Dean Letter: Sacred Ground in Action

Penny: Hello, St. Paul’s. This week, I’m having a conversation with Robbie Ewell, who has been one of the leaders in our Sacred Ground efforts this year. And I’m going to start by asking Robbie to introduce himself.

Robbie Thank you, Penny. Well, my name is Robbie Ewell; my wife and I actually joined the congregation of St. Paul’s way back in 2013. So roughly about eight years, we have been attending St. Paul’s and joining all of you.

Penny: I’m so glad that you are both with us. And Rocky, of course, is a member of Chapter and I’m very grateful to her for taking on that that leadership role. So we started this journey, we started thinking about the question of race and how we could educate ourselves and grow, I think it was in January 2020. So it was before we were really conscious that we were about to go into a year of lockdown. And we started, you and I started having conversations about a Lent forum. That was on Debby Irving’s book “Waking Up White”. Do you remember how you were feeling when we got started on that and what your hopes were?

Robbie: Before I read the book, I was wondering about the title, to begin with. But I do remember that, for one it, it turned out to be a personal journey that someone led to paper and shared with us their journey and their transformation, if you will, by becoming awakened, realizing something that’s been around all along, and acknowledging very much the, I guess, many of the emotions and some of the challenges that in this case Debby Irving went through. I actually thought it was an excellent selection primarily because it gave license, permission, if you will, for others who are waking up in some way or capacity that they actually can realize, Oh, you know, maybe I’ve been doing too; maybe I can relate, or, for some, I don’t understand this lady, how she ever walked through life this way, knowing these things. But it led us up well, particularly to great conversations. And to be very candid, it was in my view, you could tell it brought a razor focus to the issue of racism.

And at the same time, some introspection by folks in terms of “I’m not racist, I haven’t a racist bone in my body”; in terms such as white privilege, or white supremacy, and how it had functioned, and continues to function in this society. It had put some parties a little bit at ease, but others also realized this; I think it was a very good way to get the conversation moving by drawing upon someone else’s example and also opening the door to other works at the time. So in addition to having a book read on Debby Irving’s work, we were able to include elements from White Fragility, and also, How to be an Anti-Racist, and a number of other components, including some news clips, that brought contemporary context to some of these issues. Particularly as we are now currently going through a period of what some would consider our society’s racial reckoning, and recognizing some of not only the history that we have, but the fact that some of these tragic things are still happening.

And we’re even running into resistance as an employment society, how to correct and both the larger issues of racism and also how they’re impacting usin our individual lives. To me, I thought it was a wonderful story. It was truly It was truly insightful to hear so many different points of view and comments. And I will say one thing for our participants, they are not shy about sharing their opinions. But they are for the most part, very thoughtful opinions. Parties are looking outward but also inward. A very good start. They kind of set the tone for some other things to follow.

Penny: I remember when I read Waking up White, having those “aha” moments. And I appreciated the way she wrote that book, from her own experience, telling the story. Jesus showed us that stories are the way that you get under people’s skin, and in a brilliant way. She wasn’t directly confronting us with our own prejudice, but she was sharing hers. And that allowed us to come along on the journey with her. I thought it was a great way to introduce the topic.
Then suddenly, we were in this lockdown, just as Lent was beginning. So we did a pivot and went into Zoom mode for the Sunday forums. And that meant, so many more people could participate; we ended up with over 100 people, and not just close by, but people far away too, who participated in the forum discussions. It was an astonishing moment of grace, as we started that difficult year, that suddenly we discovered we could reach more people. And we were already focusing on something that was deeply meaningful to our community and to our lives. So then we wanted to move on to – it was the question that we’re coming up to now again, – what do we do? Or how do we follow this? And we started looking at Sacred Ground. That was something that the Episcopal Church was really promoting: this curriculum, this small group, 10 month, deep dive curriculum, and I think it’s, would you agree that it’s really been part of our presiding bishop’s focus, and his particular charism, of lifting up this question of systemic racism so that we can look at it in the eye?

Robbie: Absolutely, I totally agree. And it strikes me that when we were even looking at the curriculum for Sacred Ground, it takes a thoughtful, somewhat scholarly look at some of the historical components. And it does it in terms of telling our story; going back to the earlier point, it kind of tells a real story, one that has some blemishes and some major concerns with it, in terms of how this nation got started. And it continued, and particularly, what I particularly found interesting was how racism, of course, was levied at so many different groups at different times to accomplish certain select ends. And I think that is certainly why I’m super happy that the bishop has lifted this issue. Because in a sense, we can really be who we really need to be. And so we address all of the inequities that we have, and also recognize, if we’re standing on the shoulders of some, how sturdy is that foundation.

