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Black colleges help to celebrate cultural identity, Griswold tells gathering
Presiding Bishop announces new consultation to strengthen common mission


Paul Smith
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold addresses participants of a Day of Recognition Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) of the Episcopal Church at Washington National Cathedral.   (Paul Smith)

[ENS]  Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold convened a Day of Recognition for the people of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) of the Episcopal Church on February 18 at Washington National Cathedral, to celebrate common mission and to explore new partnerships of life and ministry together.

The Black colleges are Cuttington University, Liberia, St. Augustine's College, North Carolina, St. Paul's College, Virginia, and Voorhees College, South Carolina. The event, which included the presidents of all four colleges, a student panel, student choirs, Episcopal chaplains to Black Colleges, and other representatives, was sponsored by the Episcopal Church's Office of Black Ministries and the Association of Episcopal Colleges.

Other panelists included: Patrice Willoughby, chief of staff for the Congressional Black Caucas; Mark V. Monteverdi, director of Black Executive Exchange Program for the National Urban League; and Shari Rittendon, vice president and general counsel for the United Negro College Fund.

Addressing the gathering, Griswold explained that Black Colleges have played an important role in creating "opportunities to own and celebrate ... cultural identities, free from the sometimes subtle and possibly well-intentioned constraints of a dominant culture." He also announced a new consultation "to strengthen our partnerships [and] to explore new and creative ways in which collaboration and sharing of resources can serve our common mission."

The theme of the day, "Shall We Gather By the River?" is the title of a well-known hymn that "expresses confidence and hope against the background of the Civil War's devastation, destruction and the loss of many lives," Griswold told the gathering, while inviting them to participate in the future, "not passively but actively as vital limbs and members of the risen Christ."

The full text of Griswold's address follows:

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Shall We Gather By the River?
February 18, 2006

Just down the road from where we are is the Cathedral College, part of this great Cathedral complex. Outside the College's chapel is a very large and compelling contemporary art work entitled The Baptism. It was created by the African American artist Silas de Kind. I have stood in front of it on a number of occasions and found myself drawn into the scene before me. It depicts a baptismal celebration in a river somewhere in the low country of South Carolina where the artist makes his home. White robed figures are standing expectantly in the waist high water waiting for ministers in black robes to immerse them and baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. As they rise up from the waters each one of the white robed figures is declared to be a limb of Christ's risen body, the church. On the banks of the river stand members of the congregation and the choir in red and gold robes ready to welcome new brothers and sisters into the full fellowship of our Lord and Savior.

This artwork speaks to our theme for today: Shall we gather by the river? This question evokes for me the baptismal scene I have just described and focuses my attention on the sacrament of baptism and its implications for all of us. Shall we gather by the river is, of course, the title of a well known hymn composed at the end of the Civil War. The first verse asks the question: Shall we gather? And, the second verse is a response to that question. Yes, we'll gather. Yes, we will be one. Yes, our differences will be caught up and woven together in the "shining river" of God's healing mercy.

This hymn, which we will sing later today, expresses confidence and hope against the background of the Civil War's devastation, destruction and the loss of many lives. It points toward a future -- a future not of our own making but of God's own devising, which exceeds all that we can ask or imagine.

We are invited to participate in this future, not passively but actively as vital limbs and members of the risen Christ. We are Christ's continuing ministers of love and justice and reconciliation in our broken and divided world.

We are here today particularly to celebrate and honor the enduring witness of our Historically Black Colleges, especially those of the Episcopal Church: Voorhees in Denmark, South Carolina; St. Paul's in Lawrenceville, Virginia; and St. Augustine's in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is a joy and a privilege to have you here with us today as we recognize the hard work and challenges faced by college Presidents among us and their predecessors who have led these institutions this far against many odds.

