St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA is a prominent church with a storied history. A significant part of that history is its relationship to the leadership of the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War, when it was known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee worshipped there.
Like many other churches, especially throughout the historic area of the Confederacy, it has struggled between honoring and distancing itself from its history, especially its connection to slavery, slave-holders, and racial oppression. These tensions were brought to an inflection point after an avowed white supremacist dropped in on a Bible study in an historically black Charleston, SC church and then proceeded to murder nine people.
One of those profoundly affected was the Rev Melanie Mullen, then an associate priest at St Paul’s. Recently, St Paul’s hosted a community event called Bending Toward Truth: Race and Religion in Richmond, featuring Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in large part, due to Mullen’s efforts. The event was covered by RVA Magazine.
Mullen recalled the genesis of this event and of her role on the Presiding Bishop’s staff where she is the Director of Reconciliation, Justice & Creation Care;
“I don’t know what got into me, but I just wrote a letter to Bishop Curry,” she said, describing a letter she sent detailing the struggle St Paul’s was having with its history.
“Wallace [the former rector] was giving these sermons about it, and I was kind of the resident black person in the clergy,” Mullen said. She reached out to Curry, the recently elected presiding Bishop because he was talking about something he called the Jesus Movement, a shift for the church to focus on the biblical narratives where Jesus stands for justice and equality.
St Paul’s had long been reckoning with it’s Confederate past, Confederate flags went away in the 1970’s, though other symbols remained. And individual members had also worked for racial justice. Under the leadership of former rector, The Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, a more conscious effort was begun as he asked; “Do we want to be known as the church of the Confederacy, or the church of reconciliation?” The parish launched the History and Reconciliation Initiative to facilitate making sense of and reckoning with their history.
Mullen noted that if the Jesus Movement is to embody Christ’s work of reconciliation and healing, then racial justice must be a part of the mix and that the efforts at St Paul’s can be a model for the church. It was her work there that led to her appointment to the Presiding Bishop’s staff to facilitate sharing that learning from St Paul’s experience to the whole church.
“The Jesus Movement has to include racial reconciliation at its core,” she said, along with other social justice issues like the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals.
Part of her job is to share the tools and resources St Paul’s created around racial justice, which she said came out of the congregation. “The octogenarians in this church did the research work,” she said. “We had to teach some of them how to use the computer, how to research online, but they did this all as an incredible act of faith.”
Mullen said it really hit for the people who had long, storied histories.
“That’s what made it successful. They were looking into the histories behind their own names and were horrified by what they learned about the lives of slaves and how they had their names taken away from them,”
Given the success and enthusiasm for the event, the parish is already planning a symposium in the Fall.
The Editor of RVA Magazine is former Cafe Contributing Editor, David Streever – we acknowledge our thanks to him for contributing to this story
image: Melanie Mullen, Michael Curry, and Molly Bosscher (Assoc Rector at St Paul’s). Photo by Peter Blankman