IN A SERMON that lasted less than 11 minutes, Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley suggested something no one had said from the pulpit in the long history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.

“What if,” asked Adams-Riley in his faint South Carolina drawl, “we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols here in our worship space?”

He listed examples: “The Davis window there, that identifies Jefferson Davis with St. Paul himself, in his imprisonment. Or the Lee windows there, that identifies Robert E. Lee with Moses,” he said, pointing around the sanctuary. “And there are the plaques on the walls, and two kneelers up by the old high altar. They [the kneelers] each have a little Confederate flag on them.”

The sermon was remarkable in its restraint. It wasn’t a jeremiad against the church that had, up until the 1960s, emblazoned its official stationery with “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Nor did it mention the words that would ripple through the congregation in the months that followed, words like “racism,” “slavery,” and “reconcile.”

In fact, there weren’t many words at all. Adams-Riley’s preaching style is spare and impressionistic; his tone, much like his personality, gentle and encouraging. He quoted the Wisdom of Solomon: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.”

Robert E. Lee Worshipped Here

The stained glass windows in this Virginia church compared Robert E. Lee to Moses. Here's what happened when the congregation faced their history — Read the full story in Sojourners magazine:

Posted by Sojourners on Monday, March 20, 2017

“Generating. Building up. Giving life,” repeated Adams-Riley. “Strengthening. Healing. Bringing wholeness. That is what God does. And we, being made in God’s image, find our greatest fulfillment in doing likewise.”

‘We don’t expect outsiders to understand’

Adams-Riley is rector of St. Paul’s—a historic church consecrated in 1845—in downtown Richmond, capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. He delivered his sermon in late June 2015, during a span of weeks when the U.S. collectively re-evaluated the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate flag: Was it, as its supporters insisted, a historical symbol of Southern heritage, or was the “Southern cross” intrinsically linked to ongoing black oppression and the preservation of white supremacy?

It wasn’t a new conversation, obviously. Flag proponents often echoed the reply from then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s office to a 2011 NAACP request to take the flag down from the state’s capitol: “We don’t expect people from outside of the state to understand,” said Haley’s press secretary, “but revisiting that issue is not part of the governor’s agenda.”

But after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, the agenda changed. Photos emerged of Roof posing with a Glock handgun and a Confederate flag, and what had been obvious to many could no longer be ignored by everyone else: The Confederate flag had to come down. Public institutions, governmental organizations, and religious groups quickly ordered the flag’s removal. “We consider the continued display of the Confederate Battle Flag to be at odds with a faithful witness to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ,” said a resolution passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

An inbox of angry emails

By November 2015, St. Paul’s had inventoried all the Confederate references and symbols in its building: Twenty-three items, including images of the Confederate flag, memorial plaques (“in everlasting memory of those members of this congregation who served loyally the Confederate States of America,” read one plaque installed in 1961), and various objects given in remembrance of Confederate leaders, soldiers, or their descendants.

St. Paul’s had also hosted two congregation-wide listening sessions, professionally facilitated by an organization specializing in group decision-making. Some congregants shared that they’d never noticed the Confederate imagery before; others couldn’t believe the church had kept it for so long.

And just before Thanksgiving that year, the lay leaders of the church vestry announced their decision: St. Paul’s would remove items from the church that contained images of the Confederate flag, including bookplates in the church’s library, two needlepoint kneelers, and six plaques.

The decision earned Adams-Riley an inbox full of angry emails, most sent by people who had no relationship to the church. One online petition, started in Tampa, Fla., accused St. Paul’s of “purging and erasing history” and urged them “to restore the images” to teach the church’s “special and privileged history.”

But the vestry saw removing the images of Confederate flags as only a starting point. While they would not remove all references to the Confederacy in their worship space, St. Paul’s would begin a multiyear investigation into the church’s history, from the slaves who had likely built the sanctuary and the sermons that had sacralized the Southern cause, up through the priests who denounced the KKK from the pulpit, the church’s involvement in the civil rights movement, and its renewed emphasis on outreach in the ’90s. And then, using that research, the church would develop new ways to tell the story of St. Paul’s—the good and the bad—both in their worship space and in their liturgy. They named the project the “History and Reconciliation Initiative.”

