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Episcopalians in Maryland Seek to Atone for Racist Past

Episcopalians in Maryland Seek to Atone for Racist Past

Our friends at Episcopal News Service report on a parish in Baltimore which is grappling with its history of racism.

While congregations across The Episcopal Church are confronting examples of historical racism, the history of Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, stands out as “particularly sordid,” the Rev. Grey Maggiano, the church’s rector, told Episcopal News Service.

Since 2017, Maggiano has led his congregation’s efforts to research and re-examine that history, both good and bad. Among the congregation’s findings is a letter written in the early 1900s by the rector supporting efforts to keep Black men from voting in Maryland. For decades, clergy and lay leaders sought to keep Black families from moving into the surrounding Bolton Hill neighborhood. And in the 1950s, church leaders refused to integrate a youth center operated with a neighboring Presbyterian congregation.

… The church’s deacon, the Rev. Natalie Conway, has become a voice for healing by sharing her own family’s story – after her shock at learning that her ancestors once were among those enslaved on the plantation owned by Howard family.

Conway began serving as deacon at Memorial Episcopal Church two years ago. A 72-year-old Baltimore native, she and her brother are researching their genealogy, and last year her brother discovered their connection to Hampton Plantation. They visited the plantation, now a National Parks Service site in Towson, Maryland, and confirmed that their Cromwell ancestors had lived there.

“So, we’re like, wow, that’s something, isn’t it? How do we find out a little bit more?” Conway said. Her brother kept digging and eventually called her with more news. She was inside the church at the time, toward the back near the plaques that honor the founding priests. One of the names connected to the plantation was Charles Ridgley Howard, Conway’s brother told her. “I looked up and, sure enough, the plaque was to Charles Ridgley Howard as the first rector of Memorial Episcopal Church,” Conway said.

She was serving in a church founded by one of her ancestors’ enslavers. “And I just went into a state of shock, and my first reaction was, what am I doing here?”

… [Memorial parish member Steve] Howard, 53, told ENS that he and other parishioners see it as their duty to help change systems that perpetuate racial discrimination, systems rooted in the racism of earlier generations of Americans, including Episcopalians. “Our church is complicit in the problem,” Howard said, and even though Memorial Episcopal Church’s history isn’t solely responsible for racial injustice in Baltimore, “we want to do what we can to alleviate the problem.”

At its diocesan convention held on September 18, the Diocese of Maryland also committed to creating a $1 million to seed fund f0r reparations. As the Washington Post reported,

More than 82 percent of delegates to the diocese’s annual general convention voted Sept. 12 to establish the fund. Officials said it’s a key step in a long-term campaign to confront — and repent for — the role the church played in fostering and benefiting from systemic racism in Maryland.

Existing funds in the diocese’s endowment will provide the capital for the initiative, and individual congregations are being asked to consider donating more.

The $1 million represents more than 20 percent of the diocese’s operating budget, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton said.

“We have done the work over the last 15-plus years to actually document how we as a church benefited from slavery and, after slavery, how we continued to benefit from the financial marginalization and oppression of Black Americans, and it just didn’t sit well with us,” Sutton said.

“Why should we continue to benefit as an institution when so many in the Black community have never had the opportunity to have a good education, good jobs or good medical care? We’ve benefited from racist institutions, and now we are going to invest financially.”

 

The text of that resolution is available here.

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Fred Loving

OK, since we are already taking out plaques and kneeling cushions and stained glass windows dedicated to former Confederates, do we need to start taking out plaques to former priests ?

Cynthia Katsarelis

It depends on what the congregation feels called to do in order to heal the trauma of slavery and oppression. The church is not a museum, and perpetuating trauma for the sake of “heritage” or “preserving history” doesn’t make a lot of spiritual sense. The church is for the here and now, ideally healing the trauma. But if the plaque serves as a catalyst and can be redeemed, maybe keep it. It’s for the locals to say.

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