Speaking of hard work and challenges, we are particularly honored today by the presence and participation of the President and other representatives of Cuttington University in Liberia. As many of us are aware, Cuttington is in the process of recovering from the depredations of a protracted civil war and is committed to an active involvement in rebuilding the nation it has so ably served since its foundation in 1889. Cuttington's rebuilding and reopening is a clear sign of hope to the people of Liberia. There are very strong links between the Episcopal Church in this country and Cuttington University. It is my hope that in the days ahead bonds of affection and mutual support can be made even stronger. I also hope that Cuttington can be a place where students from our own Black Colleges can more deeply explore their African heritage and participate in the costly and demanding work of nation building. Our being here today gives us the opportunity to explore some possible ways of building relationships and seeing the institutions we represent as resources to one another.

In order to be here today I myself have spent many hours on a train that lost power which greatly extended the time of my journey. So, I can somewhat appreciate the lengthy journeys many of you have made in order to be here for this significant gathering.

The Episcopal Church, which I serve as its Presiding Bishop and Primate, is proud of its association with our institutions of higher learning. I can say with certainty that the Episcopal Church is committed to continuing and strengthening that association in the days ahead.

The mission of the church as described in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. Put differently, the mission of the church is to participate in God's continuing work of reconciliation and the breaking down walls of division.

These walls of division, sometimes very subtle, and sometimes very obvious, separate us from one another and obscure the fact that all of us are brothers and sisters in the mind and heart of our God -- God who in Christ has reconciled all things, all people, all nations, all races, all cultures, all languages to himself.

One of the walls of division that the Episcopal Church has historically sought to break down is the wall of division caused by discrepancies in education. Therefore, making education accessible -- particularly to those for whom it has been denied -- has been one of the long standing missionary initiatives of the Episcopal Church. This has been demonstrated by the heroic efforts of Bishop Thomas Atkinson who founded St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1867, the Rev. James S. Russell who started St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888, and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright who founded Voorhees College in 1897.

As I have traveled around the world and experienced the Anglican Communion in different places, education has always been an integral part of the mission and outreach of its member churches -- from Africa to Asia, from South Korea to South India. Our brother and sister Anglicans are hard at work establishing schools and colleges. They are doing this in the interest of imparting knowledge which can produce wisdom and enhance the dignity of young men and women. In this way barriers are broken down between those who have received an education and those who have not. Rather than waving a Bible and saying -- unless you believe this you will not be saved, Anglicans are more likely to build a school and say to all come and learn. They do so trusting that the Spirit of truth, the source of wisdom, will shape and form and build character.

The motto of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member, is drawn from the Gospel of John in which Jesus declares: "The truth shall set you free." The truth in this instance is not simply information but a deep wisdom which informs who we are. It is a truth that is formed in us over time. It is a truth which makes it possible for us to live in this world not only with our own dignity but mindful of the dignity of others. I would note here that in the Baptismal Covenant set out in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer we are bidden to respect the dignity of every human being while we strive for justice and peace in the world and seek to serve Christ in all persons.

This truth, this deep wisdom that is formed in us over time gives us the capacity to stand courageously against all that demeans and degrades and diminishes the human person and robs him or her of the freedom to become, who in grace and truth and according to God's loving desire, they are called to be.

The freedom to become the persons we are most profoundly called to be involves opportunities to own and celebrate our cultural identities, free from the sometimes subtle and possibly well-intentioned constraints of a dominant culture.

The sin and evil of racism is still very much present in our nation and, I am sorry to say, in the church as well. We in the Episcopal Church have made a strong commitment to the eradication of racism and have clear and focused plans and programs moving us toward our goal. We have come a long way, and we still have a distance to go. Our firm resolve will not weaken.

A dynamic of racism is that it invites a conformity to cultural and social norms that have no intrinsic value in themselves except for the fact that they are the possession of the dominant culture. People sometimes ask the question: Why if we are trying to overcome racism do we continue to support Historically Black institutions? Shouldn't all of our institutions be integrated? These questions are well intentioned but indicate a certain lack of understanding about the dynamics of living in a culture where racism is present. My answer is that it is very important to have institutions such as yours that give people the freedom to experience the fullness of their own cultural identity and to know its authenticity without having to make constant adjustments to satisfy the norms of the dominant culture. Christ is fully present in "the black experience" just as Christ is fully present and at home in every other culture.