A 200-year-old paper trail

After Adams-Riley’s sermon, Beth O’Leary started noticing things in St. Paul’s she’d never noticed in her 14 years as a member, especially the memorial plaques lining the church’s walls. Before, she’d just seen them as “decorative squares,” but as she started reading the plaques, O’Leary, who recently retired as associate curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, found herself asking the kinds of questions she’d asked throughout her career as an art historian: Who were the people who used to worship in these pews? And why had they wanted these plaques installed?

O’Leary eventually helped organize a team of about 20 St. Paul’s congregants who are winding their way through two centuries of the church’s formidable paper trail: old vestry minutes, financial records, government documents, handwritten diaries, and newspapers dating back to the early 1800s. The team also includes historian Chris Graham, a new member of St. Paul’s whose research background is in “the antebellum religion of ordinary white people.” (“Absolutely providential,” says O’Leary of Graham’s arrival). But unlike O’Leary and Graham, most of the volunteer researchers had never worked with historical archives.

When Anne Hayes, a retired attorney, volunteered to do research, pretty much all she knew about the church’s history was that small plaques marked where Robert E. Lee had worshipped and where Jefferson Davis had been sitting in 1865 when he received news about the imminent fall of Richmond. But as she’s entered the names of former St. Paul’s members into digitized newspaper archives and sifted through the results, Hayes, who is white, has grappled with history in a new way. “It’s just hard to come face to face with the pervasive attitude that blacks were inferior and not even considered human,” she explains. “They didn’t have any rights and weren’t even seen as capable of managing their own spirituality.”

Hayes was particularly struck by an 1854 article she found in a Richmond newspaper. The article details the arrest of four “free people of color” and three enslaved people who were, “shouting, singing, and stamping” and “holding a sort of religious meeting.” Hayes later emails me a PDF of the article. “The officers described the conduct of the parties as being extremely ludicrous,” it reads. “The Mayor informed the parties that under the law they had no right to hold meetings, unless in the presence of a white minister.”

For Hayes, this is an example of how deeply white Christians believed in their racial superiority. “The white people want the black people to be involved with religion, but on their own terms,” she says.

White Jesuses everywhere

Michelle Walker all but laughs at the question. “I mean, have you seen the church?” she counters when asked if she’d noticed the Confederate imagery in St. Paul’s before it became a congregation-wide conversation. “It’s hard to miss.”

On her first Sunday at St. Paul’s, Walker sat down, looked across the aisle, and saw the gold plaque marking where Jefferson Davis once sat. She was startled. “That Jefferson Davis?!” said Walker.

But she was impressed with the warmth of the people and the congregation’s diversity—something hard to find in Richmond. When she came back the following week, Rev. Adams-Riley greeted her by name. She was hooked.

Walker, who is black and serves on the HRI steering committee, doesn’t hesitate to share that she’s “put off” by the imagery in the church that honors the Confederacy. But that doesn’t bother her nearly as much as the church’s “many, many, many white Jesuses—white Jesus everywhere.” She lowers her voice to an emphatic whisper: “Everywhere.”

When asked whether she’d been able to share her perspective on the imagery before 2015, she pauses. “Well, yes and no,” she says. She tells about one of her best friends in the church, a woman whose family has attended St. Paul’s for generations, many of whom are memorialized on the wall. “What I tried to do is see all that stuff through her eyes,” says Walker. “Because to her, they’re not expressions of a terrible time in America’s history, they’re her family.”

Walker loves St. Paul’s. “Literally the most supportive group of people,” she says of a group of women from the church who meet regularly for drinks and conversation. But up until 2015, she hadn’t seen the church reckon with its past. “They just decided not to think about it,” said Walker. “Like, ‘We’re not like that anymore, we’re moving on.’”

At the same time, Walker knows that the church has worked very hard to live into a different future. “These are people who are deeply involved in our community,” she says of her fellow congregants. Wander down the main hallway of St. Paul’s parish house and you’ll see photos of congregants mentoring local elementary school students, updates about the church’s partnership with a village in Tanzania, and sign-up sheets to help Richmond’s homeless population by serving lunch or passing out quarters for laundry. Nevertheless, Walker has wondered if the church’s focus on outreach partially helped it avoid attention to its own history.

