Let Justice Roll: Teresa Hord Owens on the Legacy of 1619 and the Ministry of Reconciliation

By Teresa Hord Owens and Aaron Hollander

Rev. Teresa Hord Owens is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). A Disciple since young adulthood, Hord Owens was Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Divinity School and pastor of First Christian Church of Downers Grove, IL, prior to her election. Her ministry and intellectual interests include the theology of reconciliation, cultural intelligence, developing inclusive and multi-cultural congregations, and the mentoring of youth and young adults.

Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute and Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends. He is an interpretive theologian whose current research concerns the dynamics of interreligious conflict and coexistence, the aesthetic textures and political functions of holiness, and the contemporary crisis of sectarianism.

Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Thank you, Rev. Owens, for carving out the time for this conversation – it’s an honor to feature your perspective in this issue of Ecumenical Trends. But before we dig into the occasion for our conversation, I want our readers to understand the significance of your position and your ministry. In July 2017 you were elected as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), becoming only the second woman to lead the denomination and the first woman of color to lead a mainline Christian denomination. So this in itself is a historic achievement – but I’d like to get beyond the statistic and hear a little more from you about your path that led to this point. What brought you into ministry, and how would you describe the trajectory that led to your being appointed General Minister and President of the Disciples?

Teresa Hord Owens: Well, I would say that my story is not a traditional one – it’s rather unusual. I was a second-career minister; I spent about 23 years in the corporate world as an IT consultant and executive before I discerned a call to ministry. And because of my affiliation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the University of Chicago Divinity School was high on the list for pursuing ministerial training (because of its own historical connection to the Disciples, the presence of Disciples Divinity House, and so forth). Both as a student and later as Dean of Students at the Divinity School, I served on several boards in the denomination, was very active in the Illinois-Wisconsin region, and over the years I became more and more involved, more engaged at what we call the “general” level of the church (we don’t say “national” because our church is both in the USA and in Canada). So then, when I became a pastor for a congregation (First Christian Church in Downers Grove), I found myself even more at the heart of the church in the course of trying to get my congregation engaged at both the regional and the general levels.

So when my predecessor, Sharon Watkins, was coming to the end of her second term – we have term limits for General Minister and President – there were a number of people who started asking me, you know, “have you ever thought about either applying for this position or allowing yourself to be nominated?” And this number of people reaching out to me about the possibility of putting my name forward grew, as we got closer and closer to that search process. I honestly wasn’t that stressed about it, simply because I was already doing two things to which I felt called. I really loved being the Dean of Students at the Divinity School, and I loved being a pastor. I was already doing things that were right for me and gave me real joy – so I was enormously humbled that people thought that I would be a good fit for this role.

AH: To have this new opportunity for leadership emerge out of a situation of flourishing, rather than a situation of dissatisfaction or ambition. There’s something beautiful about that.

THO: I would still be at the Divinity School now, had I not been called up to my current position, and I’d still be in Downers Grove pastoring. What’s more, I really see a continuity through all of this. I undertook my work as Dean of Students in a pastoral mode, in that the administrative care taken with policies and procedures was important but always secondary to the work of talking with students, getting to know what their passions and concerns were – being a counselor, taking care of people’s whole selves.

AH: Not just an administrative concern for the community’s functioning, in other words, but a personal commitment to its well-being and integrity?

THO: I always used to say that with every piece of paper that crossed my desk, and every conversation I had, I was very conscious that I was dealing with people’s lives. Their whole lives were being invested in their studies, and however I dealt with a difficult situation, or even a disciplinary situation, I was intervening in those lives. And as I look back on it, I took all that along with me: I still feel that way as I deal with pastors across the USA and Canada. I am in a sense their pastor, the pastor to our regional ministers (who would be known as bishops in other denominational or ecclesial structures), and I take that seriously. What the church does is affect people’s whole lives in a comprehensive sense. And although operationally, on a day-to-day basis, my span of administrative control is actually pretty narrow, my influence in the lives of our ministers is broad as I work to build relationships across the church – which is what I’ve been prioritizing in the last two years.

