The Racial Justice Unit of the Church of England (RJU) were delighted to be invited to send a delegation to the conference of the Union of Black Episcopalians, (UBE), held in Montgomery, Alabama, the city that gave rise to the civil rights movement, in the 60th anniversary year of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s delivery of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.
We were lead by Rev. Guy Hewitt, Director of the RJU and I was pleased to be invited to be part of the delegation, representing Gypsy, Roma & Traveller Friendly Churches, along with representatives from UK Minority Ethnic/Global Majority Heritage.
Our intention was to learn from the experience and wisdom of UBE, holding their 55th Conference. Key themes were NIA-Purpose, IMANI-Faith, UMOJA-Unity. A sense of joy and hope resonated throughout the conference, with delegates celebrating their diversity and knowing their value before God.
There was a deep knowledge and realism of the challenges, and practical insights on how to tackle injustice effectively, with short and longer term plans. Leaders included clergy and laity working together, equally sharing responsibilities. The national church was encouraged to look at its own systems and structures, and also to be a voice in society for the marginalised and oppressed.
For me, one powerful message was the encouragement to ‘look deep within’ and acknowledge my own inner voices that might lead me to believe one person, or group of people, were of less value than any other; then to do what I could to live differently. The keynote speaker, Dr Catherine Meeks, now in her 80s, shared an example of her practice of deliberately trying to see and get eye contact with those living on the streets, to greet them, and give some money. She explained trying not to see them communicated they were ‘non people’, or perhaps people she wished did not exist, and this did not – and could not – be in keeping with her professed love of Christ.
The evils of racism were brought home strongly in visits to The National Memorial For Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum. Ahead of the visits quiet preparation was offered with follow up, including space for questions about God and suffering. The visits brought home to all of us the importance of the work were were each trying to do in our various settings. We were encouraged to support each other however we can.
A parallel youth conference shared in a celebration dinner with the adult delegates and we were delighted to see how the young people were mentored, practically helped and encouraged. One highlight was the closing worship, a joyous festival Eucharist lead by the young people, including one young man with disabilities that caused him to be mute being supported to read the gospel.
Reflecting on all of this I am proud to be part of Gypsy, Roma & Traveller Friendly Churches. What we are doing may feel small and sometimes overwhelming, but it matters. We have a shared purpose-NIA-, we have IMANI- faith and hope, and our unity-UMOJA- comes from the love of God in Jesus Christ in whose name we share this work.
– Rev’d Dr Nicky Chater