Some at St. Paul’s still aren’t convinced that more attention to history is the right approach. When Mary Hunter Ayer heard Rev. Adams-Riley suggest the church reconsider its Confederate imagery, she worried the church would try to remove everything Civil War-related. “Some people were saying that we need to make these major apologies and retributions for what has happened,” says Ayer, who’s been a member of St. Paul’s for 28 years and attended both of the church listening meetings. “But I felt like I needed to go there and protect the history of St. Paul’s.”

A lifelong Richmonder and self-described “American first, Virginian second,” Ayer is clear: She doesn’t support white supremacy, and she’s glad St. Paul’s removed its images of the Confederate flag. But when it comes St. Paul’s Confederate history—or even her ancestors who owned slaves—Ayer doesn’t see the need to apologize for things she didn’t do. “I don’t feel any shame at all,” says Ayer. “I’m proud that I go to a church that has such a rich history.”

It was her love for history that led Ayer to join O’Leary, Hayes, and Graham as a volunteer researcher. But for Ayer, there isn’t a connection between historical research and reconciliation. “I think some people in the church are just trying to reconcile with their families’ past, but I think reconciliation means you need to go forward.”

Dick Ritsch feels similarly. Since he joined the church in 1974, Ritsch has seen it become increasingly committed to outreach efforts, including a 19-year partnership with Woodville Elementary, a local school in a low-income, mostly black community. Ritsch sees continued community involvement, not archival research, as the key to St. Paul’s future. “I think that everybody knows slavery was there and it was bad,” says Ritsch. “But I think that what we should try to do is overcome—try to mend things and to continue to reconcile with each other. And not dwell on history.”

The courage to listen

But if the dominant attitude at St. Paul’s before 2015 could be characterized as “let’s not think about it,” that’s not where most of the church is today. “We need to see, we need to hear—by reading diaries and letters and vestry minutes—what was going on in our past,” says Linda Armstrong, a St. Paul’s vestry member and chair of HRI. “There are things to celebrate and there are things to ask forgiveness for. But everybody needs to hear that story, and it needs to be told and told and told and told—because it hasn’t been.”

“I think we also need to listen to people who are alive now and see where it is that they’ve been wronged,” she adds. “We need to recognize there is not only racism in our history, but there’s still institutional racism today.”

Southern historian Ed Ayers agrees. He likens trying to move on without knowing the past to trying to have redemption without acknowledging sin. “How can you move forward without knowing where you’ve been and taking some responsibility for it, especially if you were the church of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee?” he asks.

As a local Richmonder, Ayers is frequently asked to talk with schools, universities, and churches that are wrestling with racism in their institution’s history. He helped the research team at St. Paul’s develop research goals and was impressed with congregants’ willingness to tackle an immense, emotionally charged process.

“You know, I think people like history to stay in its place and to speak when spoken to, and we only call on it when we want to celebrate something,” says Ayer. “But St. Paul’s had the courage to listen to what history had to say when it was telling them things they didn’t want to hear.”

Light and liberation

Sun streams through St. Paul’s Robert E. Lee memorial window on a sunny January morning. The panel depicts Moses turning his chiseled jaw away from Egypt, toward his people, the Israelites. A pane below Moses’ feet quotes Hebrews 11: “By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s Daughter choosing rather to suffer affliction with the Children of God for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible.”

When Michelle Walker guides visitors on a tour of the sanctuary, she always stops here. She notes that the window was given in Lee’s honor because he left his position with the U.S. Army to join his fellow Virginians and lead the Confederate army.

Soft light infuses the sanctuary with what its funders surely intended as the saintly glow of a Confederate general. But it’s hard to see the window as anything other than a gross distortion of both a biblical figure and sacred art.

However, Walker has a different interpretation. When she stands in front of the Lee window, she tells visitors that the church is seeking to come to grips with its past. She points out that Moses was an odd choice for what the window was originally trying to communicate. “Moses is seen leaving Pharaoh’s house to go and free the slaves,” she tells visitors. “I find that ironic, because that is not what Robert E. Lee was going to do; he was going to make sure that those slaves never got free.” Walker then talks about the importance of Moses in the theology of African Americans, a powerful symbol of God’s liberative power for those who suffered from generations of race-based oppression.

“Aren’t we lucky they chose Moses?” she tells me. “We can keep that window.”

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is associate editor at Sojourners.

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