So I will just offer also that in Sacred Ground, again, [author] Katrina Brown did an excellent job, and also addressing things that I guess as a society we kind of lose sight of. If you even look at how Chinese Americans were treated at the beginning of their journey here, and how that has now continued into, unfortunately, other new hate crimes and the like; of course, the indigenous Americans, the indigenous people who have been here before America was the United States of America. And what has happened there, but also has been characterized through history. Native Americans also have their (the elders put this way) the attempted genocide, where Native Americans as one of those things that, instead of learning from it, we had at some point in time, just, you know, painted an entire segment of folks as being something other. And then what we brought to the table mainly was that we as obviously white America in this case, have in fact, you know, civilized this country in some way when the acts that have happened were truly horrific.

Penny: What came through for me as we went through the months, I was in a group with other staff members, it was this piling on: it was one after another after another after another minority group or you know, the indigenous groups who were categorized as less than human in some way and without culture; and that the only culture was white European culture, and that there wasn’t anything else. What we lost out on is tremendous over those centuries; by dismissing and pushing down and murdering members of other groups of human beings, we all lost a great deal from that. And that really came through for me.
I really hadn’t been focused on racism as being systemic before we started this project, and it gave me a completely new idea of what racism is. And I wish everybody could go through this this program, and have their eyes opened. I’m certain that I’ve got a huge amount more to learn. And I think we all share that feeling.
We had a lot of people involved, right? a lot of people signed on to the groups.

Robbie: We did and, and, and frankly, I think we had a total of 110 participants. So we were broken into a number of groups, obviously, roughly about 10 parties or 13 per group, and mostly from St. Paul’s, but we had some visitors who joined us because they heard about the buzz. So they joined in. And I know, as one facilitator among many, I think, collectively, we were all very pleased to see how engaged parties were; because, to ask people to commit for 10 months, one day a month, for an extended conversation each day of that, that is a lot; it was a lot of prep work. But I can say, at least I know from the group I worked with, that people were ready to go, ready for the conversation. They literally did as much of the reading and preparation and viewing videos as they could, and they had some really hard and strong reactions to them. And they actually were able to articulate their thoughts on that in our sessions. And what I would like to do is applaud all those who were involved in how giving they were, not just for their time and energy, but really of their thoughts, you know; how they felt about a given work, what they felt about the story that’s behind the work. Those things were truly enlightening. And I think quite frankly, that’s a good group dynamic. And certainly for listening sessions, if you will, both talking and listening sessions, I would say that St. Paul’s operated on a very high level for that, in which our groups seemed like they were just thirsty for more information and found some things incredulous: that we have to do something about this.

Penny: Yeah, that was part of my experience, the “How could this be? How could this have come to this? And what on earth can we do?”; and one of the things I noticed was that there was a spillover from the actual circle discussions to other parts of our life as a parish. I think of one conversation in our morning prayer group, where somebody, a white person, made innocent comments about people being good at heart, Americans being good people; and then hearing very thoughtful personal testimony from three other members of the group, all of whom are people of color: of their experience in different areas, different regions of this country at different times of their lives, when they were dismissed or talked over, or considered less than; and the original commenter having a strong reaction, and the next day coming back and saying thank you. That conversation could not have happened, I don’t think, without us being involved in Sacred Ground and learning how to speak our truth; and I’m so grateful for that, for the influence that Sacred Ground has had.
I wonder, for you as a St. Paul’s parishioner, what does it meant for you to see this happen?