AH: And longer than that, of course – it must be inspiring to see these “gifts and graces,” as you’ve put it, come to the fore in a new way in your ministry today. I really appreciate being able to start from biography, because if your ministry is about people’s whole lives it’s also about your whole life – who you’ve needed to be to walk on this path, which has led you to this point, which shapes everything that you’re doing.

What was it like coming into your position of denominational leadership at this moment – at this moment in your particular church, but also at this moment in the country and the world more generally?

THO: You know… unbeknownst to anybody, I was actually in the process when the 2016 US presidential election was happening. I knew at that point in time that I was a finalist, and that I would be interviewing in February of 2017. But my idea of what my role would be, were I elected to this position, changed drastically because of the outcome of the election and what it reflected in the American political environment, in this season of change and uncertainty.

What the actual outcome of the election and the policies of the current administration have meant is that I have spent a lot of time doing advocacy work in Washington DC. Our church is theologically very diverse, but has been consistent in being vocal about immigration issues and refugee issues. William Barber, who is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, is a Disciples minister. I’ve worked very closely with him, and during the same General Assembly when I was elected we passed a resolution encouraging every expression of our church – congregational, regional, general – to support the Poor People’s Campaign. We have a ministry based in DC that focuses on immigration and refugee issues, and I have been on the ground more broadly around that. We have seen so many natural disasters in the last couple of years, too, and our Week of Compassion ministry not only deals with disaster recovery but also with refugee settlement and redevelopment in different parts of the world. So we – and I, personally – have been very vocal about justice issues.

One of the priorities of our church is to be a pro-reconciling, anti-racism community; we’ve done some work with David Anderson Hooker, who’s an expert in global conflict mediation at the University of Notre Dame and has done great work around racism as a form of trauma. And because I am the first person of color to lead the Disciples, a predominantly white denomination, I have been pretty determined that my presence in this role not just be a matter of checking boxes. I say all the time that my election does not mean – as people said when President Obama was elected – that our church is somehow “post-racial”! The church remains about 80% white, and we have to be willing to ask ourselves tough questions that may not come naturally in such a context; we have to continue fighting the good fight in ways that are often difficult and controversial, ways that may make people uncomfortable. And if the church elects a black woman General Minister and President, I can’t in good faith become some sort of whitewashed version of a person of color, who doesn’t speak up or try to hold the church accountable to these tough questions about racial division and injustice in our society. People have responded well to that, I think, though in some cases folks have been taken aback, you know – “wow… this is different!!” But this is how I’ve chosen to live into the present moment. I’m very humbled by the historic nature of my election, but I don’t want this to become an end in itself, and get in the way of living up to the opportunity of my leadership of this church.

AH: I want to come back to this issue of “anti-racism,” and get into what that means at a deeper level, but just responding briefly to what you’ve been saying – it’s still relatively easy, for those who don’t experience racial injustice in their own lives, to think this is all part of the past, solved through the Civil Rights Movement or what have you – though I think it’s harder and harder, even for those of us sheltered from its effects, to ignore the systematic nature of racism as it is baked into our country’s institutions. I wonder whether this moment in our society, even as it is painful to witness the deepening of divisions and the normalization of cruel and sectarian attitudes, might be turned into an opportunity to face up more honestly to the history of racial exploitation and marginalization that has been so often downplayed in the media, and even in many of the churches (where we should be especially sensitive to it).

I’ve seen, on the Disciples website, that anti-racism initiatives are categorized under what’s called the “ministry of reconciliation” – and that, among the various ministries for which the General Minister and President is responsible, reconciliation is paired with compassion as the other core category. Why these two terms in particular? Would you say a bit more about what these terms mean to you as focal concepts for ministry? Is it the needs of the moment that lead to these being foregrounded, or is there something more fundamental about them in the Disciples’ life and mission?

