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ALVEY: Our voices can give others their voice

By Jack Alvey | Alvey is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

This past week, the Episcopal Church recognized the life and ministry of Absalom Jones. In 1802, Jones became the first African-American priest to be ordained in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Jones, who bought his freedom by working at library run by the Quakers, was previously a lay leader at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia until 1786.

In 1786, Jones and other black members at St. George’s were informed, during the opening prayers, of a new church policy that required black members to sit in the balcony. Immediately after being notified, Jones and fellow lay leader Richard Allen led the black members of the congregation out of church. Jones started what became known as St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and Allen ended up starting the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church

In several ways, this story offers a very appropriate metaphor for the life of African-Americans in the United States. From its inception, our country has struggled to acknowledge African-Americans as more than second class citizens. While we have certainly made great strides in the political, social and religious arenas, there are many African-Americans who still sit in the proverbial balconies of American society. At the Episcopal Church in Alabama’s annual convention, those of us who have always had front row seats were invited to consider our place of privilege in society. We were invited to turn around to try and understand the experience of those who sit behind us especially those who are still way up in the balcony. I was grateful that the presentations were framed to inspire action rather than to inflict guilt. I am thankful to have been raised by a family and formed by a church who has helped me see my place of privilege in life. Even though I am thankful for these opportunities, I can also tell you these experiences have rarely been easy.

I have been exposed to living conditions that I didn’t know were possible in these great United States. I have listened to stories of discrimination that were hardly believable until I saw them with my own eyes. Even when I think I am being egalitarian, I’ve been shown how my words and actions are implicitly racist.

I have listened to people who share my same privileges try to convince me that, regardless of race, we all have the same chance to achieve success in life. If you think we do, I dare you to try and convince that to an African-American woman who grew up in poverty in a single-family household.

I am constantly reminded that we all don’t have access to the same seats in the theater – or at least it is harder for some to get a front row seat than it is for others. While I have worked hard to get where I am in life, I also know that I started out with a front row seat simply because of the system I was born into. And I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to figure out what to do with this front row treatment.

I finally got an answer after spending some time in conversation with two colleagues who are female priests in the Episcopal Church. They simply said, “Use your position to give voice to others.” This sentiment was again reinforced at the church convention I attended this past week.

A testimony was given by a black woman who experienced prejudicial treatment at the local grocery store when she was asked for I.D. after the white woman, also the sister-in-law, in front of her was not. In the end, the white sister-in-law woman spoke out against the injustice and the situation was resolved.

Upon reflection, the black woman said, “My sister-in-law used her place of privilege to speak to the injustice. Otherwise, I would have been labeled as the angry black woman who wasn’t getting her way.”

While African Americans do have more access to front row seats than they used to, those of us with privilege need to remain vigilant and speak to injustice when we see it take place. Sometimes this happens through legislation but most of the time these opportunities happen on smaller scales.

In the meantime, join me in a prayer that continually ask God to remove the scales from our eyes until we see fully in the other our community humanity.