Receiving the Report on the Legacy of Slavery

November 20, 2013

The Rev. Dr. Eric H.W. Law
The Rev. Eric H.F. Law

On Friday afternoon, the Diocese of Chicago’s diocesan convention will receive a final report from the Task Force on the Legacy of Slavery. The group, created by a resolution of diocesan convention in 2009, has worked for four years to study the complicity of the Diocese of Chicago and its predecessor, the Diocese of Illinois, in the institution of slavery and the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination.

Convention delegates and clergy are encouraged to read in advance the executive summary of the task force’s report, which is available in English and Spanish on the website. The full research report will be available early in 2014.

What do the diocese’s leaders hope to achieve by revisiting the painful history of slavery? The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, director of networking on the bishop’s staff, says that telling the truth about slavery and the subtle and not so subtle ways it continues to affect us can make the diocese an even stronger and healthier community.

“I hope that we can simply listen to the task force, to each other, and to ourselves,” she said. “Our goal at this convention is not to come to any conclusions or chart a course of action, but rather to begin a larger conversation about a difficult topic. The first step is to speak and listen honestly.”

To foster productive discussion, Baskerville-Burrows has arranged for the Rev. Eric H.F. Law, founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, to visit convention via Skype.

Law, who will introduce the report and provide questions for discussion among people seated together at tables, hopes convention delegates and clergy will listen to the report without judging or fear of being judged.

“We don’t really have the whole truth about an issue unless we listen to many different perspectives, especially from those who are historically powerless. So what we invite people to do is to listen to the report as it is,” he says. “Then we ask, having listened to this, what is the strength of this report? What is the gift that it gives us? That way we can think positively.”

Next Law will ask convention attendees to talk about the challenges and struggles that this report presents. It’s especially important, he says, not to point fingers at each other.

“In the end, we’re exposing the system that caused us to not treat each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said. “Because of our skin colors, some of us have more advantage than others of us in the system. The real conviction is of the system. We are pointing fingers at the system. We need to take responsibility—both those who are privileged by it and those who are disadvantaged by it—to dismantle it. Individuals need to decide what they're going to do.”

Friday’s conversation about the task force report will conclude with table groups discussing what individuals are willing to commit to do as their next steps. As with the other questions for discussion, Law will encourage participants to take responsibility for themselves and avoid debate. “Our goal,” he says, “is to achieve mutual understanding. As a community, we can discover the greater truth together.”

Baskerville-Burrows emphasizes that the task force report is a call to further conversation rather than a conclusion. “I hope that the work we do together at convention will help us know more about our diversity of experience and perspectives on the legacy of slavery and how we might move toward the healing and reconciliation we all seek.”

The Task Force on the Legacy of Slavery report will be presented to diocesan convention on Friday, November 22 at 2 pm and conversation will last until 3 pm. On Saturday morning, members of the Task Force will offer a convention workshop in which participants are invited to continue the conversation.

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