. When the invitation was extended, it had only been five years since the Diocesan Council meeting in Beaumont where delegates were forced to eat at segregated banquets, and where both bishops had expressed their disapproval in their addresses made to Council delegates. As compelling as the Bishop Coadjutor’s words quoted at the beginning of this article may have been to some, they failed to convince delegates to take any opposing action, but rather, resulted in their passing a resolution to commend their host for “abiding by the law.”  Their refusal led Bishop Hines to warn that unless Christians in the United States supported the standards of the New Testament with respect to race, they would forfeit the position of world leadership they had recently attained.

Feeling that they had achieved some success and done a service for the Church when in 1952 Black and White delegates ate together for the first time at an annual convention, Bishops Quin and Hines  proposed that the 1955 General Convention be held in Houston. The bishops wanted to show what could be accomplished among the races with sound leadership from the church.

The 1952 General Convention initially accepted Texas’s invitation, although some questioned the Diocese’s ability to provide adequately for African American deputies since almost all public facilities in Houston remained segregated. Although racial segregation was still enforced by law in Houston, the bishops guaranteed that Black Episcopalians would experience no discrimination there. They went so far as to pledge that, if the need arose, the diocese not only would construct facilities where people of all races could be housed and eat together but would also create “a volunteer motor corps” to transport convention delegates.

While the House of Bishops voted to accept the invitation to come to Houston, the House of Deputies voted to decline the invitation on the ground that they did not think that minorities would receive dignified treatment there. In spite of the assurances of the two Bishops in Texas that there would be no problems for minorities who used the facilities which would be provided, the Presiding Bishop, Bishop Sherrill would not permit the General Convention to meet in Houston. Instead, the General Convention of 1955 was moved to Honolulu. It was a General Convention attended by my father-in-law, the Rev. John E. Culmer, and the only one attended by mother-in-law, Mrs. Leome Culmer, representing the Diocese of South Florida. In fact, it was she who first mentioned this General Convention to me, not long after we moved here to Texas. And while she could not detail all the specifics, she knew that the Convention had been moved there because of segregation in Texas, and she got a trip to Honolulu instead.

The 2018 Convention in Austin, however, was not the first time the Diocese of Texas hosted General Convention. The 63rd session of General Convention was held in Houston in 1970, five years after Bishop Hines became Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. It was a contentious Convention, however, where some attendees were angry about the allocation of funds from the General Convention’s Special Programs Fund. The fund was a $9 million granting program to be used to support efforts to fight against racial disparities and social injustice in affected communities. Their anger towards the program’s use of funds and the Bishop’s support of it led some churches to withhold funds from the Convention and some individuals to call for the resignation of the Presiding Bishop. Because some grants had been made to organizations outside the Episcopal Church, they were perceived by some Episcopalians to be organizations supporting violence.

Change comes, but often more slowly than we wish. Inspired by an incident where he and some of his friends were arrested for disturbing the peace after being denied motel rooms in Shreveport, Louisiana because they were black, Sam Cooke wrote the song, “A Change is Gonna Come.” These lyrics were sung for a generation throughout the Civil Rights movement. More recently, they were sung during the inauguration of Barack Obama, and most recently at a tribute to Civil Rights icon, John Lewis. It carries with it messages of hope and pain. Where we are today in the Church is a reflection of both of these as well, the pain and the hope that have brought us here. We remember the pain, but we cling to the hope that change is happening and further change is on the way

When I was a girl growing up, I learned from my mother that sometimes you had to clean your house before company comes. It wasn’t necessarily to hide your habits and your ways, but to make it more comfortable and inviting to those who might come for a visit. You wanted to be at your best and have your guests see you at your best. Sometimes it would take longer than others to prepare for the company you would receive, but it would be well worth it, if they left there smiling, feeling welcomed, maybe not quite ready to go, and maybe even looking forward to coming again. Maybe, just maybe we had a little growing and a little cleaning to do before we were ready to receive company.

Perhaps, the assessment given of the 79th Convention by its Secretary that read, “Staff, volunteers, and others had been trained in recognizing unconscious bias, and hotels and vendors met our high standards for employee relations and nondiscrimination,” was the promise finally made good on by Bishop Quin and Bishop Hines, now both sleeping, who wanted the rest of the Church to see how hospitable Texas could be. And now, they have.

Sources: John E. Hines: Granite on Fire by Kenneth Kesselus
Yet with a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church by Harold T. Lewis
The Episcopal Church in Texas, Volume II 1875-1965 by Lawrence L. Brown
Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights by Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.

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