ROXOBEL, NC - When the Rev. Joseph "Sonny" Browne III began a historic preservation project at his Roxobel, North Carolina, ancestral "homeplace" last year he faced a stark reality — that its roots, and his, included slavery.
"My family has lived in the same house since 1830. It was built by my three-greats-grandfather and they ran a plantation there. I always envisioned my family living there but it had this whole other side. What it must have been like, I had never imagined before," said Browne, 33, during a Feb. 1 telephone interview from Chocowinity, where he is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Diocese of East Carolina.
State historic preservation officials clarified that the two-story white wood home, along with various other buildings and several hundred surrounding acres, was known as the Pineview Plantation. From 1830 to 1865 a community of about 50, including Browne's ancestors and dozens of slaves, resided there, Browne said.
Now he hopes to locate descendants of those slaves, and along with his own family members, to hold a service of repentance and reconciliation after the $300,000 restoration work is completed later this year.
"Since the church called on its members to think about and consider the role of slavery in our history and the church's history and the consequences it has had even in today's society, I got to thinking I want to do something here," Browne said.
"I like the idea of it being a place of healing; where we can gather and know it's a place of reconciliation."
The Episcopal Church, through General Convention 2009 Resolution A143, extended to 2012 an earlier resolution urging dioceses to examine and publicly acknowledge and repent their complicity in the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent racism.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori officiated at a Day of Repentance held Oct. 4, 2008, attended by hundreds at Washington National Cathedral. She apologized during the historic gathering for the church's involvement in slavery and the resultant institutional racism.
Yet it is unclear how many dioceses have actually complied with the resolution, according to the Rev. John Kitagawa, chair of the church's anti-racism committee, in a Feb. 3 e-mail. The committee had announced Jan. 24 that the Episcopal Church's anti-racism manual, "Seeing the Face of God in Each Other," is available free on the church's website for use by dioceses.
In its report to the 76th General Convention in Anaheim in 2009 the committee asked for an extension to complete Resolution A123. At that time, the committee noted that "eight dioceses (were) actively engaged in the process of discovering how they 'were complicit in or profited from the institution of transatlantic slavery'" and that more than 25 dioceses were planning services of repentance.
"The church we love has, at times … failed to be a constant and faithful witness against oppression and (has) been influenced by the fear and intolerance of the world," according to the report.
Nell Braxton Gibson, chair of the Reparations Committee for the Diocese of New York and national coordinator for the Episcopal Urban Caucus, said in a telephone interview that she'd be surprised if many of the church's 109 dioceses have attempted such self-examination because "it's tough work."
"We have yet to deal with race in America and in the Episcopal Church. The church didn't take a stand during the Civil War and that legacy still lives," said Braxton. The reparations committee has asked each diocesan congregation to examine its history "in terms of the transatlantic slave trade as well as what ensued after the abolition of slavery, which is segregation and discrimination in its churches," she added.
"Some churches built separate congregations down the street so they would not have to bring newly freed Africans into their church" while others, like St. Mark's in-the-Bowery where she is a member, held separate services, she said. The congregation is hosting a three-week series of workshops on reparations during February and eventually will craft a reconciliation service, Gibson said.
She hopes that every diocese and congregation will seriously consider self-examination, she added. "Until we have an open and honest discussion about race in this country and (about) race within our church, we're not ever going to heal from what we have been through as people in this country and as people in this church," she said.
Anita George, 72, a cradle Episcopalian who grew up in the Diocese of Mississippi, said she sees both tremendous progress and tremendous challenge in the reconciliation ministry that has been her calling since she was 17.
George, who serves on national and diocesan anti-racism committees, recalled a recent conversation with a colleague "who would like for us to move forward a lot faster, a lot more aggressively. But we have people tell us that with the training we do, 'Seeing the Face of God in Each Other,' there are people who feel threatened and find it confrontational, believe it or not.
