LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. — While delegates to the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference here celebrated the historic election of two women bishops to the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ), some were also left hurt, angry and empty by proceedings they felt were unjust and racist.
|LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. — Florida Conference delegates to the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference vote during Episcopal elections. Photo by Woody Woodrick, Mississippi Conference, Photo #04-0049.|
The Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, a member of the Florida delegation, said racism was blatant at the conference in the balloting and in the way delegates interacted with each other. Referring to the record 34 ballots taken to elect the slate of six bishops, McClellan said the balloting went on so long "for one reason-the SEJ refuses to elect a qualified, visionary African-American woman."
"In 1984 Bishop Leontine Kelly was an Episcopal nominee in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. She left the jurisdictional conference, flew to the Western Jurisdiction and was elected to the episcopacy," she said. "What was prevalent then is prevalent now-the blatant sin of racism."
Lynette Fields, a lay member of the Florida delegation, said it was "really powerful" to hear the stories of ethnic conflict in Episcopal elections from past conferences.
"The experience of those last ballots [this year] brought back those stories," Fields said. "The experience reminded people of our past and how far we have to go. It was a celebration that we elected two women, but the process was so obviously divisive and painful, that it was hard to fully celebrate."
Dawn Hand, a lay delegate from Western North Carolina, said she does not like to make things into racial issues, but is sometimes "painfully reminded...that somehow, at the core, it unfortunately turns out to be a racist issue."
"It's painfully obvious it's not the will of this conference right now to support a Native-American person who is qualified, a black woman who is qualified," she said. "Racism, whether intended or not, is a painful experience, but one I have become accustomed to."
Dr. Sheila Flemming, a lay member of the Florida delegation, said some would say it was not racist, because one African-American, Bishop James Swanson, was elected bishop on the fourth ballot. "It's tokenism," she said. "White people are comfortable with one. As a historian, I see from the very early days that whites are more comfortable with a few blacks. Racism can still exist when a few blacks are at the table."
The Rev. Roger Hopson, the Memphis Conference's director of Connectional Ministries and a member of the Memphis delegation, said he didn't think the racism was conscious and it came out of a rush to get through the process. "The great majority of Euro-Americans weren't consciously trying to keep African-Americans out," he said. "For the majority, I think it was unconscious racism. We are so programmed to think of only one and one . There were too many competent African-Americans to elect only one."
McClellan said she saw the quota mentality in the report of the nominations committee. When delegates challenged the report on inclusivity issues, a nominations committee member said the 2000 Book of Discipline set a minimum of 30 percent racial ethnic representation and the SEJ had included 31 percent. "They decided for the Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans. 'We gave you your fair share, now be satisfied,' " McClellan said.
Kathy FitzJefferies, a lay observer from the Western North Carolina Conference, said she believed the strongest candidates were the racial-ethnic candidates. "I believe God was testing us to look past the skin color and look at the gifts and graces," she said.
FitzJefferies said she noticed a pattern emerging in the voting. After a woman and an African-American were elected among the first three new bishops there was a push to elect three more white males. "When we couldn't get the white males up, we started pitting white females," she said.
Fields said she felt good about the process of education that preceded the elections, which included video interviews, presentations and question-and-answer sessions with nominees. "I also felt like we were doing something different in the first three elections, but it got bitterly divisive as the election went on," she said. "I don't know what it was all about...theology, race or gender...or maybe it was about all three."
Several delegates called for justice in the elections from the floor of the conference, causing additional conflict.
Hopson said he noticed many Anglo persons expressing displeasure when delegates expressed their desire for justice and inclusiveness in the voting. "That certainly was not the Gospel," he said.
FitzJefferies said she noticed a similar spirit among the candidates. "I heard some candidates say not to worry who is at the table, but it's easy for white males to say that because they're the ones at the table," she said. "I think it's time to invite an African-American woman and other ethnic minorities to the college of bishops."
Delegates also felt personally attacked by other delegates. McClellan said a member of her own delegation referred to four African-American delegates as "you people."
Flemming said she approached a group of Anglo delegates at the elevator in the Lambuth Inn the night after the conference's service of repentance and reconciliation for racism. She said they were laughing and asking each other, "Are you reconciled? Are you holy?" One turned to her, smiled and asked her, "Are you holy?"
"I turned away and walked up the stairs," she said. "As a black woman, I am really saddened by all this, and I have to reflect on whether this church in the 21st century is the church for me."
FitzJefferies said it was a gift racism was so blatant at the conference. "My hope is that we can honestly name what happened here and address it."
Hand said she believes delegation heads needed to do more to correct these situations in their delegations. "I'm saddened that some heads of delegations refused to get a handle on the ugliness that happened here. They could have publicly given more leadership to name the issue and deal with it."
Hopson said he is not angry at what happened. "There were too many holy moments to be angry," he said. "I'm concerned. I'm always hopeful for the church, but there are times when I just don't know."
Hand said she remains hopeful that grace will prevail. "The God we love and serve brings us out of despair and sadness, and raises us up that we might continue to be in service to all of God's people."