Episcopal racial reconciliation event draws large crowd in Lexington, Virginia

Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center and a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Virginia Tech, speaks Sept. 13 about race and civil discourse to community members in Lexington, Virginia. Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas, whose diocese coordinated the event, can be seen standing at the back of the audience. Photo: Connor B. Gwin

[Diocese of Southwestern Virginia — Lexington, Virginia] More than 150 community members crowded a middle school cafeteria in Lexington, Virginia, Sept. 13 to hear a lecture on race and civil discourse presented by Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech and professor of sociology and Africana studies there.

The event was coordinated by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and co-sponsored by 10 community groups and ecumenical faith partners.

Reed’s lecture covered his work studying racial bias by police in Montgomery County, Virginia, as well as his proposed framework for discussing race.

“There is a great need to have productive conversations about race and … quite often these dialogues are uncomfortable,” Reed said. In fact, he argued, merely talking about racism is “supremely unproductive.”

Instead, Reed called for a focus on the institutionalized practice of racism. Using such an approach means “we can discuss these issues quite freely and across racial lines,” he said.

The talk was the first of a three-part series hosted by the diocese entitled “Pursuing the Beloved Community: A Continuing Conversation on Race.”

Plans to facilitate a conversation on racial division in southwest Virginia began after the last General Convention when then newly elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry announced he would make racial reconciliation a focus of his term. The release in May of this year of the church’s “Becoming Beloved Community” resources, as well as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, reinforced the importance of these events.

Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark Bourlakas recently told the diocese that diocesan staff had planned a series of events across the diocese on the topic of racial reconciliation. “The tragic events in Charlottesville have strengthened our resolve to be the hands and feet of Christ in our communities, urging one another onward in the mission of God,” he wrote. “The work of reconciliation is very hard, very necessary, and our duty as followers of Jesus Christ.”

The white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville Aug. 12 brought more attention to the issue of racial reconciliation and the rise in racist rhetoric in the past several years. The debate is not only about city parks and statues, but also the sanctuaries of churches across the United States.

One such church is R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, which has been in a heated debate for two years over the future of the parish’s name.

Curry highlighted the new urgency that has emerged following the events in Charlottesville in a meeting with Episcopalians in that city last week. “The bitter, painful reality of what we have called and known to be racism, which never went away, was like a scab was ripped off Aug. 12, and the whole country saw it,” he said during his visit.

This harsh reality was the focus of Reed’s lecture as he appealed to the facts of institutionalized racism over a conversation about individual actions.

“There is a widely held assumption that individual prejudice leads to racism. … But where does prejudice come from? No one is born prejudiced,” Reed said. “I would argue that we have racist orientations, activities and policies [in this country] that lead people to think a certain way.”

The next lecture, which will focus on racial profiling and police use of force, is scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Northwest Community Center in Roanoke, Virginia. More information will be posted here.

The unedited recording of Reed’s lecture is here. All the events will be edited into smaller portions for use in parish formation classes.

— The Rev. Canon Connor B. Gwin is the canon for social engagement and Christian formation in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.


  1. F. William Thewalt says:

    First, wanting to retain statues of figures from the South is not racist. It is simply preserving a history. Second, Removing statues cannot change history. The USSR attempted to re-write history it did not like. Now the U.S. is making the same mistake.

    • The Rev. Emmetri Beane, Deacon says:

      As a black woman, this is not about erasing history. It is about asking me to honor those who fought to keep my family in slavery. The history books will record the facts about the Civil War but why am I asked to have public property that my family and I pay taxes to preserve used to honor the people who did not consider my great-grandparents to be human. In Germany, there are no public monuments to the Nazis. Why are there public monuments to those who fought to preserve a system that continues to victimize blacks today? Do the wounds of slavery and racism mean so little? My family and I are Virginians. We take great pride in being Southerners but take no pride in the Civil War, it’s so called heroes or its cultural legacy. I commend to you Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/opinion/mitch-landrieus-speech-transcript.html

    • Melissa Hays-Smith says:

      It is racist because those statues were erected in order to assert white supremacy during the Jim Crowe era. That continues to be the motivator for leaving them standing.

      • Doug Desper says:

        This is why I find many of these discussions problematic. The assertion that white supremacy is “the motivator” to keep statues is a wide brush judgment that closes down reason and dialog. Racism is a symptom of “eltism” and it is when one believes that they are entitled (privileged) due to a belief that others are lesser and owe them. “White privilege” exists but such privilege is not limited to whites only. People of all races benefit from the misery of people around the globe who are held against their will while producing our goods and services. So long as these discussions “wide brush” whites as privileged and supremacist while ignoring the privileged status of other races there will continue to be resentment and resistance to understanding.

    • As far as I am concerned history is history, and the subject statues were erected well after the War of Secession; so they were not inherently historical but were erected to commemorate the errors that were committed in order to preserve slavery and to extend it into emerging territories. If you want to remember Robert E. Lee, place him with book in his hand rather than astride a war horse. Or put these statues into a museum. Lee fought to dismantle the Union for which he had been asked by Lincoln to serve. Please, let’s not continue this mistake any further

  2. Priscilla Johnstone says:

    This is a critical time for those of us who are white to consider what these statues and memorials mean to blacks whose family histories include slavery, whose present experiences include ongoing exposure to racism. The expression “White privilege” often ruffles our feathers, but in fact it simply means growing up without fear of being harassed, discriminated against, refused employment, being arrested or shot – all because of color and incorrect assumptions. We can choose to remain in our “comfort zone”, assuring ourselves that we are good church-going Christians, and none of this pertains to us, or we can also be true followers of Jesus and support our church in confronting racism in all it’s subtle forms. Some folks have said on this site that they fear our church is being turned into a Marxist (or socialist – I don’t recall) social agency. I would say that our Church is accepting responsibility to be true disciples of Christ and his teaching. Dietrich Boenhoeffer, a minister, chose to return to Germany to preach the words of our Lord and fight the extremes of the Nazi regime. He ultimately gave his life for his beliefs. There are times when remaining silent is to ignore our responsibilities as true Christians who follow the the actual teachings of Jesus. We were never promised an easy journey, rather, we are expected to feed the hungry, comfort those in need, love our neighbor as ourselves and speak for social justice. This is our opportunity to live into our faith and show true Christianity, in our love of each other.

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