THO: Reconciliation ministry is more than fifty years old, actually, and the fact that it remains housed within the office of the General Minister and President speaks to the importance that the church has placed on this work over the years. At the time when the Disciples were trying to discern, in the early 1960s, whether or not they should become a formal “denomination,” they were looking at the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the racial violence happening around the country, and their reconciliation ministry was started then as a fund to help support innovative and creative ideas for Christian witness in this struggle. Reconciliation ministry became a full priority of the church under one of my predecessors, Dick Hamm, who led the process of developing a “2020 Vision,” which was adopted in 2001; becoming a pro-reconciling, anti-racist church was one of the four top priorities that Hamm laid out. Over the years we’ve seen more and more in the regional ministries, where clergy credentialing and ordination happens, that around two thirds or even three quarters of those regions are requiring ongoing training, ongoing education, in anti-racism perspectives and resources. But we have to keep looking at it and asking – what does this training need to involve in the twenty-first century, how do we ensure that it isn’t just training but an active part of how we live out our ministry? How will it move from the training of clergy out into the lives of the laity? We have to be sure that not only our processes and procedures but our culture is suffused with these particular priorities.

AH: These aren’t just practical priorities for the responsible life of the church in 2019, these are concepts – reconciliation, compassion – that are deeply rooted in the theological heritage of the church, the ecclesiological orientation of the church, straight back to scripture. These are concepts that suffuse the gospel narratives.

THO: Absolutely right. But the biblical pedigree is itself a challenge; the prestige of the concept can provide cover for platitudes and shortcuts. The woman who heads that ministry, April Johnson, is working on her Doctor of Ministry degree, and her project asks the question: “does the word ‘reconciliation’ still do the work that we think it should do?” Is this really the word best suited to capturing all that is invested in this ministry?

AH: What’s at stake in this question? Why might it not be the right word?

THO: Because unless you deal substantially with truth and justice, reconciliation in Christian contexts can be a way to wash over points of conflict that still need to be named and truths that still need to be told. Elevating the desired outcome of reconciliation can provide an excuse for hurrying through or jumping over the difficult work of truth-telling and justice-establishment that needs to happen before any reconciliation is possible.

AH: We see this very serious concern raised regularly during Truth and Reconciliation processes, for instance in places like South Africa, where the risk is that the eagerness to be reconciled offers the temptation to avoid or suppress the most difficult and intractable areas of mistrust or conflict.

THO: My own MDiv thesis, actually, dealt with this particular topic, justice as a prerequisite for reconciliation. I looked at the Barmen Declaration from Germany and the Kairos Document from South Africa, as non-American examples of the church calling on society to deal with structural injustice before praising reconciliation.

It’s scary to me, and it’s one of the concerns that I raised in that thesis, that it’s so easy to conflate Christianity with nationalism, to bend the witness of the church to the strength of the nation. In America this takes the shape of a kind of civil religion, the supposition that being a good Christian means being a good, nice American – or a strong, patriotic American – and in turn, being a good American would mean being a certain kind of Christian! We should not be surprised, perhaps, that much of American Christianity has consistently tried to deflect the conversation about racism. When Martin Luther King, Jr, writes his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he calls to task his moderate white clergy friends, saying, in effect: “you’re telling me to wait, you’re telling me to slow down, but you’re the one who’s not willing to face what’s really happening in our society.”

In our church (as in many) there are networks of older white men who see things very differently than I do, and they’re probably frustrated that I’m not knocking on their door all the time, asking for their point of view, assuming that they are the source of the most valuable information and most authoritative opinions! That expectation is there, along with all kinds of expectations of how power should be held and applied in the church. We have to hold ourselves accountable for the assumptions we make: for instance, do our orientation documents for ministers presume that those ministers are not people of color, and rely implicitly on the status expectations of white privilege? What power structures and norms have we learned to trust, and so are failing to interrogate? The ministry of reconciliation is about changing worldviews, about changing people’s understanding, and living into the implications of that deepened understanding – of one another, and of the hard truths of society.

