[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] Nell Braxton Gibson, coordinator of the Episcopal Urban Caucus, received the President of the House of Deputies Medallion for Exemplary Service from Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, on March 1 at the caucus’ annual assembly in Atlanta, Georgia.
Anderson established the award last year to honor individuals and communities who have exhibited an exceptional commitment to the work of reconciling a broken world. Gibson, of the Diocese of New York, is its fourth recipient.
“The prophet Micah tells us that it isn’t enough to love justice, God wants us to do justice, and Nell Gibson is one of the greatest doers of justice our generation of Episcopalians has ever seen,” Anderson told a crowd gathered for the assembly’s dinner prior to a celebratory Eucharist held at St. Paul’s, Atlanta.
As a child Gibson was befriended by the legendary African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and later worked in the civil right movement with Medgar Evers. While a student at Spellman College, she spent time in jail after protesting segregated hearings at the Georgia State Capitol. After graduation she became involved in the struggles of newly independent African nations, and spent a summer working in what is now Tanzania.
“Nell’s desire to see justice done was never confined to a single issue, or a single country, ” Anderson said in an interview. “She is best known for her work against racism in all of its forms, but she has also worked on behalf of women’s rights and was an early advocate for people living with AIDS.”
In the mid-1980s, while serving on the staff of Bishop Paul Moore of New York, Gibson led a campaign that urged divestiture from apartheid era South Africa. Arrested at a demonstration outside the South African consulate in New York City, she was banned from that country for two years. But in 1987, she made the first of many trips to the region, and caught the eye of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who appointed her to a steering committee of international religious leaders who helped design a five-year plan to dismantle apartheid.
“Nell’s commitment to racial justice and reconciliation has outlived apartheid,” Anderson said, “and she has brought the lessons of that struggle home.”
More recently, Gibson visited South Africa again to talk with Archbishop Tutu and others involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about their work, and whether it might inform the Episcopal Church’s efforts to acknowledge its complicity in the slave trade and to make reparations.
In addition to her work in Africa, Gibson served from 1995 to 2000 as the Associate General Secretary for Inclusiveness and Justice at the National Council of Churches, and was the first woman to serve on the Board of Trustees at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University — which awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree for her work in bringing more women and people of color onto the Board.
“At baptism, every Episcopalian promises to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,’ ” Anderson said. “Nell and the other recipients of the Medallion for Exemplary Service have shown us how we can be faithful to that vow.”
The previous recipients of the Medallion for Exemplary Service are Russ Randle of the Diocese of Virginia for his work with the Episcopal Church of Sudan; Lueta Bailey, one of the first women seated in the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies; and Sister Margaret Hawk, who received the award posthumously for her work with the Church Army and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. All award recipients have been or are currently members of the House of Deputies.