Marking History at Trinity Church, Newport

Bishop Knisely and the Rev. Canon Timothy J. Watt, rector of Trinity Church, Newport, led a service of word and song to mark the dedication of a slave history medallion at the church on Sunday, October 30 at 4 p. m.

Charles Roberts, Bishop Knisely, Rev. Canon Timothy WattThe medallion was installed by the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion (RISHM) project, a statewide effort to promote public awareness of the history of slavery and the slave trade across the state. Trinity is now one of a growing number of sites at which a QR-coded bronze plaque, called a medallion, opens a web page on visitors’ mobile phones explaining the site’s connection to the history of slavery in Rhode Island.

“It’s hard to imagine any industry, any institution, in this state that was here in the early 19th century that in some way was not participating in and receiving monies that were connected with the trade of human beings, both in the United States and in the Caribbean, from insurance industries to loom and textile manufacturers to the church” Bishop Knisely said. “We are all connected to that story. And it is a hard story to hear.

“Sometimes it is hard to face the truth,” he said, “but there is no other way to be free.”

Canon Watt said since Trinity’s vestry approved the placement of the medallion, he had heard from critics who said it went too far and those who said it did not go far enough in acknowledging the church’s participation in the slave trade. But he said it was “a simple historical fact” that Trinity parishioners and several of its early rectors enslaved people or were involved in the trans-Atlantic trade in human beings.

In October 1729, George Berkeley, the eminent philosopher, preached from Trinity’s pulpit in support of the “Yorke-Talbot Opinion,” a joint opinion of the British attorney and solicitor generals that enslaved persons did not become free by virtue of their baptism.

“In other words, ‘Relax, masters, it’s okay to let them be baptized. They’ll still be your slaves,’” Watt said.

Berkeley, who was then a priest and later a bishop in the Church of Ireland, enslaved several people at his nearby farm in Middletown during his few years in Rhode Island. The opinion he defended helped legitimized slavery in Great Britain for decades.

As a Christian, Watt said, he prays that Jesus will correct him when he is in error and bring him to amendment of life. “And so, we place this marker to remember when we’re in error and for the Holy Spirit to work in us for amendment of life,” he said.

Charles Roberts, RIHSM’s director, told those gathered for the dedication that his organization places medallions at historic sites to make the history of the state’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade more accessible to the general public. On occasion, he said, people discover they have a personal connection to this history, as had happened to him.

As a child growing up in Newport, Roberts played in the nearby God’s Little Acre colonial graveyard and was taken with the two-shouldered gravestones adorned with an angel’s face that made him feel as though he were playing in “a sea of angels.” There are similar gravestones in Trinity’s own cemetery, he said.

As an adult, he learned that a stone in this style marked the grave of Cuffe Gibbs, who had been enslaved by George Gibbs and later by his son, both of whom were members of Trinity Church. The stone had been carved and signed by Gibbs’ brother, Pompe Stevens, who was enslaved by a local artisan. In signing this one example of his work, Stevens caused later historians to look upon the contributions of black artisans to colonial era culture with fresh eyes, and also gave evidence that the ties of a Black family had endured despite its members enslavement in different households. Stevens’ design is the inspiration for the design of the medallions place by RIHSM.

“This is living history,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t go away. We are in it. we are part of it.”

The service concluded with a vibrant choral performance by RPM (Reaching People Through Music) Voices of Rhode Island.

Center for Reconciliation News

The Center for Reconciliation, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, is pleased to announce the appointment of Marco A. McWilliams as Associate Director of Education and Training.

McWilliams is an educator and public scholar of African-American history. He is a Mississippi born activist, educator, and is the founding organizer and former deputy director of the Providence Africana Reading Collective (PARC). Marco is also a founding director of the Black Studies program at DARE, and an organizer with Behind the Walls, DARE’s prison abolition committee. He is the founder of the Providence Black Studies Freedom School, a free political education project focused on providing theoretically grounded and engaged historical instruction for members of Providence’s diverse communities.

Marco is a Program Associate at the Swearer Center where he has served as a Junior Fellow and Practitioner-in-Residence since 2017. He also has a background in community organizing, anti-racism training and workshop facilitation. Currently a core faculty member at College Unbound, he is a member of the Mayor’s African-American Ambassador’s Group, and is a Mayoral appointee to the Special Committee for the Review of Commemorative Works in Providence.

