The Rev. Sharon Sutton
On March 16-19, I had the pleasure of joining other students at the Seminarians of Color Conference in Oviedo, Florida near Orlando. We gathered at the Canterbury Retreat Center in the Diocese of Central Florida, under the conference’s theme, “Gathering around the Jesus Movement: Evangelism and Reconciliation.” Three seminarians from GTS attended: Michael Horvath, Deborah Lee and Sharon Sutton. In total six Episcopal seminaries and three non-episcopal seminaries were represented. We were diverse in ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious background, and upbringing; but united in our love and desire to serve Christ in his Church and in our love of the Episcopal Church as well.
The conference leaders were missioners of The Episcopal Church: the Rev. Canon Angela Ifill, Missioner for the Office of Black Ministries, the Rev. Canon Anthony Guillen, Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries and the Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara, Missioner for the Asiamerica Ministries. The Missioner for Native American Ministries is currently unfilled. The Conference was underwritten by the Episcopal Church Foundation, with Angeline Cabanban coordinating the conference’s logistics. Seminarian facilitators rounded out the planning team.
Set in the peaceful surroundings of the retreat center, our days together were grounded in bible study sessions and common prayer. Against the biblical narrative, each of us shared our story of what it means to commit to a Christ-centered life, and how our respective ethnicities affected our experience of formation as seminarians—academically, spiritually, socially—and our hopes for and concerns about ordained life in The Episcopal Church. In such a short time, the camaraderie that evolved and promised to sustain us—not just for those days we spent together, but indeed for all our life, in Christ.
In our opening session, we discussed how race figures into our lives and ministries. All of us felt that our race or ethnicity is not a detriment; but rather an enhancer, which enriches our shared life in Christ. Of particular interest was the session, “How do we preach in mixed race communities?” led by the Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara. As preachers, our engagement with the Word of God is filtered by culture, language and experience. It’s not surprising that our parishioners experience the same engagement of the Word through, perhaps, a slightly different filter. When all is said and done, the sermon that is preached is the one which comes through the Holy Spirit and touches all our hearts, mind and spirit, transforming the will and the way of life.
The conversation on Thursday with the Rt. Rev. Gregory Brewer, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida, was an open, honest question-and-answer session regarding hiring practices and the placement of seminarians of color within The Episcopal Church. The good news is that there are jobs available, for example, in the Diocese of Central Florida). The not-so-good news is that not all graduates will be called to clergy jobs, because of the past hiring practices of parishes. It’s clear that the work of anti-racism has to permeate all levels of the Church. Of value as well was the session with local clergy of color who shared their experiences of ordained life.
Our goals from the conference were captured in a grid titled “What could seminaries do to make their institutions a safe place for seminarians of color?Areas of focus included: practices around hiring and recruitment, cultural education and training, liturgy inclusive of diverse cultures, establishing and implementing diverse curricula, and implementing campus-wide cultural awareness.
At General Seminary, we have shared ideas with Dean Dunkle regarding possible initiatives that would benefit all students at General, building upon the legacy of seminarian education and formation for which the Seminary is known. Two faculty advisers have been assigned to work with our group: the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle and the Rev. Dr. Todd Brewer. Unitatem in Christo!