At an early point in my career, I recognized that I did not want to be a rector, I wanted to be a priest who focused on teaching. And I wanted to explore and teach about the intersections, and interactions, of religion and culture—particularly between my Episcopal religion and my American culture. I decided that historical study would be the best way to do that, and I went to Harvard to get my Ph.D. in American Religious History.
When my coursework and exams were done, my family and I moved back to Brooklyn, where we’d been living before. I looked for a dissertation topic in New York City history that would illuminate my interest within a 19th-century Episcopal context. I stumbled upon the story of St. Philip’s Church, the second Black Episcopal congregation in the country, and its 44-year struggle to be fully accepted as part of the Diocese of New York and be allowed to attend the diocesan convention.
Their story involved racism and Christianity and fascinating characters, Black and White. It showed me how much energy and time White New Yorkers had to expend trying to name and maintain the boundaries they wanted installed between themselves and Black New Yorkers, with the ironic result that people from both sides were in constant contact and conversation as they negotiated and navigated those boundaries. It showed me how many people of faith could ignore that faith when it came to race, and how many people, Black and White, could not ignore it at all. This became my dissertation and eventually a book, published by Columbia University Press in 2005 as Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City.
For nineteen years after getting my doctorate, I was the vicar at St. James’ Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, teaching adult education courses, leading pilgrimages, working with our youth and family staff members to do whatever teaching they thought I could do with those ages as well. And I ran a mentoring program for newly-ordained clergy, helping them to chart their course toward becoming priests in full. I loved all the different ways I got to teach there.
But I wasn’t teaching much in the way of 19th-century history, and I wasn’t doing historical research. I missed it. So when I “retired,” I found myself with time and interest. And I was inspired by what I’d heard had just happened in 2019 at St. James’: a history teacher who was a parishioner there had explored that parish’s history of complicity in slavery and the slavery economy. The immediate result was a plaque placed on the front of the church, right on Madison Avenue: “Jesus said, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ - John 8:32 In solemn remembrance of the enslaved persons whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of St. James’ Church Hamilton Square, 1810. Christ, have mercy. 2019.”
The 2006 General Convention called on all dioceses to do this research, to learn this history. Very few have done so until recently. It made me proud of the parish I’d served for so many years. And it made me want to do that work as well.
I volunteered to undertake this research on the two parishes that are the ancestors of today’s St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights, the pro-cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where I am the part-time Associate for Faith Formation. St. Ann’s was founded in 1784, when slavery was still legal in New York State, while Holy Trinity opened in 1847, twenty years after slavery ended in the state.
Over the course of the 2020-21 academic year, six high-school students and I dug into the list we compiled of members of each parish. We found that about half of St. Ann’s early leaders owned enslaved persons. We learned that the church adopted St. Ann as its patron to honor Ann Sands, who with her husband hosted the first gatherings of the church in their living room. In the 1790 census, Ann and Joshua Sands are recorded as enslaving six persons.
We were also able to demonstrate that at least half of Holy Trinity’s original vestry members were profiting from the slavery economy. They owned warehouses for storing and shipping cotton, tobacco, sugar, and the like. They were bank presidents and insurance company board members who were making loans to Southern plantation owners to buy more land and more slaves to produce more cotton. They were merchants arranging the shipping of these products; they were dry goods store owners selling these products.
These were difficult things to learn. But I also came to realize that if half of these early leaders at St. Ann’s were slaveowners, then half were not. As the leaders were the wealthier members, this meant that not owning slaves was a choice people were making. I can’t say much more about that yet, but it’s another avenue of investigation to pursue.
One of the students I worked with wrote that he found doing this kind of history to be his version of social justice activism. That has inspired me to continue the work. I called Canon Claire Woodley, Canon for Transition Ministry, to find out whether there were other parishes doing such work, and she mentioned St. John’s in Cold Spring Harbor and Zion Church in Douglaston, Queens, as already underway. When I asked if there was anyone supporting this work in the bishop’s office, Canon Woodley invited me to make a proposal.
The result is my appointment as Historian-in-Residence for Racial Justice for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, to oversee the Uncovering Parish Histories project. The object is to persuade all parishes in the diocese that existed before the Civil War to research the history of their complicity in slavery and the slavery economy—and the history of their stands for racial justice as well. My job is not to do the research, but to help recruit volunteers at each parish, and to show them how to pursue the research, point them toward available resources, and provide whatever other support I can.
I’m coming up on the end of my second year doing this work, and I am truly moved by the commitment of the volunteers I’ve met and supported. I’m also deeply gratified by the commitment of our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, to make this project happen. Some fifteen parishes are in various stages of doing this research now, and their support for each other has been wonderful to see. The Black Clergy Caucus, the Union of Black Episcopalians, the Sacred Ground team, and the Reparations Committee, and I are now all coordinating our work in support as well.
I know that some church members would rather we not bring up the painful past. But to hide the past is to give it a power over us, to make it a source of shame. To look at the past, to tell the truth about it, is to own it so as to move forward with it. We carry our past with us always, but we can choose how to carry it forward, how to respond to it, and how to live out our present identity.
As Jesus said, the truth really can set us free. We cannot take a credible stand for racial justice if we have not acknowledged our past involvement in racial injustice. But when we do, we are empowered to stand as Christians together to always push for a more just society.
I’ll be writing about different aspects of this work in this monthly blog. Please let me know if you’d like to get your parish involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.