AH: What you’re saying here is so important, and it comes up in ecumenical conversations all the time – this sense of well-meaning but essentially uncomprehending resistance to spending so much time with “social” issues. “Why do we have to keep talking about this?” It’s sort of the opposite of the attitudes that Dr. King faced, isn’t it? Rather than slowing down, the urge is to speed up, to “get over it” and “move on.” But the dynamics of racial division and racial subordination are coextensive with our country’s history, and their effects aren’t gone simply because many folks aren’t able to feel them.

We’re taking this opportunity before the end of 2019, as many are, to recognize and reckon with the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the White Lion, the first ship carrying enslaved Africans for sale in the colony. 1619 marks the beginning of slaveholding society in North America, and is a moment that is frequently described as America’s “original sin.” That phrase comes up frequently, and the use of religious language to talk about slavery and the legacy of slavery bears attention, I think. What does it mean to talk about slavery as representing an “original sin” in our country?

THO: You know, Jim Wallis from Sojourners wrote a book with that title, America’s Original Sin. I think what that phrase tries to capture is that, had there not been this forced system of labor, the US would not have been able to clear the land and make all of the agricultural products that allowed its economy to flourish. The system of free labor undergirded our society and its productivity from the beginning – slavery isn’t an aberration in American history, it’s the condition of the nation’s possibility. 1619 is when slavery begins to take root in what became the USA, but the thought, the ideology, the will to use enslaved African labor began long beforehand.

One of the things that the Disciples have done is to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery – the influential 1493 papal decree that commissioned Christians to seize, occupy, and exploit lands held by non-Christians with the blessing of the church. But even this is just when the idea was formalized – in fact it’s much older, a line connecting the dots of western Christian thought and its sources. At least from Augustine onward, all on the core thinkers that one is trained to know and understand in theological education participated in the heritage that led to the Doctrine of Discovery, which became a core part of the life of western Christianity in the age of exploration. So I think the “original” piece of “original sin,” as a metaphor for the effect of slavery in the American context, is trying to get at how intrinsic it was to the American experiment, this implicit or explicit sense that somehow white was better – that non-white, native, indigenous people (or indeed dark-skinned peoples from other continents) were inferior and eligible for exploitation by faithful Christians. I think that’s the original sin whose effects endure – the institution of slavery has affected black people in a very direct and palpable way, but this ancient sensibility has so infused our society that it’s easy to miss how much broader and deeper it is even than the institutions of slaveholding society, and how it endures in the trauma that continues to be visited generation after generation. “Sin” is almost, to me, inadequate to name what’s happening here.

AH: It’s not that (most) people today are out there saying, “oh yes, non-white peoples should be enslaved and exploited by Christians.” But the logic persists – and the idea of “original sin” tries to name something inherited, something into which we are born and deposited, whose effects weigh on us, and in which we are implicated even though we were not there for the act of disobedience to God, even though we may wholeheartedly reject the ideology responsible. We find ourselves wrapped up in the legacy of this sin and can’t be free of it on our own initiative.

Do you find that thinking about it in these terms helps people, helps Christians, helps Disciples, who might not otherwise be inclined to pay attention to racial issues or the legacy of slavery? Does it help people to understand the stakes of it, the Christian responsibility for it? Or do you find that it irks people, that they find it to be an inappropriate slippage of theological language into the social realm?

THO: I think the bigger problem with the application of “sin” language to the legacy of slavery is that you can sort of block off the notion of sin. You can say that you’ve repented and turned away from it, and it will be forgiven and that’s the end of it, and you’ll be okay because you’ve turned to Jesus, and sin is forgiven and set aside. Like in Psalm 103 – “as far as the east is from the west, that’s how far God has removed our transgressions from us.” So much of our emphasis in the western Christian heritage is on what it takes to remove the sin, to be free of implication in sin, to be reconciled with God and no longer under the weight of divine judgment. And what gets lost in this, too often, is the effect of sin in the world that does not evaporate just because we repent and are forgiven. Alcoholics Anonymous gets this right, by the way – they teach people that you can be fine, you can have repented and be healed and restored, and you can overcome your addiction and put your life back together, but you’ve left this wake of trauma, this devastation in the world behind you.

