Like most American religious denominations descended from European peoples, the Episcopal Church has a deeply troubled history of racism in its DNA. We acknowledge this at ECC and do not shrink back from naming the sins and repenting of them.
At the same time, part of the racism endemic in our story is the failure to lift up or even know about the rich history of African-Americans and other people of color in the Episcopal Church’s past. Here at ECC, we strive to learn this history and to celebrate the rich and diverse traditions from which we all benefit. The towering black intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois, for example, was a member of the Episcopal Church and one of the most moving chapters of his magisterial treatment of race in America, The Souls of Black Folk, has a chapter devoted to one of his friends and mentors, the Episcopal priest and black nationalist, Alexander Crummell. Crummell founded one of the most historic black Episcopal churches in the country, Washington D.C.’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. St. Luke’s, along with many other historically African-American Episcopal parishes, continue to send out servants to serve the wider world, having been steeped in the rich traditions of African-American spirituality and historically Anglican liturgy. We have been blessed to have had members of ECC over the years who attended these historic black Episcopal parishes. Recently this includes a student who attends Epiphany and Christ Church in Orange NY. Their rector, The Rev. Joseph A. Harmon, is a Cornell alum, thus extending even further a deep tradition here at Cornell.
One of our historic black parishes is St. Philips in Buffalo, New York. St. Philips was a home to The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry whose father was once the priest there. Bishop Curry now serves as the Presiding Bishop of the entire Episcopal Church in the U.S. Closer to home, one of our ECC alumna, The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, was recently consecrated the first African-American female Diocesan Bishop in the Episcopal Church.
African-American history is not the only tradition represented among non-European heritages at ECC. It does hold a special place for us since the time our longest-tenured chaplain, Gurdon Brewster, came to Cornell in 1965. Gurdon had the great privilege of having spent two summers serving with the King family at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He came back steeped in the traditions at Ebenezer Baptist of biblical spirituality, creative arts, and social justice.
Over the years we also have had numerous students of come to ECC from a variety of cultural backgrounds We have had students from Ethiopia, Trinidad, India, Ghana, Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, Japan, China, and South Korea as well as students born in the U.S. who bring with them the rich heritage of their families of origin. We are proud of our diversity and we expect to continue to be an international, multi-racial and multi-ethnic community for years to come.
We are clear-eyed, however, and know that having people of color in our community and even in leadership positions does not mean that racism does not exist here. Tokenism is a scourge in all too many places in our society, and the church is no different. We believe that having honest discussions about racist incidents on our campus is crucial to holding our institutions, including the church, accountable for the ways in which white privilege continues to bedevil Cornell and its affiliate organizations. In recent years our chaplain has preached a number of sermons on the topic and challenged us to be bold in speaking out in the spheres in which we have influence. We are deeply thankful for our legacy of anti-racist work in the church, even as we know that much work remains to be done!