This review commends one of the stellar underappreciated books many may have missed reading during the height of Covid. Gayle Fisher-Stewart’s Preaching Black Lives (Matter) offers an assemblage of modern-day prophetic voices who are navigating the troubled waters of dismantling systemic racism. Through these voices one hears the historic and current wrestling of Black and non-Black folx with the realities of the systemic oppression of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color—and a confirmation of the protective power of the systemic favoring of white people. While giving testament to the duality of the lives led by Black people in America and within the Episcopal Church, this book can help the church’s efforts toward becoming the beloved community we long to be.
Fisher-Stewart seeks to inspire the church to let go of the status quo, “taking a chance, risking it all, as Jesus did and changing this world into what God created it to be.” (p. xiii) We hear from 46 diverse contributors. This includes well-known leaders in this work like Wilda Gafney, Gene Robinson, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Mariann Edgar Budde. It also includes others, who though perhaps new to us, show us in equally moving words that even if we are struggling as members of a community that is not yet actively engaged in eliminating racism, we can and must answer (our Black siblings, continue to answer) the long overdue call to action. We must all be willing to be disturbed enough to recognize and relinquish racist patterns if we are to live into a future free from oppression of all kinds.
None of the works featured in this collection underestimates the challenges involved in the commitment to banishing oppressive and discriminatory patterns. Indeed “an honest accounting of [them] is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.” (p.42). The truth that many would rather not hear is that mindlessly uttering phrases
such as, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” or “No Matter Who You Are or Where You Are on Your Journey of Faith, You are Welcome Here” leaves us with miles to go before the church is actually able to demonstrate these words through sustained policy and enduring practice.
Part one of Preaching Black Lives (Matter) presents sermons that challenge us to think about racial justice and the lack of it in our society, to think about white privilege and, “the resulting ways in which Whites benefit at the expense of “People of Color” (p.60), and perhaps to examine all the times that “[some of us] attribute something to God opening a door (or window) for us, when it was White privilege that opened that opportunity.” (p. 68). A preacher can surely get into some “good trouble” when they are brave enough to create and nurture spaces for these difficult conversations in our congregations. An inescapable fact is that there are those in our pews who view preaching on racism as too political. However fraught with the potential for conflict, preaching these unsettling truths is our holy work to do. Knowing there will also be those who have been kept at the margins who will be grateful for this holy truth telling. Hearers who may dare to imagine that “maybe this is the church/denomination where I want to stay after all.”
Part two contains essays that cover topics ranging from the personal experiences of those in close proximity to the horrors of police violence and racial injustices to the origins and history of the Black Lives Matter movement. These essays demonstrate that while many Episcopalians believe ourselves not to have been “accomplices in the devastation and degradation of Black people, our silence [makes] us complicit in their oppression.” (p. 94).
In Part three we see the “work our souls must do” (pp. 233-239) once we open ourselves to the truth that, “it is difficult being Black in a culture that values, treasures, and promotes Whiteness and White privilege.” (p. 197). A large portion of this section is dedicated to the reflections of a group of Episcopal pilgrims who traveled the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama in May of 2019, exploring themes that are critical to navigating racial identity in a 21st century society that continues to treat Black people as “less than.”
Gayle Fisher-Stewart’s collection is a valuable resource for people wrestling with acknowledgement of history, grieving, and the work of atonement, reconciliation, and reparations. For people of color, specifically Black people, this book will likely elicit feelings of vulnerability and exposure while perhaps, at the same time, appreciation and affirmation. Preaching Black Lives (Matter) calls us to faith, “faith that is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”’’ (p.73). Together in faith, “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ‘til victory is won.” (LEVAS)
The Rev. Jamie Barnett is rector of Church of the Epiphany, Oak Park, California
Canon Suzanne Edwards-Acton is Chair of the Program Group on Black Ministries for the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Preaching Black Lives (Matter). Edited by Gayle Fisher-Stewart. New York, Church Publishing: 2020. 304 pp. $22.95