My first exposure to the Episcopal Church was in 1954 when I first moved to Lincoln Heights outside Cincinnati, along with my dad and two brothers. The city prided itself as being one of the few all black cities in the country, having a black mayor, city council, police and fire chiefs and other municipal workers.
My best friend at the time was William “Billy” Schooler. Billy’s family were members of St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal Church in Lincoln Heights. The church was founded by the Sisters of the Transfiguration, an order of nuns affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The nuns and the church operated a school K through 8th grade at the time. (Later, when my youngest son became of school age in the early 60s, his mother and I enrolled him in the school and became involved in the Parents and Teachers committee there.)
St Simon’s rector, the Rev. James ”Jim” Francis, was also the headmaster of the school. He was a community activist and allowed the church to be used as a meeting place for those of us who were engaged in the civil rights struggle and who embraced the “Black Power” philosophy that was prevalent at the time.
As a child growing up in Louisville, Sunday church services were an all-day affair. My family were members of Lincoln Heights Baptist Church, which was not as active early on in the civil rights movement. I taught Sunday school there for a while. But as I got older the style of worship and the length of the services became less appealing to me. I began to attend early Mass at St. Simon with Billy Schooler on occasion and liked the idea of being through with church by 9 a.m. on Sundays. And there were no evening services! When I was grown with my own young family, I liked that I could get church out of the way early and have the rest of the day to enjoy for rest and recreation.
At some point, Jim Francis and I began to talk about taking the Catechism classes in preparation to become a member of the Episcopal Church. As soon as I became a member, he appointed me to serve on the Long-Range Planning Committee of the parish. The diocese had just instituted a series of weekend training events for team members, and thus was my first introduction to the Procter Conference Center.
Following the riots throughout the country in 1968, the bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio, the Rt. Rev. Roger Blanchard, moved his office to Cincinnati City Hall to lead a dialogue among city leaders on the issues of race relations. Informal conversations began to take place among white and black Episcopalians on the church’s role in addressing the problem of racism in the church and society.
In 1971 the Diocesan Convention, under the leadership of Bishop Krumm, adopted a resolution to engage in a process of Action Research and to retain a consulting firm to assist the Institutional Racism Research Team in this work. Jim Francis submitted my name to the bishop to serve on the team, which consisted of black and white representatives from across the diocese.
This experience was quite empowering. I was the youngest person on the committee. The project consisted of several phases of action research modality that looked at the policies and practices of the diocese to identify acts of racism and to come up with recommendations to rectify the situation and take corrective measures. One of the findings of the Institutional Racism Project was that there was no black program staff person in the diocese – the staff was all white. A recommendation from the team led to Bishop Krumm hiring the Rev. Lorentho Wooden as Community Affairs Officer, the first black priest on diocesan staff.
This was also a time that a few black activists in the diocese began to self-organize as the Black Caucus of the diocese. The Rev. Bartlett Cochran, rector of St. Margaret’s, Dayton, was the convener. Father Cochran had served as rector of St. Margaret’s under Bishop Hobson. The story goes that the father of our current Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev Michael Curry, who was also an ordained priest, came to meet with the then Bishop Hobson inquiring about a position as priest in the diocese. Bishop Hobson’s reply to Father Curry was, “I don’t know what I can do with you – I already have one boy in the diocese.”(referring to Father Cochran)
I tell that story because I am so proud and grateful to this diocese to have come from such depths of the sin of racism in our midst to the strides we have taken over the years on this journey toward wholeness and freedom for all of God’s children. Looking back, I have had the opportunity to be mentored by some outstanding clergy and lay persons, male and female, in this diocese. To God give the glory.
John Harris is a member of St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights. He previously served as diocesan treasurer for several years.