Marco is a graduate of Rhode Island College where he majored in African Studies, and is a Master’s Degree candidate at Brown University, in the Department of American Studies. His field of study is African-American History, mid -19th & 20th Century Black Radical Organizing Traditions. Marco brings his strong background in training and education and a true passion for the work of the Center.

Response from the Center for Reconciliation

The Center for Reconciliation celebrates the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in all their fullness, beauty, and complexity, along with all those murdered by white supremacy. We deeply grieve their loss, and we deeply grieve the insidious persistence of racism and racial violence throughout the fabric of American law, culture, and society. We cannot bring them back from the dead and restore them to their families and friends, but we can raise our voices.
With this in mind, we call for a lived, present-day commitment to full equality, justice, and love for everyone, including advocacy for the passage and implementation of anti-racist policies and laws. With full equality, justice, and love, we believe, will come true reconciliation of the human family. To create that world, we must peacefully transform this one, and we stand proudly and immovably alongside all those working to do so.

Notice, and Respond

The Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown

On Nov. 10, there was a “Commemoration of Witness” evensong service at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol at which Bishop Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island officiated and the newly consecrated bishop of Vermont, Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, preached. The text of her sermon is here. This was one of the events held during the weekend to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

The Rev. Bob Davidson, Chair of the EPF told the Episcopal News Service that “Part of our mission statement is to ‘dismantle’ violence. That’s a more active term than ‘be aware of’ or ‘oppose.’ … What we’ve come to understand is the intersectionality of poverty and racism and violence. That … has led us more deeply into racial reconciliation and the awareness of white supremacy, white privilege, as the root cause of so much collective and interpersonal violence.”

Changes – A message from the Bishop

There have been some changes in the diocesan staff and in the staff of the Center for Reconciliation (CFR). We are welcoming Kristin Knudson-Groh to the diocesan staff and bidding Godspeed and farewell to Elon Cook Lee. 

Kristin is joining my staff to serve as communications director in a moment when we’re in the process of re-evaluating the way we do communications ministry in Rhode Island. Some of you will recognize her name, because she grew up here in Rhode Island and her father served in churches here— particularly All Saints, Pontiac. I’m delighted to welcome Kristin to the staff. Dave Seifert and others associated with the communications ministry are going to continue their work with us as well. The plan is to do a broad re-evaluation of what will best serve the needs of the congregations across the state, and to this end we are working to increase our capacity. Although the Rev. Gillian Barr served in a part-time capacity, Kristin will be working full-time. But we’re also in conversation with some vendors and other experts about how to increase the role of our website, social media and earned media (press reports) in our work to share the good news of what God is doing here in Rhode Island. This will probably take a couple of years to work through, and Kristin will have a key role in that process. 

You can reach her at (and she’ll be monitoring some of the other communications email addresses as well, such as 

But as we welcome Kristin, we are simultaneously saying goodbye to Elon, who has been with the CFR from its beginning. She has been key to getting that organization up and running, moving from a resolution at Diocesan Convention to a nonprofit that is producing multiple programs a week and reaching out across the state. Elon was a brilliant teacher and helped many of us reconsider our own understanding of our story by including the ignored and forgotten stories of the enslaved and the marginalized. She has an incredible gift for doing this work through presenting artifacts from our history and inviting us to reflect on their meaning within the larger national and regional narrative. She is taking a new position with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., as director of interpretation and education. On behalf of all of connected with the CFR and all of us across the diocese, we say thank you and congratulations! 

Debra Sharpe, the CFR executive director, and the CFR Board of Directors will be working during the next months to continue the legacy that Elon made possible, and to look for new ways that we can fulfill the mandate that was given us by Diocesan Convention when the organization was created. There are many ways to support that work, and you can learn more about those and the programs being offered at the CFR’s website.

In a season of change, one thing remains the same: our work to proclaim the truth of Jesus and his life to the community in which we live. Jesus has the ability to change lives and reclaim what was lost. Kristin will help us share that good news, just as Elon showed us how to present it in a way that included all of the voices and experience of the full spectrum of God’s children. 


