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.