On Friday morning at the spacious Andrews B. Hale Auditorium, the two hosts for the Call and Response Conference conducted a roll call. “Where are all my Baptists in the house?” Scattered applause and cheers from the attendees in the audience. “Where are my Wesleyans?” Once again people applauded at the mention of their tribe. “Where are the Anglicans?” After the enthusiastic applause and whoops died down, one host turned to the other and commented, “Who knew the Anglicans would be louder than the Baptists.” I have to confess I had a strong feeling of pride at his observation.
The Call and Response conference with its 350 attendees and speakers sought to “celebrate and cultivate what God was doing through Black Christians and the Black Church.” Every one of its plenary speakers was African-American. The vast majority of participants in the conference were African-American. All of which should come as no surprise. This is what you would expect from a conference so aimed and directed.
This conference was in part a chance for the various denominations, various forms of black theology and the black church to gather to talk shop. Bishop Claude Alexander preaching on the opening night from Isaiah 51:1-2 “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were to dug,” created a rhetorical tour de force. He masterfully related the black Church’s experience in America, to God’s promise to Abraham, to the ultimate fulfillment of that Abrahamic promise in Jesus Christ.
Personally, Bp. Alexander’s sermon was one of the two significant highlights of the conference. As Bp. Alexander noted one of the realities of Isaiah’s, Abraham’s and the Black Church’s promise is it is always followed by a period of waiting. In the midst of my own waiting, holding fast to the personal promises I believe God has given me this was a much-welcomed reminder.
The very next morning, artist, scholar, and speaker Sho Baraka reminded his audience of 5 essential truths the black church must hold onto. First, the gospel must begin with Genesis not with slaves landing on the shores of North America. Second, the Black Church needs to cultivate a theology of work. The Black Church should look to the example of the exiles where work and cultivation were encouraged even in an environment fraught with injustice (Jeremiah 29). Third, the Black Church needs to avoid using black pain for selfish or twisted aims. Forth, the Black Church must continue to hope in Christ’s justice. As the exiles were released from captivity, the barriers and hindrances to freedom for African-Americans will at some point be no more. Finally, the black church’s goal is not to win but to love. This last point is one the entire Church in North American would do well to remember.
Throughout the conference, I had the sense that I was watching a close-knit family chew on familiar filial concerns. There were moments where I sat uncomfortably in my seat recognizing that what was being said exposed my guilt as a white man, either of the sin of omission or of benefiting from injustice. While other times I could sense there was an exchange of meaning between speaker and audience that was being lost on me. I was not family but honored guest.
The point of being at the conference wasn’t to be let into the family’s inner circle. Rather, it was important to show up at the front porch and be ushered into the backyard and listen to everyone else tell the family lore. How many times do we as well-meaning white individuals invite African-American into all white space? How many of us are willing to enter into all African-American spaces? I would place a king’s ransom most of who have invited never have accepted a similar invitation.
Still, the beautiful mosaic that is the Black Church was on full display. I have attended conferences where the speakers dry presentations albeit informative left you exhausted by the flow of information that seemed to rush your way. All but one conference speaker seemed to weave passionate delivery with a substantial meditation on God’s word. Neither in the grand scheme of things did I ever once feel unwelcomed. If this was a family gather, I was welcomed graciously. I would have only been surprised if it had been otherwise.
The second highlight of the conference for me was the Friday night gathering of those very same noisy Anglicans. In total we had 22 people present, amongst them were 1 bishop, 1 Hispanic priest, 2 African-American priests, and numerous other ethnic minorities. There were Anglicans present from California, Florida, and places in between. The room seemed close to a 50/50 split between whites and people of color. This mix of people and the number of attendees was in of itself encouraging. Esau McCaulley, founder of AMEN and one of the conference organizers, presented the work and aim of AMEN to those who were gathered. Esau then reminded those gathered of the pressing need for the ACNA to wrestle with the sinful legacy of racialization in America. Finally, he encouraged those gathered to participate and to be encouraged by what our presence might foreshadow for greater racial diversity in the future.
The conference in my mind was a resounding success. Our participation is just one more step in a long journey for a church that more fully represents the entire spectrum of people in the congregations of the Anglican Church in North America. As one of the speakers, Rev. Santee Beatty stated: “For us, reconciliation is not just a leadership issue or even a diversity issue. It is an issue of discipleship.”