The End of Racism matters to the Church
by Bishop Wayne Smith
250 years ago, in 1764, a group of French Creole settlers came to a place some 25 miles south of the confluence of the two great American rivers, the Missouri and Mississippi. The iconic arch on the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial marks the site of the early trading village. Pierre Laclede, his common-law wife Marie Therese Chouteau, and stepson Auguste Chouteau led this endeavor. Thus began St. Louis. By the time of Auguste Chouteau’s death in 1829, the family had accumulated thirty-six slaves, all of African descent. So began the long disparity in power and privilege enjoyed by European-Americans and African-Americans in St. Louis. The disparity dates from the time of the region’s French beginnings.
From the annals of a defining event in the region, we also learn that both leaders of the Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were slave owners. This expedition, leaving St. Louis in 1804 to find the headwaters of the Missouri and a path to the Pacific Ocean, included Clark’s slave named York, a bondservant since childhood. Later, William Clark was territorial governor when Missouri became a state—a slave state—in 1821, an event growing out of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That hard-fought legislation defined how slavery might spread, or not, in the huge territories of the West. It’s interesting to note that Clark, though not an Episcopalian, was a charter signatory for the founding of Christ Church, now our Cathedral, in 1819. Slavery continued to define the places for blacks and whites in Missouri history, a fact deeply rooted in the region’s DNA.
In 1846 the slave Dred Scott filed suit for his freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court, on his own behalf and that of his wife, Harriet. The Scotts had lived for some years in Wisconsin Territory, free soil according to the Missouri Compromise. Scott argued that he was a free man, and his wife a free woman, because they had lived in free territory. It took eleven years for the litigation to run its course, and in 1857, the Supreme Court decided, 7-2 against Scott, that not only was he not free, but because he was of African descent he could never be a citizen. Thus the Court overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It is poignant to know that the body of Dred Scott lies buried in Calvary Cemetery, on West Florissant Avenue in St. Louis City, only three miles from the burned-out Quick Trip in Ferguson, also on West Florissant.
The conclusion of the Civil War promised to change the structures of slavery and racism. The constitutional end to slavery, the granting of voting rights to ex-slaves, and the clarification that they were in fact citizens, brought a season of hope. The end of slavery, however, gave way to other means to keep people of African descent down. Various strategies of voter suppression; limited or no access to public education; extreme enforcement of segregation; and the numerous iterations of separate-but-equal practices—all these took dignity and power away from black people.
The race riots in St. Louis in the 1960s and -70s, relatively small in number and intensity, left our region with a false sense of security. People, especially in the dominant culture, felt safe in assuming that race was not a problem here.
The shooting death of Michael Brown on August 9, and the subsequent outrage from the community of Ferguson, gives lie to this assumption. It lays bare the racial wound that has been present for the entire history of St. Louis, and it does no good to ignore it. In fact, the rage from the community may mean that no one can ignore the wound any longer.
The end of racism matters to the Church because of the issue of justice, but it also matters because God’s intent, at the end of the age, is to build a new world from “every family, language, people, and nation.” (Rev. 5:9) The Church is to be a servant of that vision, despite our falling short of it, and any Church that does not inhabit the wild diversity of peoples that Revelation describes is incomplete.
We who are the Church do well to learn from the rage present in Ferguson and surrounding communities. That rage did not come from nowhere, and it has something important to tell us. We can also commit ourselves to honest and difficult conversation, in the presence of the racial wound in our community, for the community’s sake. And for the sake of Christ Jesus, himself wounded and risen for the whole creation.
Whenever we take even small steps in overcoming racism, we move toward a fuller inhabitation of God’s intent for us, coming at the end of the age. A foretaste of that beautiful future is available and necessary, here and now.
The Rt. Rev. G. Wayne Smith is the tenth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. Published in the November issue of Seek, the quarterly from the diocese. You can read the whole issue online at: diocesemo.org/Nov2014Seek. Also, a collection of articles and media posts about Episcopal response to the ongoing situation in Ferguson and St. Louis here.