AH: And that trauma endures.

THO: Yes. All the people who have suffered because of what you’ve done, they still have to live with the effects, and they have to move through to their own renewal, go through their own process of healing, their own recovery, and depending on what the relationship has been, that recovery may be more arduous still than your own.

AH: I can see how this would nuance the notion of sin, especially where slavery is concerned: white America can and should renounce the sins of racial subjugation, and that’s important, but in no way is it sufficient. Repentance and forgiveness of sin aren’t the end of the line – then there’s the work of repair, and only thereafter, reconciliation.

THO: If you never acknowledge that others need to recover from the effects of your sins, and never aid them in doing so to whatever extent possible, then celebrating your own forgiveness is selfish. That’s kind of where America is, I think. So many well-meaning white folks in this country are in the position of saying, “oh, forgive us, we’ve moved on, we’ve removed all those harmful laws, we even elected a black president!” And in the Disciples community too: “we elected a black, woman president – we’ve moved on, let’s all move on!” Yet for generations, centuries, this has been in the water, in the air, in the ways we’ve used the world and structured our society, and all of that affects how I see myself; it shapes my existence as a black person.

Here’s an example: I was at the National Convocation (which is what we call the caucus or gathering of the African-American Disciples churches) in the summer of 2018. I was in the front row, and it was one of those black church moments where people were laughing, clapping, slapping on each other, because what the speaker was saying was witty and vivacious. And a young, white man who works for one of our churches said to me, “gee, Terri, you were pretty animated in there!” And I said to him, in essence, “well, this culture that you’re bearing witness to is home for me. This is an environment where the interaction where you saw is normal and what I’m accustomed to. When you’ve seen me in other environments in the church that are predominantly white, you’ve seen me as I’ve had to respond to and adjust myself to what’s normal in those environments. So for you to say that there’s something odd or funny about me, in my own church environment, says a lot about what you think of that environment!” Okay, so viewed from a certain vantage point, based on some cultural norms, I would be seen as “less refined” in that setting – but why are these norms to be taken for granted in the church? Why the surprise, in other words? There are still moments when people are surprised that I speak from a place that’s indigenous to black culture, or that I might use some sort of vernacular in the pulpit – this too is a trace of that “original sin” of racial hierarchy, which can’t quite compute a black person as a black person in a position of leadership and authority. Inherent in this surprise (even if it is unconscious or unwilling) is the value judgment about how I should behave, about how I should talk, in this position – that is, in a white way.

AH: There’s a line from James Baldwin that’s always stuck with me, from his letter to his nephew, where he says: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” I take this to mean that white folks in this country – and in our churches – don’t have to look at the trauma that’s piled up, we don’t have to think about the strategies that black folks have developed to carve out spaces and cultures for freedom in the midst of marginalization. Not only can we get away with not knowing, we’re incentivized not to see, not to reckon, with these things.

You know, I don’t want to be ominous here, but the two texts that you spoke about earlier, that you wrote your thesis about – the Barmen Declaration and the Kairos Document – were written in very deeply divided societies. And we’re coming into a moment when our own society is increasingly divided, increasingly polarized. Do you see the Disciples as having a role in addressing that polarization? I suppose another way to ask the question would be – you’ve spoken a little bit about the (limited) racial diversity in your church, and you’ve mentioned the Disciples’ theological diversity… but what about political diversity? Do you have parishes that are fairly mixed politically, or do parishes tend to be more segregated politically, indeed self-segregated politically? Do Disciples, in your experience, want to accept the challenge of worshipping alongside people and being in community with people who don’t think like they do about political affairs (which, of course, are ethical affairs writ large), about the state of society?

THO: You see both. There are places where pastors would say, “my church is so divided politically you could roll a bowling ball down the aisle on a Sunday morning.” We have congregations that lean strongly progressively, others that lean all the other way conservatively… We have people who would look askance at any minister who might make a critique of empire, or of political power in the country, saying, “we’re Christians, we’re patriots, how can you criticize the president of the United States?” So across the Disciples, we have all manner of diversity and are committed to making space for that diversity, even as it risks becoming division.

