[Episcopal News Service] On April 27, thousands of Episcopalians gathered on Zoom to celebrate two years of the church’s Sacred Ground curriculum, a 10-part discussion series for small groups that traces the history of systemic racism in America, from its roots to its present realities.
“Gathering on Sacred Ground” was the first churchwide Sacred Ground event, hosted by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and members of his staff. It featured testimony from people who have participated in the series, as well as prayers, music and remarks from Curry. Noting the timeliness of Sacred Ground in the context of the past year’s reckoning on racial injustice in America, Curry thanked everyone who developed and implemented the series for being part of a momentous movement.
“The ground beneath us is shifting,” Curry said. “Something important is happening among us. And the last time somebody was on sacred ground, I think his name was Moses. And when God got finished with him, he set some Hebrew slaves free. When God gets finished with us, Episcopal Church, he’s gonna set some captives free, including us.”
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation, painted a picture of how widely Sacred Ground has spread across the church since its introduction in 2019. A total of 1,712 circles (or small groups) have registered for the series across 92 dioceses, she said, meaning as many as 13,000 people have participated.
About 3,150 people joined the Zoom gathering on April 27. Among them were Episcopalians from across the church who had been invited to share reflections on their experience with the curriculum, which is built around a series of documentary films and readings that focus on race relations in America. Through prayers, poems and personal testimonies, they demonstrated the diversity of the Sacred Ground experience.
Dan Ries from Old Donation Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said Sacred Ground helped his 384-year-old parish reckon with its own history of white supremacy through action.
“As part of our journey of repentance and reparation for the sin of slavery,” Ries said, “Old Donation has established a scholarship at Norfolk State University, an HBCU [historically Black college or university], in honor of a woman named Rachel enslaved by our parish, to help one student receive an education that many of us take for granted.”
Ries added that “this is only the start of our journey,” saying that about 50 people have already participated in Sacred Ground through the parish and they hope to bring that number into the hundreds as they continue with new circles.
Alida Garcia, program director for the Diocese of West Texas’ Camp Capers, said the experience was valuable on a personal level and an institutional level.
“It enabled me to examine how I, a Latinx person, contribute to racial injustice,” Garcia said, adding that many people of Latin American descent have experienced “forced racial categorization as white and the pressure to assimilate to white culture.
“It has also shown me that to fight racism, we must create more inclusive and equitable programs for the youth and families we serve at our camps and conference centers.”
Garcia, who also serves on the board of Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers, said that ECCC has operated six circles with 45 people, and at least five of those participants are now leading Sacred Ground circles in their own communities.
Garcia encouraged more camp and conference center staff to participate and shared that ECCC is working with Katrina Browne, who developed Sacred Ground, to create youth versions of the curriculum, some of which are already being used by youth groups.
Browne shared updates on the continuing development of the Sacred Ground program. Thanks to a donation from Caroline Russell in Brunswick, Maine, the licensing for the Sacred Ground materials, which was set to expire at the end of this year, has been renewed for another three years, she said. The Episcopal Church is also negotiating with the rights-holders to allow other faith groups to host Sacred Ground on their own. Currently, Sacred Ground must be run through an Episcopal parish or other entity.
Phoebe Chatfield, associate for creation care and justice in the presiding bishop’s office, said a new webpage specifically for Sacred Ground facilitators is in the works, as well as a Facebook group for facilitators to share advice and experiences. A support circle for facilitators of color is also under consideration, she said.
Spellers directed those who have finished the program and want to continue the work in their communities to “Becoming Beloved Community Where You Are,” a resource guide that contains ideas for further truth-telling and action on racial justice, as well as the church’s “From Many, One” initiative on conversations across difference.
Curry praised Sacred Ground as a transformative experience that echoes the Way of Love practice of “turning” – away from injustice and toward love.
“Face the truths,” he said. “Learn from them. Don’t wallow in them, but learn from them. That’s what Sacred Ground does – it just helps us to face those truths, learn from them, and then turn.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.