In November 2015, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry made history — the first African-American installed as presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.
That same month, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond was making — and questioning — some history of its own. The Vestry of a parish once known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy,” with a membership that included Jefferson Davis and prominent slave owners, announced that it would be removing all images of the Confederate battle flag within its walls.
The decision came five months after the Charleston, S.C., church massacre that left nine people dead sparked a national conversation on the appropriateness of Confederate flags in public places. The Vestry also announced that the church would engage in “a deeper examination of St. Paul’s history, the role of race and slavery in that history, what that history means to us today, development of a regular litany of reconciliation, and creation of a memorial that appropriately honors the enslaved people of Richmond, especially the enslaved members of St. Paul’s.”
Saturday, the church will realize part of that commitment during “Bending Toward Truth: A Forum on Race and Religion in Richmond,” featuring Curry.
The event, which is free but requires registration to reserve a seat, will feature area faith leaders and historians reflecting on the history of St. Paul’s and the legacy of racism in Richmond.
“To have an African-American bishop visit St. Paul’s for the matter of reconciliation is both an honor and a moment of personal gratitude for the continuing journey to justice for Richmond and our larger community,” said Mark Gordon, who joined the parish in 2009 with his wife, Teresa.
Gordon, CEO of Bon Secours-Richmond East, is African-American and a native of North Carolina, where Curry previously headed the Episcopal diocese. Upon joining the church, Gordon was aware of the history at St. Paul’s, whose congregation he estimates is 5 to 10 percent people of color.
“The (Confederate) iconography for me was apparent immediately,” he said. But what surprised him was how unnoticed the iconography was among church members.
“A lot of our conversations are about making the unconscious conscious,” said Gordon, who describes St. Paul’s today as “a big-tent situation.” And Richmond, he says, “is the perfect place for an intentional conversation around race and reconciliation.”
Linda Holt Armstrong, chair of the church’s History and Reconciliation Initiative, said Curry is passionate about racial reconciliation as a guiding principal of the Episcopal church.
She said St. Paul’s remained steeped in Lost Cause lore through the Jim Crow era. More recently, the church developed a reputation for social consciousness and a willingness to engage community discussions on race and class. But after the Charleston church massacre by a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist, Dylann Roof, then-Rector Wallace Adams Riley led the church in confronting its Confederate iconography.
If the Confederate flag imagery in the church — including a flag embroidered on a kneeler — had gone unnoticed, Armstrong said it was from “the blind spots of white privilege. They were just hanging there, like wallpaper.”
Finally, she said, the church decided: “This is not who we want to be.”
Curry heard about the church’s work and wanted to come see for himself, she said.
Speakers and panelists will discuss the history of the church and how patterns of racism continue to shape the region’s politics, housing, education and transportation.
“We have made big errors as a community. I hope that they can see this is a project that is the essence of Christianity — love one another — and we can seek reconciliation with people we have harmed,” Armstrong said.
She acknowledged that there has been some pushback among some congregants who say history can be neither erased nor denied. “Really, what we’re saying is it did happen, and we need to look at this and do something about it. To be redeemed.”
The forum’s title was inspired in part by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Another inspiration was South African cleric Desmond Tutu, co-author of “A Book of Forgiving,” which cites truth-telling as integral toward forgiveness, Armstrong said.
“We’ve been known so long as the Cathedral of the Confederacy,” she said. “We’d love to be known as the Cathedral of Reconciliation.”