100 People Across Diocese Participate in Sacred Ground Program, Reflect on How to Move Forward
This past Lenten season was “earth-shattering” for June Christian, a parishioner of St. Mark’s in Islip. “This knowledge was like a freight train coming directly towards me. For the first time, I was forced to reckon with this nation’s history and let go of my own defensiveness. Every day, I try to hear and respond to God’s call for me, and I thank Him for leading me down this path,” Christian said.
After a seemingly endless 2020 – when the peak of a once-in-a-century pandemic collided with nation-wide demands for racial justice – June, along with nearly 100 other members of the Diocese of Long Island, turned to their faith to understand how to respond to these parallel crises with grace. This past Lenten season, they participated in Sacred Ground: a film- and readings-based dialogue series on race, grounded in faith produced by the Presiding Bishop’s Office for Racial Reconciliation.
“We can’t fully appreciate the loving, liberating, life-giving message of Christ until we recognize the systems of oppression that we live in and contribute to. These systems corrupt, destroy, and diminish the value of each unique human person and prevent us and others from experiencing the abundant love of God, neighbor, and community. Sacred Ground provided the Episcopal Church with an opportunity to wrestle with its past in order to free its future,” reflects the Rev. Gideon Pollach, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor and co-facilitator of the program in Long Island.
In a follow-up video meeting on June 16, participants reflected on what might come next. They quickly identified how race is inextricably linked to many systematic injustices: lack of transparency and fairness in our criminal justice system, obstacles in accessing the ballot box, lack of affordable housing, and a cumbersome and unjust immigration system. They even noted how racism has been woven into our understanding of God.
After concluding the program, the Rev. Rose Marie Martino, deacon at Church of the Advent in Westbury, worked with other members of the clergy in her parish to eliminate racist interpretations of Scripture from their preaching. She said, “It’s not enough to take this course and then set out to ‘overcome’ racism. Scripture needs to be lived and so does anti-racism.”
Searching for her next step in a long career of working for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Victoria Bjorklund gathered six of her fellow parishioners to start the first Social Justice Committee at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Sea Cliff. Coming into the program Victoria was already well versed in many of the issues Sacred Ground confronts. However, even Victoria admits that she was exposed to new thought leaders and histories during the program. “It was often painful to grapple with these materials, but it was also motivating. I no longer want to sit around and talk about these issues – we all know they are happening. It’s time to actually do something,” she said.
Students of the Sacred Ground program have a plethora of ideas of ways to bring it forward. One of the biggest challenges for Jane Ehlke of St. Anne and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn is speaking with friends who do not see – and may not wish to see – how the problem of racism plagues our country. She suggested that a strong follow-up course to Sacred Ground could be a program on active listening. Ehlke said, “I hope the church can show us how we, particularly as white people, can listen with compassion in order to transform hearts and minds.” The responsibility for white allies to take a more active role in dismantling the structures of racism was a clear take-away of the program.
There was a strong desire from Linda Watson-Lorde of St. Gabriel’s in Brooklyn to learn more about the vibrant histories of different races and ethnic groups throughout Long Island, not solely from a lens of oppression, but rather with the intent to understand their unique cultures and community impact. She suggested that the diocese create more opportunities for parishioners across Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk to come together in dialogue and truly know each other. She noted that there are parishes in the diocese that are much less diverse than her home parish in Brooklyn.
Merrick Williams, a parishioner at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, wishes to see a resolution is passed at the 155th Convention of the Diocese of Long Island to require enrollment in Sacred Ground for all clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Long Island. “It is important that anti-racism efforts at both the diocesan and parish levels are not presented as alternative programming,” notes Merrick.
Sacred Ground is, for many, the first step in a life-long anti-racism journey, rooted in faith and love of neighbor, and in pursuit of the Kingdom of God on earth.
For the Rev. Gideon Pollach, whose efforts made the program possible to this scale across Long Island, it was another step towards better understanding racism as a structural and institutional problem and a catalyst in a life-long effort in pursuit of an anti-racist ministry. “For those who want to be better allies in anti-racist ministries, the answer of what to do after Scared Ground is not always clear,” reflects Pollach. “The work of active citizenship is one way that many of us can work to dismantle the racist systems in which we are trapped. We can do this by participating in local organizations like Long Island Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods, East Brooklyn Congregations, Queens Power, or Manhattan Together that work for positive communities change. Community organizing is an effective tool for building a better democracy, but these movements should be multi-racial, multi-faith and bridge the economic and geographic divides that separate us from one another.”
You can learn more about Sacred Ground here.
Addendum: Participants of the Lenten Sacred Ground program in the Diocese of Long Island will meet on October 17 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation for further reflection on next steps. More information will be posted soon.