Deacons from across country tour our Cathedral

The Association for Episcopal Deacons, the churchwide organization for vocational deacons, are holding their triennial conference in Providence this week. Most of the sessions are at a local hotel, but they all visited our Cathedral and the Center for Reconciliation, along with their keynote speaker, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” Study Guide

The Center for Reconciliation has created a study guide for “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone.

DOWNLOAD The Cross and Lynching Tree Study Guide >    

This study guide includes evocative quotes from the book, conversation starting questions, suggested prayers, links to thought provoking songs and videos, engaging activities and a variety of resources to help participants continue to deepen their knowledge beyond the five book study sessions.

This guide is especially appropriate for Lent, when we focus on Christ’s death on the cross. However, this guide contains more sessions than can be accomplished in a weekly Lenten study program. Group leaders will need to select which quotes and questions they want to discuss or will use within the first five sessions or consider or consider continuing the study program after Easter.

Questions about the study guide should be sent to the Center for Reconciliations program manager, Elon Cook at

Go to the Center for Reconciliation Website for more resources and events.

Lenten book discussions prompt ministry actions by members of Redeemer

by Dave Seifert

A Lenten program at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence, is turning out to be a lot more than a class—it’s also been a springboard to discipleship.

About a dozen members spent Lent—and a few weeks more—reading and talking about “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone. The book explores the connections between the universal symbol of Christian faith and the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America.

Now that book and a study guide developed by the Center for Reconciliation (CFR), have prompted new commitments to discipleship and community-building by some Redeemer members. Note: Learn more about the study guide and how to use it — including training for group leaders — below.

“It began as a regular Lenten program,” explains the Rev. Patrick Campbell, rector. “But some folks have had a real experience of transformation.”

Campbell decided to use the CFR curriculum to start answering questions about “What can we do?” as part of ongoing efforts to connect the church more closely with its surrounding neighborhood, which spans multiple races and economic levels. Those efforts had intensified after the racial unrest that emerged in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“The mission of the church is to reconcile all people to God in Christ,” he noted. “So the church can do real work. But those of us who are white need to do our own work first.”

Some of the discussion participants have taken that challenge especially seriously.

For Robert Howe, who teaches American history at local colleges, the experience changed the way he thinks about race in America and, ultimately, the way he chose to structure a United States history class he’s teaching this fall.

“Reading the book, coupled with my growing awareness of continuing racism at work in American life, made me want to address the African-American experience and white society’s history specifically related to that experience,” he said. “I decided the class needed to have the conversation about race that is periodically called for in public discourse but rarely achieved.”

Howe was surprised by how deeply the book affected him “and at how much of black experience can be seen as living under, or being close to slipping into a world of, terrorism. I guess this had been building up in my awareness with the news of the last few years, but the reading and discussion really put things into an emerging picture that I’m still developing in both mind and heart. I felt God speaking through James Cone, and through our discussion, and animating me to plunge into a world of awareness and discourse that promises to be useful.”

Another Redeemer member, Toni Harrison, said the book “opened my mind and raised many questions — it made me want to know more, so I read several other books related to racism. I learned things I’d never known before.”

Harrison grew up in the 1950s having virtually no contact with black people, she said. “There was no one of a different skin color in my school at least through eighth grade, and I believe through high school,” she explained. “In college in the early 1960s, I remember just one black, and she was ‘just one of us’. So I simply had not been aware of racial repression until when my husband and I were at the Cathedral of St. John for several years prior to its closing.”

Harrison said the book worked well: “We need to be talking with each other in this sort of discourse.”

Elon Cook, CFR program manager, was happily surprised by the reaction to the book.

“In the work I do, I’m so used to seeing small, incremental changes in people that what I’m seeing at Redeemer is exciting,” she said. “I’d been studying the history of slavery and racialized violence for several years and initially didn’t think the book would impact me. It did, and now I’m happy to see I wasn’t the only one.”

Cook’s hope in developing the study guide was to help create conversations in communities around Rhode Island that “were having a difficult time connecting to black pain and black frustration about where our country is. Through the book, it felt like there was an avenue to understanding your neighbor through the suffering of Jesus — and maybe Jesus’s narrative was one that white Rhode Islanders could connect to.

