Extending the themes of Black History Month at SPS throughout February and beyond
“What if all of you took on and continued the good work of building this institution to improve the lives of people,” urged the Rev. Leandra Lambert in Chapel on Monday, February 1, “especially those without access to power.”
Visiting from St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton, N.Y., Lambert called on the SPS community to look around, and to “carry on the sacred work of seeing who’s in the room, who’s at the table, who’s in the conversation, and who’s not there, and why not.”
Being truly conscious of who’s there, and who’s not there. Recognizing them.
To see and recognize others has been the first theme of Black History Month at St. Paul’s
. And then, only after recognition, can there be justice and reconciliation, February’s other two themes, as explained by SPS Chaplain the Rev. Charles (Chuck) Wynder Jr. and Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the School’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Occurring within the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-24), this year’s Black History Month at SPS is the first for Bethany and Chuck Wynder, who arrived at the School with their son last fall. Together, and with their colleagues, they intend to extend the month’s themes throughout the year, and beyond.
In her talk, Lambert related the story in Genesis of the Egyptian slave Hagar, sent out from Abraham and Sarah to be alone with her son in the wilderness. There she suffers unseen, until God hears her cries. He recognizes her, and then provides comfort.
Here in the first book of the Bible, says Chuck Wynder, is the theological basis for the importance of seeing someone for who they are.
Wynder brings the theme of recognition to the present, with the names of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and George Floyd, among other young African-Americans who have died at the hands of police officers. Only with such naming, followed by justice-making, says Wynder, do people “see Black lives as mattering.”
Hanging in Crumpacker Gallery this month has been a series of “Sacred Ally Quilts
,” created by United Church of Christ congregations across New Hampshire “to prove that racism is not the only reality.” In displaying the last words of Floyd, as he suffocated under a policeman’s knee last spring, the quilts are intended as a graphic reminder of the need for racial justice.
Not just in American cities though, says Chuck Wynder, “but I think there are a number of wounds in the body that is the St. Paul’s community of students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Many of those wounds are deep. And there are concerns around legacy abuse cases, and the long-term climate and quality of life here for Black, Asian, Latin American, and Indigenous students.”
“Too often,” he says, “we just talk about reconciliation, and we don’t talk about justice and reconciliation. We have to recognize and note the injustice, and that’s part of the step toward reconciliation, that whole process of healing. You can’t have unity until there’s an accountability. There needs to be an accountability and a reckoning with what has happened.”
Neither Chuck nor Bethany Wynder intends the process to take as little as one February, or one year.
“Working on DEI is ‘a marathon, not a sprint,’” Bethany Wynder says, “so we are taking a long approach to making deep and lasting change in our school.”
Some of these efforts, she says, “have taken place over the years prior to my arrival. So there’s a sound foundation.”
Wynder mentions her work with the newly established student and faculty DEI Councils
, along with students and adults in other settings. Her focus, she says, “has been on relationship-building, assessing our resources, and assessing needs to be able to continue promoting this work as a team going forward.”
St. Paul’s has now enlisted the nonprofit group VISIONS, Inc.
, which helps schools and other organizations create healthier environments in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through a holistic process and in sessions with all School constituents – students, faculty, staff, alumni, and board members – they promote methods of relating to one another in ways that are anti-racist and anti-oppression.
One necessary outcome of these efforts, Bethany Wynder says, will be less discomfort in discussions about class and racial differences.
The VISIONS, Inc. process of recognition and justice does not involve pain or shame, Chuck Wynder points out. “It’s OK to disagree,” he says, “but it is not OK to blame, shame, or attack yourself or others. We don’t want to inflict pain, but we need to attend to pain.”
“All this work,” says Bethany Wynder, “is embedded in a very organic way to being an Episcopal school. This is what we are called to do. Social justice is the fourth pillar of being an Episcopal school.”