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'Shall We Gather at the River?' recognizes traditionally black Episcopal colleges

By Lucy Chumbley

Paul Smith
   (Paul Smith)

[Episcopal News Service]  Around 350 members of historically black Episcopal colleges in the U.S. and Liberia convened on Washington National Cathedral on February 18 to take part in a day of recognition.

The event drew faculty and students from four colleges -- St. Paul's, Virginia, Voorhees, South Carolina, St. Augustine's, North Carolina, and Cuttington, Liberia -- to celebrate their existing relationships and explore new ways of working together.

Sponsored by the Office of Black Ministries of the Episcopal Church and the Association of Episcopal Colleges, the convocation, titled "Shall We Gather at the River?" was the first of its kind.

"There are regular gatherings of the presidents of all the Episcopal colleges, and that includes these four, but it's the first time they've gathered as black colleges," said Don Thompson, general secretary of Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion. "It was so useful in what it did and in what it proclaimed that we will be doing it again."

Participants arrived by bus and spent the day at the cathedral, where they heard addresses from Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, a traditionally black college in Washington, D.C. They also took part in panel discussions with faculty and guests, and took in performances by choirs from the three U.S. colleges.

Thompson said the program will probably become an annual event, and added that he and the Rev. Angela S. Ifill, the Episcopal Church's missioner for Black Ministries, have already discussed some preliminary ideas for the next gathering.

"Perhaps the next event might be much more involving of students," he said, "where each college would not only send a choir but send other students who might do something together."

"My biggest hope was that people would come together and we would have this conversation, which I see as a new beginning," Ifill said. "Because of the results, we definitely want to do it again."

In their respective addresses, Griswold and Swygert urged the colleges to work more closely together, a topic that was taken up during the afternoon's panel discussions.

Topics raised by participants included the need to emphasize the colleges' Episcopal ties and encourage students interested in the priesthood; support single parents; develop and enhance continuing education programs for non-traditional students; and expand existing exchange programs with Cuttington.

"We would like to see more of that -- the collaboration between our sister universities," said Henrique F. Tokpa, president of Cuttington University College.

Panelists also discussed plans for the American colleges to offer financial support to Cuttington as it rebuilds after suffering extensive damage during Liberia's civil war.

"I believe we do have a great opportunity to come up with a mechanism and funding to share with Cuttington," said Lee E. Monroe Jr., president of Voorhees College.

Griswold and several panelists also spoke of the continuing need for traditionally black colleges.

"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?'" Griswold said. "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."

"I'm always getting the question, 'Why do we need historically black colleges and universities?'" said panelist Shari Crittendon, vice president and general counsel of the United Negro College Fund.

She pointed out that these institutions strive to remain affordable as well as accessible, adding that "50 years past [Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools] African-Americans still haven't realized equality in higher education."

"Is there a role for HBCUs in 2006 and in the future of our country?" she asked. "Their role is to spot, enroll and see through graduation the African-Americans on whom our society depends."

Griswold shared his view that "today's gathering offers us an unprecedented opportunity to build a vision for the future, even as we celebrate victories won and goals achieved."

To this end, he announced that he will be convening a consultation to strengthen partnerships between the historically black Episcopal colleges, which will include the presidents and chaplains of the four colleges represented and the staff of the Office for Black Ministries. The group will explore new ways to collaborate and share resources.

"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," he said.

"A sound education begins with the acknowledgement of God and his son Jesus Christ our Lord," said the Very Rev. Emmanuel W. Johnson, chaplain of Voorhees College, during his sermon at the event's Eucharist. "Let us be a people thirsty for goodness and righteousness."

"We must strive not only to gather at that river," said John K. Waddell, president of St. Paul's, "But to leave like the man at that pool of Bethesda -- to walk tall and go out and become productive citizens."