“Lots of white Rhode Islanders don’t have black people in their neighborhoods or offices or schools, so maybe a different aspect of Jesus’s life would lead them in a roundabout way to connecting with people of color.”

Campbell, Howe and Harrison share Cook’s hope for broadened understanding and awareness — as well as hoping that people at other Rhode Island churches will read and discuss the book.

“I would absolutely recommend it to other churches,” Campbell said. “It’s a starting place about something we’ve been removed from. We can learn about racial oppression and have an invitation into connecting with the story.”

“I hope more minds get opened,” Harrison said. ”It offers a chance to learn the basics of talking about racism and learning some of the history many of us may not have known.”

Howe said “We need to know this. If we don’t, we don’t know our country or ourselves.”

Bring ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ study program to your church
Churches and individuals throughout the diocese can download a free study guide to “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” and participate in a November event to learn more about the book and how to use it.

In addition to Redeemer, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Tiverton used the book to increase members’ awareness about racial issues. About 25 people at Holy Trinity read the book and participated in discussions during Lent 2016. Those conversations built on a presentation from James DeWolf Perry and a viewing of the film “Traces of the Trade.”

“The biggest impact in our church was with the people who took the course,” said the Rev. John Higginbotham, rector. “There was a great deal of surprise that slavery was not ‘just a Southern thing’ but involved people all over the country, including right down the road from our church.”

The study guide includes quotes from the book, conversation-starting questions, suggested prayers, links to thought-provoking songs and videos, engaging activities and a variety of resources to help participants continue to deepen their knowledge beyond the five book study sessions.

Anyone interested in learning more about being a study leader is invited to a conversation at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 16 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 40 Dearborn Street, Newport, or at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Beneficent Church, 300 Weybosset Street, Providence.

Training for facilitators is scheduled for Jan. 18 at a location still to be determined.

These events are timed to allow churches to study the book during Lent 2017, a time of the year particularly appropriate because of the focus on Christ’s death on the cross. Contact Elon Cook, Center for Reconciliation program manager, with any questions.


College Hill and the International Slave Trade walking tours

Have you heard? The Center for Reconciliation is now offering walking tours of historic Providence, highlighting the City’s connection to the domestic and international slave trade. If you are interested in scheduling a College Hill & the International Slave Trade walking tour for your congregation, family, friends let us know. Groups should consist of 5-20 interested participants. Contact the Center to schedule a group tour

Recently on May 6th and 7th, we hosted a tour. More than 80 people took part in a two hour walking tour of the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, and learned about its historic significance in the international and domestic slave trade. Participants came from as close as Benefit Street and as far away as Ghana and Chile. These multi-racial and multi-generational cadres of neighbors, friends, classmates and family members took a mile long hike through important though long obscured local history.
Getting started in front of the John Brown House

The United States is once again struggling through a national conversation about race. A discussion made more difficult by how little most of us know about our country’s history of slavery. Rhode Island may be our smallest state but nearly everyone from its earliest wealthy citizens, to its most recent antebellum immigrants, helped the Ocean State become one of the US’s largest contributors to the international slave trade. Sadly these local histories of slavery and slave trading which, unbeknownst to most, helped construct much of the state, instigated a legacy of restrictive social and legal structures in our state and our country, and imbedded feelings of fear, discomfort, anger or guilt into contemporary conversations about race.

During our mile walk, standing in the shadows of buildings laid with the pain of thousands of enslaved people, closed our eyes and caught glimpses of lives lived long ago in places we see every day. Along the way we stopped at six sites important to the stories of the free and the enslaved, the rich and the poor and everything in between. With every step participants followed the accounts of wealthy merchants, Ghanian insurrectionists, college students, slave traders, Episcopal church leaders and members, sailors, insurance investors, a bitter housewife, Quaker slave owners and Quaker abolitionists, enslaved chocolatiers, free black home owners, disenfranchised Irish immigrants, and three women buried as “faithful servants” beneath a single foot-stone.

We started at the apex of Brown and Power and discussed the many ways that power literally and symbolically intersected with various families, individuals and institutions in Providence. Next, we stepped inside the John Brown House museum to explore not just the Brown family’s connections to the slave trade, but also how the Rhode Island Historical Society has wrestled with interpreting slavery, worked with the community and students to improve its exhibits, and makes plans for future engagement with difficult narratives. The education and public program director at the Rhode Island Historical Society was “extremely pleased” by the tours. Most participants had never visited a Rhode Island historic house before. Several mentioned a new interest in returning to the house to see more of its exhibits in the future.