This starts, theologically, with the notion of the open table, as a rejection of the practice (inherited from the early nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterians) where you had to be interviewed by a pastor and given a token in order to take communion. The principle of the open table was that none of us is in a position to determine who is worthy to be in a relationship with Christ; this was part of the catalyst for the Disciples movement, and it yields a really radical sense of welcome. Our identity statement says: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” How does this play out politically? Well, for instance – we have struggled with issues of LGBTQ inclusion, and the General Assembly has made a statement, but because our congregations and regions are not bound by those decisions, every congregation is free to discern its own interpretation of the truth and decide what it will and will not adhere to. We strongly believe in the ability of each person to discern theological truth for themself – and so theological diversity is an important part of who we are. We don’t have creeds, we don’t have dogmatic statements, we firmly believe that Christians, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to wrestle with biblical texts, that we all have different gifts and graces but that no superior power is going to make these determinations for anyone.

In that same sense, we have to – and want to – allow for these different political opinions as well, for instance, when we make resolutions around immigration, or when we passed a resolution inviting the church to become more educated about the issues facing transgender persons. There were LGBTQ folks at the assembly crying with excitement because their denomination had recognized the reality they are living, even as some of our churches were threatening to leave the denomination over it, churches whose congregations didn’t think that this was something they wanted to stand for, and didn’t feel that they could live with the diversity of political commitment in their church. So political polarization is a very real and threatening reality for us. The danger that we face, I think, is backing off these hard conversations in the name of unity as our polestar. We do have a long and robust history of ecumenism, and we have always prized and sought unity within our theological diversity, a unity grounded in Christ and in Christ’s prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21) – this is an important part of our heritage and our theological understanding. But at the same time, we risk being tempted by what some of us have called a “safe unity” – where, in order to safeguard unity, we avoid looking at realities where we know that there will be disagreement, we avoid bringing that disagreement into the light. Is this really unity at all? Or is it fear of diversity?

I think that the opportunity and the obligation of the Disciples is to show society how to walk together even when we disagree. And that is grounded in the theological and ecclesiological foundations of Christianity, in the community of Jesus’ disciples – who disagreed on many things and yet could live side by side, could share the Lord’s Table, could carry out the mission of God together. And so that’s where I see the Disciples playing a really important role, and one of the things that’s really high on my list of priorities is helping the church discover ways of dialogue and discussion that can serve as forces counter to those of polarization. For instance, we’re taking a new look at how we take on resolutions, how we make statements as a church, to ensure that dissenting voices are heard long before we get to a voting floor, and that the questions we are considering aren’t framed as yes-or-no, winners-and-losers matters, to be settled by simple up-or-down votes without discussions of nuance or possibilities of compromise. But also, how do we have these conversations in congregations and not just in committees? How do we as a people make these conversations part of our lives together – long before and long after we vote on anything?

AH: Because as you note, political diversity and ethical diversity do lead to a sort of centrifugal motion – people segregating themselves out into congregations of like-minded folks where they are at risk of losing sight of the diversity that makes up their church or even becoming suspicious of what they imagine it to be. What does it look like to have a congregation that not only can admit to diverse positions, but also deal with them? Or do we leave these differences simmering under the surface because we don’t want to risk talking about them?

THO: If we’re afraid to speak with one another – people in our own church congregations! – about these issues because we’re afraid that someone will disagree with us, then the unity that we claim is pretty fragile and not a real unity at all. Failing to speak with one another, we also erode the power of the church to speak truths in the world about injustice and about ethical issues, and that’s central to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve been very vocal in my ministerial career, and I have been willing to stick my neck out and speak on these things, because I think it’s essential that the church speaks and that those in the church are not afraid to speak. And if you disagree with me, I want to sit down and talk with you and come to understand your perspective, but I won’t be muted simply because there might be those in the community for which I am responsible who might disagree. We have to get to a point in our society where disagreement isn’t the end of a relationship.