Robbie: Well, it’s, you know, sometimes many people and myself included, we sometimes operate on a set of assumptions that most people are like, well informed, they know everything that’s going on, and we sometimes find ourselves around folks that are like minded. And I’ll say that’s still the case. And I will say this. One of the takeaways for me was how the topic, if you will, of racism was something that was tough for some because it’s something that, as a topic, it’s as if it does not apply to their particular lives, because that may be an issue or maybe it’s due to some something related to race that’s impacting other people. But when it comes to one’s own self concept, they may say, “Well, there’s not a racist bone in my body, I’m just, you know, I don’t see color,” which I say, really is that possible? You know, but the takeaway for me was that I think a few folks at least have kind of realized that we all are indoctrinated.
You know, we all grew up here, we’re indoctrinated in this country with certain attitudes and comments and things that are always in our face. We are now hopefully, at a point where, for things that are inappropriate, we are now more emboldened, and are stronger, a little more aware that we can stand up against it, we can, if it is something that is harming other folks. And it’s also based upon lies or deceit, that we can actually speak truth to power. And make sure that least within our own sphere, that whatever we feel is appropriate we can do to at least counteract that type of action.
An example – and these are many of the things that we’ll cover when we when we go further down the road and talk about how to be an anti-racist. But among the items, quite frankly, would be that just like being anti sexist, if something’s happening in your sphere, you might want to speak up, you might want to tell parties that this is not acceptable. If things are too intimidating for one to do that, they may also just want to take other measures within your sphere of influence, to make sure that with people you know, inappropriate activity, inappropriate behavior, things that harm other people, just simply is not acceptable. And sometimes, if we give a blind eye to something, we are also allowing it to become part of the acceptable in a public square.
And that’s what I’m hoping that’s one of my main takeaways, is that just hearing some feedback on, you know, let’s do something with this new knowledge, or let’s do something with even old knowledge parties may have known all along. But let’s do something that’s constructive. That speaks to who we are. Because I think one strong takeaway is that if people were to be asked a question, Is this us? Sometimes we sadly had to say, Well, I guess if the US is all of us, yes, this is us. We don’t want to be able to give that same answer that this is us years from now.

Penny: One of the things I’m curious about is how our experience will will seep over into other parts of our life as a church. I know that our Women Together group has been intentional about having more diversity among the speakers this year. I think that’s been one thing. I’m trying to have more diversity in our pulpit and hear different voices. Our formation program, you know, will we be drawing on sources other than white male authors? Then there are our money conversations. One of the things that I learned during this process was that a great deal of inherited wealth that still people still today get to enjoy stems from slave ownership. And will it have an knock-on effect as people are passing on their inherited wealth, as they become more conscious of how it was ill gotten? I think it’ll be interesting to see how it affects different areas of our life and growth as Christians and as church members.

Are there pitfalls we should watch out for as we go forward?

Robbie: That’s a tough one. There are many pitfalls. But I would suggest that one thing is to, to thine own self be true. Realize that in many ways, this type of activity is an invitation for us to look inward about ourselves and rather than just necessarily feel super comfortable that like, “Well, I’m perfect and my perspective is perfect, I’m ready to rock and roll,” it’s good to kind of like, be realistic and think about: Are there times when the effect that you may have had, or when you may have carried thoughts that were both inaccurate and perhaps harmful, regarding parties who are different? And also, quite frankly, one of the pitfalls that we all face is that this topic is so important that we have to address it head on, we have to address it in terms of different racial classifications, if you will, or how parties are identified by race, but obviously, there are a lot of parties who are multiple races. And sometimes, you know, if the conversation gets a little bit testy, it might be, it may be a little bit insensitive to those who actually have multiple cultures and one culture, you just offended me on it. But, you know, it comes part and parcel of this being really a global society. And that that is really, frankly, without question, that’s the way the world is shaping up, that our ability to connect with one another, globally, or interculturally is huge.
I will say one pitfall and this is not to say that this hits everyone. But sometimes if we are trying to engage, if we want to insert ourselves into cultures that we have not previously done, sometimes it can be done, without intention, with a bit of an attitude, almost patronizing. Or once, you know, involvement is that “I’m here to fix this thing, and I will fix it. Gosh, darn it. I really, yes, I’m here now, everything’s gonna be just fine.” And life is extremely more complex than that. Personally, I would think before inserting oneself into, and in a sense, making some judgments of other cultures.
But if one is to just be genuine, and wanting to get to know people better, maybe expanding their circles, but to do it with an open heart and an open mind. That, too, could be useful. But at the heart of this, I would say it’s important that as one is even someone just recently was awakened, similar to Debby Irving: she had some pitfalls, she ran into some conflicts, primarily because she got immersed, and she immersed herself in a manner in which she didn’t quite question all of her attitudes and opinions. And she was very open and telling us about that in her in her work. With a more positive outcome toward the end, but there were some growing pains along the way.

Penny: What I’m thinking of as a spiritual discipline now is the intent versus impact question, and learning to be to have some humility around it. If I say something, and I don’t mean it to be insulting, but somebody experiences it as insulting. I should not try and argue my way out of that. The impact is what counts and, and learning that is, for me, a real discipline to learn to say, you know, I honor your discomfort, and I’m sorry, without saying, “But what I really meant was…” So that’s, that’s one sort of continuing piece of education I know I’m going to be working on.

