June 14, 2019

Do We Have What it Takes to Heal?

The “we” I’m speaking of is all of us who make up The Episcopal Church, a church body split politically nearly the same way as all U.S. adults, and the healing I’m talking about is the healing of the division along political party lines.

I find it extraordinary that the denomination of more U.S. presidents than any other faith group, and indeed the place where the Trumps attend major holidays, still looks like the overall U.S. population in terms of political affiliation. The denomination of many early founders of our government, responsible for the good and the bad in our country’s early development, remains over-represented in Congress in terms of proportion of the elected body who are Episcopalian.

The Episcopal Church has an incredible opportunity to leverage our political composition, our level of education, our growing diversity, and our rich history to help our country heal the immense divide we are experiencing and reinvigorate compassionate, critical dialogue necessary for tackling the challenges facing our world.

While I was living in Cange, Haiti, during my time with the Young Adult Service Corps, I heard Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health offer a list of what’s needed to provide better health care in Haiti. He has repeated this list over and over around the world: space, staff, systems, and stuff.

Does The Episcopal Church have the space, staff, systems, and stuff for the type of healing needed for the political divide not just in our pews but in the country?

Space: From the small remote chapels to the larger cathedrals in cities, The Episcopal Church certainly has space, and as some churches are closing or merging, we’re being challenged ever more to make better use of this space.

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed some creativity with our spaces—from a Beyoncé mass in California, to public forums with city council members discussing a community’s concerns with a big-box grocery store moving to a town in Tennessee, to an event by the Smithsonian commemorating the Apollo 8 mission that turned the inside of our National Cathedral into a surreal light and sound show, complete with a reading of the creation story from Genesis.

These examples show how the space in our churches (and the land on which they sit) may be used in ways that don’t just bring Episcopalians together, but serve the broader communities as well.
We have spaces, and we are learning to do more with them.

Staff (and volunteers): Church staff and volunteers organize youth groups responding to hurricane devastation in North Carolina, tutor and befriend victims of human trafficking in Kansas, visit people in prisons and hospitals, offer donations of sacrificial stature to fund United Thank Offering Grants in places they may never visit, and make sure there are cookies in the parish hall after the service, because all of those small gestures from making breakfast to altar guild contribute to community building in our parishes. And of course, we are blessed with the spiritual leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, named the religious newsmaker of the year for 2018, who brings a dynamic spirit to our Church and a guiding voice to the world.

We have staff, and we are learning how to be more nimble and creative every day.

Systems: Our General Convention, a bi-cameral legislature, met four years before the first meeting of the U.S. Congress. This structure has fostered a reliance on representative bodies from the Church, requiring deliberation and conversation in making difficult decisions, meaning we must live with one another as children of God, advancing or falling short of our goals together.

The Church also has systems like Episcopal Relief and Development, that prepares communities for and helps respond to disasters, and Episcopal Migration Ministries, that works as an agency contracted by the U.S. government to resettle refugees. There are even more networks like the Union of Black Episcopalians and Integrity USA that help organize community among particular demographics and work for visibility and inclusion in the whole Church and beyond.

We are also a part of the system that is the Anglican Communion, the third largest church community in the world. The breadth and depth of our relationships around the world with the Communion is one of the greatest assets we have as a Church both for enriching our communities and in our advocacy to the U.S. government.

We have the systems, and they are holding up through new challenges just as they have been trustworthy through previous ones.

Stuff: When it comes to healing our political divide, we don’t necessarily need tangible stuff. The stuff we need is the stuff of relationship building—the formation, the mindset, and the inspiration. I believe our stuff is the ultimate call by our faith of the church: to seek reconciliation with one another, with God, and with all of creation, moving through life as followers of Jesus, using Scripture, tradition, and reason as our guides. Our “stuff,” our faith, is the stuff of ultimate reconciliation.

We have our stuff, and it is the way of love.

Do we, The Episcopal Church, have what it takes to heal the political division in the U.S.? I believe we do, and more, if we keep in mind two important things.

First, we must heed the primary lesson of the For Such a Time Campaign to Pray, Fast, and Act: we must dig deep and commit to long-term, strategic action to create the systemic and structural change necessary to ensure justice, build peace, and heal our broken world. We must resist being occupied exclusively with the issue of the moment, or with simply wanting to be seen taking a position. We must build relationships with each other and our elected officials and work together for lasting solutions.

Second, we must commit to better conversation, conversation to enhance understanding. We must have the humility that we may be wrong, and that others may have something to teach us if we were only to listen. We must be willing to live into the idea that having discreet disagreements with one another must not turn us into long term enemies, and that the space of debate is a sacred space of mutual learning and progress, a space of acknowledging and weighing values, and of seeking solutions with both the short and long term in mind.

If we do that—focus on a long-term strategy and build a discipline of civil discourse, I do believe The Episcopal Church has the space, staff, systems and stuff to heal our divides.

The Episcopal Church offers many resources and opportunities for engagement around political issues. Two referenced in this article are the Episcopal Public Policy Network, a grassroots network of Episcopalians engaged in the ministry of public policy advocacy, which offers the chance to write your elected officials on matters important to you and the Church, and the Office of Government Relations’ Civil Discourse Curriculum, a five-part curriculum to build better practices of conversation to enhance our understanding of one another.