AH: That is as clear an ecumenical rallying cry as I can imagine.

I want to respect your time and know that we need to come to a close, but I’d like to conclude on this ecumenical level, by asking you about the recent Christian Unity Gathering in Virginia – the Friars of the Atonement also had a representative there, Fr. Tom Orians. That gathering commemorated the 1619 landing at Point Comfort, and had an overall theme resonant with the anti-racism and reconciliation initiatives you’ve been speaking about: “confronting our past, revisiting our present, and naming God’s preferred future.” So I wanted to ask for your assessment of that event – was it a success, in your view? What came out of it that you would want to lift up as promising, or as troubling?

THO: I was one of the presenters on the morning that we went to Point Comfort; I gave a devotional to kind of open us up and prepare us to go. And I used the text from Amos 5, where it says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” – in other words: “okay church, time to step up.” We can do all these kinds of commemorations, and feel good about them, but that’s not enough; when we leave these gatherings, what are we doing? We have to “let justice roll down like waters,” as Amos puts it, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” How are we incentivizing our congregations and communities to do this? That’s my take on the Christian Unity Gathering – I think it was a success, for what it was, as long as we aren’t satisfied with that being sufficient. We had a pretty profound ceremony at Point Comfort, and I think one of the things we did was to sensitize non-black people to the fact that people who are descended from slaves were going to have a particular kind of experience in this commemoration that needed to be honored – that there would be grief, and emotion, which would need to be recognized and understood and honored for what it was, coming out of this history. There was a lot of education. You know, there’s a certain kind of well-meaning but patronizing approach that people want to take; if I’m crying, it doesn’t mean that I need you to come over and hug me and try to make it all better for me. I have to be allowed to exist in this grief – and you have to be able to witness it without trying to shut it off or sweep it away. All told, we were able to have some important conversations about what this event really meant – we didn’t just go lay some flowers at the memorial site! And that, to me, is very hopeful. We need to have those hard conversations, and I’m grateful for the National Council of Churches being willing to host them.

AH: Well, that is hopeful, and I certainly appreciate that we have to commemorate the anniversary of 1619 without bookending it. Of course, there will be new themes that come to the fore in the coming year; first up, for us, is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme of “unusual kindness” (Acts 28) shown to the stranger—which itself resonates deeply with what you’ve said about the Disciples’ commitment to justice and compassion for migrants and refugees. But we have to find ways to address these other realities without thinking of the long reckoning with racism as a box that we’ve checked and a reconciliation that we’ve done our best to achieve, so now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

THO: You know, I’ve lived through seasons when it has seemed to people that any victory won means it’s “time to move on.” I was part of the college cohort that people called “affirmative action babies,” and there was this sense, you know – “you’re at Harvard, isn’t that good enough?” And, “you didn’t come here to be black,” and disparaging attitudes like this. But I don’t think I’ve ever lived through a time when things have been so divisive as they are now. I remember gatherings of the NAACP at my grandfather’s church in Terre Haute, as they were working to desegregate facilities. But what’s happening now – the Charleston massacre, and the Charlottesville rallies, and all these things – I don’t have memories like this before recently. And being able to talk about this at an ecumenical level, freely and frankly, is crucial to making any kind of headway in as bitter and divided a moment as this.

AH: Because if this division, this polarization, is a crisis both within and between churches, it has to be addressed through conversation and solidarity between churches as well. The legacy of 1619 and how it continues to scar the body politic aren’t just of ecumenical importance, they’re an indication of the need for robust ecumenical methodology – for making sense of the vitriol stirred up between neighbors, whose disagreements over what’s good for society and even over what’s real in society are quickly becoming intractable divisions.

Rev. Owens, it’s so good to have your perspective and your wisdom on this, and I hope that we can stay in touch and continue this conversation – that this marks a beginning, not an end, with 2019 coming to a close and, we pray, with better days ahead.

This interview originally appeared in the Decemeber 2019 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.