Robbie: Just to piggyback on your comment, I think we also are so accustomed to thinking we’re the good guys in every scenario. And there’s components, both in our history, and maybe even our current practice, as a society that it shows like, well, who’s the good guys and who are the, you know, it’s like that judgment issue kind of falls apart. And it leaves us basically with an opportunity to like, well, be careful. And I would say parties should be be more mindful and thoughtful about their sources for information, how they decide to become aware of what’s going on, from their news sources to now online media and podcasts, etc. Not saying parties shouldn’t have a variety of resources, but if they actually are not necessarily …; if select news outlets, for example, have a particular point of view, and they rather take you down a rabbit hole as opposed to conveying what’s truthful. I think that’s a problem. And it’s an impact in our society in a deep way already, that we have so many sources and that people are sometimes not looking for things that are accurate, but actually things that make them feel better.

Penny: We’re almost at the end of our time. And I do want to give you a chance to talk about what’s next. You know, we’ve been in this deep inner journey, and people say, “Well, so what? And what’s next?” Do you want to talk a little bit about the next steps for our community?

Robbie: Oh, yes, I’m actually very excited, along with quite a few other people who are all working to put together Sacred Ground In Action. Basically, in response to the feedback that we’ve already heard from those who participated in Sacred Ground, this will be the next thing. And it’s actually kind of like a multi-plane approach to providing this action. Some will be addressing congregational support elements. And within that we plan to have a town hall meeting, once a month; that town hall meeting will take an even deeper dive into some of the more salient issues that are hitting us with regards to race. Right now, here and now. So there’s, of course, challenges with police engagement with select populations; there is the attacks on things like the ability for everyone to vote. And basic voter suppression seems to be on the rise.
There’s also a very, very great opportunity for us to take a look at the Episcopal Church’s audit on racial climate. And that will give a chance in the town hall meeting for a panel, I’ll join the panel, in which we get to chat about the findings from the audit and its implications, since the Episcopal Church has a larger audit, and maybe discuss the implications of it toward us here at St. Paul’s here in San Diego.

Penny: Wow, that’s exciting stuff.

Robbie: And on top of that Sacred Ground In Action, the second tier, if you will, we’ll be working on educational resources, things that are available to parties. And then there’ll be further follow up on the third tier, that I think people will find this intriguing; as we look at what to do, what can you do, as an individual who wants to either be an anti-racist, which is not a bad thing to be; or quite frankly, what can you do that you think is constructive in your community, in your circles, in your sphere of influence, that can make a difference? And there is another tier that’s doing that as well. And they all will be linked in somewhat. There will be some opportunity to promote that from the town hall.

Penny: The first town hall meeting I think is June 13, Sunday evening at six o’clock, is that right?

Robbie: Right after Evensong, correct. And it’ll be on zoom initially, I’m guessing, I believe the whole thing will be on zoom. This will be very similar to our Waking Up White, our forum on race, in which everybody there will be on Zoom. We will have the panelists on Zoom as well.

Penny: Great. So it’s not limited to people who can’t get down to the cathedral in the evening. We continue to have that digital reach. That’s been such a blessing.

Robbie: I’m certainly looking forward to it. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are a few initiatives already in play. This is, I don’t think this is Sacred Ground In Action. I think this was in play before. For example, adding to the hymnal “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. They’re very intentional efforts, as you’ve outlined earlier, that I think kind of suggests the heart of St. Paul’s. And, and frankly, if we ask is this us, we can be, we can say very confidently and proudly, yes, this is us.

Penny: We’re about halfway to our goal of buying 200 copies of Lift Every Voice and Sing. I’m hoping that as the final group wraps up, which I think at the time of recording, there’s one more group to wrap up the series, I’m hoping that people who have been involved in this, in the Sacred Ground series, will be helping us to get that that collection of hymnals. And then we’ll be able to broaden our repertoire of worship music, which will be exciting. Well, I think we should probably end it there. I’ll give you a chance for final thoughts, final recommendations.

Robbie: Just, thank you for this opportunity. It’s always enjoyable talking with you and to acknowledge that the fact that St. Paul’s is moving to another level with Sacred Ground in action, says a lot about this congregation, and about how we care about the world around us. I’m truly looking forward to having the opportunity to engage further.

Penny: All right, well, thank you so much, Robbie, you’ve been quite the inspiration and leader in this and it’s always a joy to talk with you and to learn from you. And I look forward to what comes next. And to our congregation and those watching. I will see you on Sunday.

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