By Mary Gordon and Randy Williams
Every February, people in Canada are invited to participate in Black History Month festivities and events that honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. This is often a busy month in the church calendar, coming on the heels of Christmas and as preparations for vestry meetings are underway. So, as members of the diocesan Anti-Racism Working Group, we wanted to share our experiences now, to help spark ideas for how your parish might plan to observe this important month in February.
First, though, let us say a bit about ourselves.
I, Mary Gordon, am a parishioner of Church of the Resurrection (COTR), Hamilton; a diverse community that includes people from Barbados, Jamaica, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Nigeria, Rwanda and as well as second generation Black Canadians. The visible minority population in Hamilton is 19% according to the 2016 census, and COTR’s congregation reflects that percentage! I am married to Black man and having a bi-racial daughter, it was and is important to me that they feel like they belong in the parish we attend. Thankfully that is the case. COTR’s standing Living Black History Ministry Committee works to build bridges by giving permission to tell stories (in a safe environment) and a framework in which to hear them as well as curating specific events and activities to engage, move and teach people in the church and in the neighbourhood.
And I, Randy Williams, am the Lay Associate at Church of the Incarnation, Oakville. As a Black male, Black History and culture have always been important to me. I arrived in Niagara from a predominantly white Toronto parish where just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had celebrated six weeks of rich Black History. Yes, from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Day in January to the end of February. Incarnation is a majority white parish where people are committed to learning, sharing, taking risks, doing things differently…where there’s an active interest in social justice. In December, while preparation was in full swing for Christmas, the worship planning team was also preparing for our first January Martin Luther King celebration.
At COTR, the Living Black History Ministry Committee has offered numerous events including movie and discussion nights, day trips to sites and museums important to the Black story including Griffin House in Ancaster, Black History Museum in Collingwood, and the Oakville Museum at Erchless Estate in Oakville which is the permanent home of The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Freedom multimedia presentation, Guest speakers have included sports personalities, authors, and journalists, workshops on racism and sensitivity training, and musical events like the Toronto Children’s Concert Choir and Luckystickz concert. The church also maintains a Black History resource library including books, DVDs and directions to local opportunities for learning.
For Incarnation, a planning team created a collaborative experience for our first Martin Luther King celebration. The combination of technology, YouTube, fantastic risk-taking readers, our Director of Music, our priest, and God made for an amazing worship and educational experience.
Said one of the readers of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “As I read his words, I was moved, not only by the memory of his passion and ability to lead but by the realization that his words are as poignant and necessary today as they were when they were first spoken. With our recent collective societal shock at the discovery of graves of so many Indigenous children and, before this, the overflowing of anger and frustration of people of all colours and nations at the unequal treatment still endured by our Black community members, it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone missing an opportunity to address our failings, ask for forgiveness and strive for a better world.”
A 20s something Black parishioner and participant in the Martin Luther King celebration, explained her joy that her church was actively organizing this; she was thrilled that she was able to see and hear Black Canadian History shared in her church. She noted the importance of such programming not just for Blacks but for everyone. Incarnation’s Director of Music, Charlene Pauls, who was involved in the planning and execution of our celebrations, said the following, “the impact of the music included during Black History Month 2021 provided not only a moment to pause and remember the past, but also served as an active call to seek a more just future in our own neighborhoods and beyond.”
These events have impacted parishioners in a variety of ways. One said, “I wasn’t aware there was actually a month dedicated to Black History before becoming a member of Church of the Resurrection”. She comments that she is learning and unlearning through these events and the ministry of the Living Black History group with opportunities for growth, acceptance and understanding is a huge step forward. A young adult in our parish says that he feels privileged to have grown up in a parish that has a Living Black History Ministry. The ministry moved him from mere dates and names to hearing raw and powerful stories of discrimination, courage, oppression, liberation, pain and strength.
These events have been an opportunity to grow, unlearn and learn, and we feel that by offering these events we are helping give a voice and a space for others to do the same. Can it be uncomfortable? Heck yes, but through that discomfort comes knowledge, understanding, growth and compassion.
And what about you? The bottom line in all of this is that each parish just needs to make a start. Begin with what you have. Each parish may be surprised that there is someone, regardless of ethnicity, who may be willing to simply take the first step. Simply ask. An idea is all it takes. Start small. Talk to the diocesan Anti-Racism Working Group for support and resources.
If you and your parish aren’t doing anything related to Black History then we encourage you to do something in the next year. Now is the time to bring together a planning team and start brainstorming. Don’t be afraid to invite neighbours with lived experience to be part of your work. And if your parish hosts an event around Black history or anti-racism, we want to know about it.
There is something to be said when we combine the social justice teachings and love of Jesus with a little risk taking and some discomfort. Miracles occur.
Contact Naomi Kabugi for information and resources as you plan
your Black History Month celebration at firstname.lastname@example.org