After leaving the John Brown House, we took a stroll through Power St. to Brown University. The group learned along the way about the role played by white women and Quakers in the local 18th and 19th century power structure. The group came to a stop in front of Brown University’s oldest building to consider the construction of an institution that was funded for over 100 years by slave labor or slavery related industries. We discussed how educational institutions continue to struggle with their historical connections to slavery and debated whether they should, or how they could provide reparations. The groups considered how universities continue to seek donations from wealthy individuals or corporations even when the money is connected to exploitative industries or regimes? A lively debate ensued among participants about different forms of restorative action schools can take to help the descendants of those who were forced to be involved in the school’s creation.

Next, the procession followed the trail of power and money to the surprisingly modest home of ten time governor, Stephen Hopkins. There we were treated to a balanced telling of the lives of the enslaved and the free peoples who lived and worked in the Hopkins House. Participants were led through the house to see rooms important to that history, and an exhibit that focused on the challenge of telling an inclusive history when there is a dearth of documents and first person narratives. We continued to mull over some of the more complicated points of the history as we walked to the next stop.

Despite a light rain we proceeded to the 18th century cemetery that lay hidden between the colorful 19th century homes on Benefit Street and the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island on North Main Street. Participants stood quietly among the gravestones and learned about the creation and the destruction of three vibrant black communities that have long since been cleared from the outermost edges of Providence. The racial violence, housing discrimination and social and economic exclusion that eventually drove these communities away would have been viewable from the grave laden hill. We also paused to reflect on the scant fragments of information available on the lives of three enslaved women who were memorialized by a single foot stone in the Episcopal cemetery. Was the footstone really an honor when it permanently connected the three women to the man and family who had enslaved them and left them without any sense of individuality? Participants discussed how these women or their families may have inscribed seperate headstones if given the opportunity.

Image credit_ Arielle Brown 2016. Document found at the URI archives.
Image credit: Arielle Brown 2016. Document found at the URI archives.

Image credit: Caroline Stevens 2016

Our final stop of the tour led us through tales of destruction to a site of rebirth. We stepped out of the rain and into the Cathedral of St. John. Inside the Episcopal Canon to the Ordinary, Linda Grenz, guided us through the church’s complicated history of slavery, racial integration, white privilege, neglect and a new hope for reconciliation. This exclusive behind the scenes tour also offered a first opportunity to learn about the Center for Reconciliation’s future museum on the history of slavery and slave trading, while standing in the space in which it will be installed. Jane Jacobs once said that, “new ideas must use old buildings.” That is exactly what the Center for Reconciliation was created to do. We are in the preliminary stages of turning this early 19th century cathedral into a space in which to reconcile the past with the present and the descendants of slave owners with the descendants of the enslaved. Our nation continues to be deeply divided by the legacy of slavery. While reconciliation is not a new idea, the CFR is developing new strategies, programs, performances, collaborations and events that will bring new meaning to an old building, and new beginnings for our shared community. In the footsteps of slavery we plan to guide our multi-racial, multi-generational community on new pathways toward a real chance at racial reconciliation.


Rhode Island Episcopal Church Confronts Slave Trading Past

This segment originally aired on Sept. 3, 2015 on NPR’s The Takeway

Click to listen to original story >

In one corner of the United States, the Episcopal Diocese is looking to stake its own territory in a push for change against the racial violence that has erupted across America.

The Rhode Island Episcopal Diocese is planning a Center for Reconciliation in acknowledgement of both the state and the Diocese’s long involvement with the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rhode Island merchants may have controlled as much as 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves in the years following the Revolution, and the state was once called “the Deep North” for its heavy involvement.

Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely has led the Rhode Island Episcopal Diocese since 2012. He hopes that the Reconciliation Center, which is among the first of its kind in the country, will serve as a teaching museum, with artifacts, exhibits and performances.

He believes the Center will help the community better understand the outsized role that the church and this tiny northern state that played in America’s dark past.