“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
These were the words chanted by the almost 600-member congregation attending the “Day of Repentance” at The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in West Philadelphia.
The “Day of Repentance,” held on Saturday, Oct. 4, was a service organized by the Episcopal Church to apologize for their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, as well as segregation and racism over the years.
At the Episcopal Church’s 2006 general convention, a resolution was passed that called for a repentance service. St. Thomas was chosen as the location because it is the nation’s oldest black Episcopal Church, founded by a former slave in 1792.
“We gather to repent, to apologize for our complicity in the injury done by the institution of slavery and its aftermath and to amend our lives, to commit ourselves to opposing the sin of racism in personal and public life and to create communities of liberation and justice,” the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts-Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said to the crowd of people from all over the country.
Dr. Nancy Watterson, assistant professor of social justice and American studies, attended the event with two students from the Voices of Justice Living and Learning Community. “The first step in social justice is apologizing and acknowledging what happened,” Watterson said.
The bishop and congregation apologized in numerous ways throughout the service, and there were carefully chosen hymns and readings that dealt with the theme of repentance. “I think it was good for the Episcopal Church,” Lauren Sliva, freshman communication major, said. “They are recognizing their mistake and acknowledging that it’s there and that they were wrong.”
Those who attended the service learned how many of the founding fathers of our nation were Episcopals who either had slaves or watched and did nothing to stop it, how African Americans were often not allowed to enter churches to worship and how the Continental Congress only counted slaves as three-fifths of a person.
The Episcopal Church in no way believes that they are the only church at fault, but came to the conclusion themselves that this service was the right thing to do because slavery was a sin.
“We hope to be a model for other churches and hope that all denominations will apologize not only for slavery, but for oppression they have witnessed and not worked to stop,” the Rev. Jayne Oasin, program officer for anti-racism and gender equality for the Episcopal Church, said in a phone interview.
Oasin said that there are all kinds of subtle ways that prejudice, racism and oppression still exist-whether it is in unequal employment, educational opportunities or segregated neighborhoods in cities. Most wealthy churches have white figure heads and blacks are sent to poorer areas.
“This was an evocation of the past but I think for this denomination of Christians it’s an acknowledgement that the sin of race prejudice still exists, and that recognition is what makes this relevant today,” Dr. Leonard Primiano, associate professor of religious studies, said about the “Day of Repentance.”
What started as a solemn service ended with clapping and singing “Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me!” Oasin said that racism will not go away today, but that hopefully it will become less and less each day. She wishes to pass along knowledge and enthusiasm to young adults so that social justice work and messages of equality be continued.
As Schori noted in her homily, a vision of healing and liberation is possible if everyone joins in and does not look the other way.
“We hope the program was just a beginning,” Oasin said. “We hope it gave energy to people and let them know that they were not alone and that people are working for justice all over the world. To say the work is over now would be a tragedy.”