Reflection by the Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr. as published in the June 2019 issue of Churchwork.
In 1845, James Lowell wrote, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” I love this line and particularly his choice of words. I also love the insistence that the idea of ”good” must yield to new definitions and circumstances, and words like “good” and “truth” evolve. And I know this testament to be true. I grew up in the South, went to segregated schools, and saw African Americans subjected to insult and humiliation. In that time and place, this kind of treatment was the “truth” of racial relationships and was considered “good” for the social order. I am grateful for the courage of leaders, both black and white, who made new occasions for new duties and who defined that old “good” as uncouth and risked much to bring about change. [Taken from Choosing Gratitude 365 Days a Year by James A. Autry and Sally J. Pederson.]
When I read Autry’s words there was something that bothered me. I had to read the first sentence several times to get the gist of what he was saying. I know James Lowell’s quote to be what I believe. Distance has a way of reshaping our knowing of time and place. I get that. What shook me was, “and was considered ‘good’ for the social order.” I realize I am looking backwards and what I understand and believe is quite different than fifty years ago but was it really considered good for the social order for everyone? The answer is, no. Not everyone thought it was “good” to be ignored, trampled and dismissed. Not everyone thought it “good” to be denied the basic dignity offered to all white people. However, time has not stopped. We have taken steps to understand, as Autry wrote, and to see time as a movement towards good.
Recently Rebecca and I were honored to have Dr. Catherine Meeks in our home for dinner. Dr. Meeks is the head of the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, Georgia. She came to our diocese to teach the art of conversation of reconciliation for our office and the staffs of the Cathedral and St. Paul’s Church. During dinner, Dr. Meeks spoke of the importance of speaking within our churches about racial reconciliation. She said, “The real work is in the parishes. That is where the conversations need to be happening.”
With Dr. Meeks words fresh in my mind I made the decision to reconstruct our Racial Reconciliation Commission. The members of this commission will be comprised of facilitators. Each will be trained to lead congregations, vestries, and clergy in conversations regarding racial awareness and healing. This work takes its mandate from our baptismal covenant. Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves and will we respect the dignity of every human being?
I am excited about this work of reconciliation. The gift of conversation offers the opportunity to see the goodness in everyone and how we might be changed into the image of Christ.
Lowell was right. New occasions do teach new duties, and time does make ancient good uncouth. I look forward to walking the way of reconciliation with you.
The Rt. Rev. Morris K. Thompson, Jr.
Bishop of Louisiana