One of the most valuable experiences I have had at various times in my ministry has been to find myself in a context in which I was the only white person. At such moments I will confess to feeling somewhat self-conscious and trying my best to pick up the signals and cues from those around me that would make it possible for me to fit in and to behave in ways that were culturally appropriate. I realize that this exercise can be exhausting and isolating, particularly when it is a daily occurrence. However, for me, these moments have been invaluable in teaching me what it is like when your culture is not the dominant one. I also will say I have sensed profound blessings in such moments when I have been dislodged from my own cultural bondage.

What I am describing, put in Christian terms, is the mystery of incarnation. Particularity is God's way with us. Jesus was not some sort of abstraction. He was a man with a body. His features would have been Middle Eastern, his hair black and his skin dark. He lived within a particular culture and spoke a particular language. His voice would have betrayed his north country origins. His vocabulary would have been shaped by the language patterns of his day and region. He probably used certain turns of phrase that struck the religious leaders who heard him as provincial or rough.

And so there were questions about him: Can anything good come from Nazareth? Is not this Joseph's son? Where did this wisdom come from? These questions show how Jesus' own cultural rootedness made it difficult for many to hear his message. How much easier it would have been if Jesus had been a luminous figure hovering above the earth, disconnected from any particular cultural identity. But, God said: no. God's Word, when it became flesh was lodged in a particular person at a particular place and time with all the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historical realities that being in this world implies.

Because we follow Jesus we must honor cultural particularities and not seek to sweep them up into some kind of amalgam in which their strength and lifegivingness are lost in favor of a bland inclusiveness. We need institutions that are not afraid to celebrate and uphold the richness of particular cultural identities.

And therefore, there is an enduring place for schools and colleges that are historically dedicated to the education of young black men and women whose dignity and sense of self worth are affirmed at a formative time in their lives. Dignity and self worth today are essential in the formation of the leaders for tomorrow. And I am profoundly aware of the role the institutions represented here today have played in preparing countless men and women who have served and continue to serve in positions of leadership in this country, in the world and in the church. Indeed many leaders in the Episcopal Church, both ordained and lay, some of whom are here today, are graduates of your institutions.

The Episcopal Church has been blessed by the ministries of black men and women, lay and ordained, who have borne witness to Christ, often at incredible cost to themselves. I want to acknowledge here the Rt. Rev. Arthur Williams, who served this church as the vice president of the House of Bishops. And may I acknowledge as well the witness and ministry of the Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris, the first women to be ordained a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

It is my hope and prayer that the Episcopal Church in the days ahead will more actively call forth and embrace the gifts of persons of color. May we strengthen these persons so they may proclaim and reveal Christ among us in lay and ordained ministry and other forms of leadership in the world.

There is no question that the Historically Black Colleges can play an important role in proclaiming the good news of God in Christ and inviting young men and women to lives of active discipleship. In so doing I would hope that our institutions will make a concerted effort to foster and encourage vocations to ordained and lay ministry, particularly as this is one of the mission initiatives of the Episcopal Church.

Here I am reminded of the words of Bishop Roger Blanchard that the campuses of schools and colleges are the greatest mission field there is. I think there is much truth in what Bishop Blanchard said. I hope and pray that those of you who are here, and the other young men and women of Historically Black Colleges who are not with us today, are challenged to explore what it means to be a person of faith who proclaims by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

Today's gathering offers us an unprecedented opportunity to build a vision for the future, even as we celebrate victories won and goals achieved. More needs to be done, and can be done, as we move ahead together. Therefore, I am pleased to announce today that I will be convening a consultation to strengthen our partnerships. It will include the Presidents and Chaplains of our Historically Black Colleges and representatives of Cuttington University, together with the staff of the Office for Black Ministries of the Episcopal Church. The purpose of this consultation will be to explore new and creative ways in which collaboration and sharing of resources can serve our common mission. As we move into the future we do knowing that we have been empowered by the strengthening grace of God.

And so, dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Shall we gather at the river? ... The answer is yes, because have been made one with Christ. We have passed through the shining waters of baptism. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been strengthened by God "whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever."