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Episcopalians to lead?Day of Repentance for sin of slavery

February 21, 2009
By LINDA COMINS, For The Inter-Mountain

The Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer, Episcopal bishop of West Virginia, has designated the first Sunday in Lent, March 1, as "a Day of Repentance for the sin of slavery, racial segregation and racial discrimination in the Diocese of West Virginia."

Episcopal congregations in the diocese will use special liturgies on March 1 to mark the Day of Repentance.

Last October, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, led a two-day observance of repentance for the sin of slavery and its aftermath. Klusmeyer and other representatives from the Diocese of West Virginia attended that solemn event in Philadelphia.

In addition, the Rev. Jayne J. Oasin, ECUSA's program officer for anti-racism and gender equality, is conducting anti-racism training for ordained and lay leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia this week. Members of the Diocesan Council and the Standing Committee, chairs of diocesan commissions and committees and diocesan staff are attending the training sessions that began Friday and conclude today at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Wheeling. Oasin led similar sessions for the diocesan leadership in September 2004 in Charleston.

The diocese's Commission to End Racism also offers anti-racism dialogues and training sessions at various sites throughout the state on a regular basis.

"The Episcopal Church for decades has taken the sin of racism very seriously," Klusmeyer commented. "We have passed numerous resolutions denouncing the sin of racism and have expressed our outrage at the sin of slavery in the 19th century and before. Over the last five to 10 years, we tried to take more concrete steps to make our feelings more known within the communities of faith as well as within our dioceses and the states.

"And working with our Commission to End Racism, we felt that now was the appropriate time to call our individual congregations to make this a reality in our diocese," the bishop said. "Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance. It makes good sense to start it on the first Sunday of Lent."

Regarding the rationale for a Day of Repentance, Klusmeyer said, "In our tradition, we believe that praying shapes believing, that prayer promotes action. The words we pray on that Sunday will indeed cause people to think introspectively about their own participation, their own attitudes toward people who are different. After that self-reflection, we can help them to figure ways to combat their own racist tendencies, actions, beliefs and, individually and corporately as a church, we believe we will take greater steps."

Harold E. Stewart, chair of the Commission to End Racism, is pleased that the diocese is holding a Day of Repentance. Stewart, who resides in Charles Town, attended the national observance in Philadelphia last fall and he described it as "a very moving service." The upcoming diocesan observance is "something that I think we really need," he said. "I am glad we are doing it."

Stewart cautioned, though, "I hope this is not a just a ceremony, that we all feel good about and stop there." He added, "This is not going to solve all the problems, but it is a step in the right direction."

Klusmeyer said he learned from the national Day of Repentance that "in the 1860s, when West Virginia was part of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in West Virginia was part of the Diocese of Virginia, 80 percent of the clergy of the Episcopal Church owned slaves. So much of what we have today in the church was created on the backs of slaves. And slavery wasn't an issue only of the South. People in the North, like our benefactor, J.P. Morgan, would buy and trade with the owners of slaves in the South and so he, too, amassed his money dealing with slave owners. So the whole economy was so intricately connected that we can't say it was a Southern problem."

The bishop recognizes that a Day of Repentance is only part of a continuing process to combat racism in society. "We are taking one step along a long trek. We also recognize that we, even the best-intentioned person, cannot read a book or go to an eight-hour seminar and say, 'OK, I'm fixed.' Every day we have to wake up and pledge, 'I'm not going to do what I did in the past,'" Klusmeyer said. "Racism is so ingrained in our culture that it takes generations to break it."

Stewart commented, "I think there is a lot of soul-searching and attitudes that have to be changed on both sides. This isn't a one-sided thing. There's lots of folks that don't see the need for this, (who ask) 'What are we doing in saying we're sorry' and (think) 'We had no part in it,' as they see it. It was wrong. We have to admit it was wrong. Once we admit that, folks also have to change their attitudes. It's over; it's part of history that's gone. We have to come together and work for the good of all.

"We've still got to work to change attitudes and the way folks are thinking," Stewart continued. "We have to stop placing blame so much on other people. Anything we do and we accomplish has to be together."



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