"We wrestle in that tension. How do we get people to stay engaged in the work without running them off? It's just not easy. It depends on how aware people are to begin with."
There is also sensitivity to the stereotype that slavery was a purely Southern institution, she said. And there is difficulty reconciling "the people we love and hold dear and revere with some of the documents that reveal the very deliberate things they did to other human beings.
"Consequently, if they don't have to do it, they avoid looking at it," said George, a retired educator, during a Feb. 7 telephone interview from her Starkville, Mississippi, home.
When engaging anti-racism training sessions "one of the comments I hear from people is, why do we have to bring this all up again—this was taken care of before," George said. "Or, they say, 'I didn't hold any slaves, I was not a part of this, why are you blaming me for something someone else did, can't we just move forward?"
Bishop Duncan Gray III of Mississippi addressed "the temptation … to call the past the past and move on," in a Sept. 15, 2010 letter to diocesan clergy, which previewed a series of five-year diocesan initiatives to promote racial reconciliation.
"The past, in both our individual and our corporate lives, left unexamined or ignored, will control us in very unhelpful ways," he wrote. "My redemption and my freedom require the cross of accountability."
Gray, 61, cited the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War and 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, which climaxed intensive voter registration drives begun in 1961. Plans are also underway to commemorate other events in the state's "tortured past" including the 1962 desegregation of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith: the 1963 assassination of activist Medgar Evers and the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner a year later, Gray said.
That past has forced the diocese "to confront directly the evils of racism while many others have hid behind a veil of denial. I am enormously proud of our efforts," according to Gray's letter.
At the 184th annual diocesan council Jan. 28-30 in Jackson, Gray also announced plans for a May 21 diocesan service of repentance, healing and reconciliation.
"Mississippi does not have the luxury of hiding behind the denial of racism," said Gray, whose father Duncan Gray Jr. was the seventh bishop of Mississippi and a well-known civil rights activist.
"We know it's part of who we are and where we've been. A good number of our congregations deal with it pretty straightforwardly," but there is still much to do, he said.
"The soul of our church is at stake," Gray added. "I'm one of these folks who believes racism is sin. But we think we can somehow erase it. I don't think it can be erased. It's an issue of the human heart and it has to be redeemed ultimately by God," he said.
"But I also know," he said, in his Sept. 15 letter to clergy, "that the stain of racism still infects my own heart and soul. I am not proud of certain thoughts and feelings that I find within me in unexpected moments. The acknowledgement and confession of those things done and left undone in both my present life and in my (our) past is critical to my healing."
Healing, for George, includes making sure that young people today learn "our history, so when we talk about internalized racism, when we talk about white privilege and Jim Crowism, whose remnants still pervade our lives, they understand it."
Too often, she said: "they see it as something of the former generation's experience; they don't see the urgency and importance of this ministry… how it connects to social issues in our current lives. Education, crime, incarceration of so many people of color, it's important that they begin to understand that there is a connection between institutionalized racism and these ills of society."
Sonny Browne imagines he will one day live in his family's homeplace, just as generations before him did. He wrestles within the tension of a deepening perspective, a broadened self-awareness.
"I realize that while I didn't own slaves personally, the very fact they were enslaved gave my family a huge economic benefit," he said. "I realize because I grew up benefitting indirectly in some way from having that heritage, others were hurt."
He admits to more questions than answers. "Why are our congregations segregated? We say all are welcome. I'm in a diocese where the population is majority African American, although there are very few African American Episcopalians here.
"People would be glad to greet them if they came to my church. Why isn't it happening? What are we missing here in terms of reconciliation? Why is there still a barrier present?"
A reconciliation service is "a springboard into more dialogue." He believes he may know of a few descendants of former Pineview slaves, local residents also named Brown.
Although connecting with them might initially feel awkward "I really care about this, and about respecting their dignity and finding out about their past," he said. "One of the questions I want to ask is, did you ever talk to your parents or grandparents about your ancestry and what community you came from?"