Historically Black Calvary Episcopal Church Explores Faith and Justice in Gentrified Washington, D.C.

The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector, and the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, associate rector, of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., pose for a photo under a Black Lives Matter banner. Photo: Lynette Wilson
The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector, and the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, associate rector, of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., pose for a photo under a Black Lives Matter banner. Photo: Lynette Wilson

The decision to display a Black Lives Matter banner above the parish hall entrance did not come easily for the leadership of Calvary Episcopal Church, a historically black church with a reputation for social justice and action on the U.S. capital’s northeast side.

“Some folks have taken offense to it … and I think some people really appreciate it,” said the Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, Calvary’s rector, during a recent interview with Episcopal News Service. The decision was “contentious” and “not unanimous,” he said. “It’s also been an opportunity for conversation.”

It’s not uncommon for Calvary to engage in discussions that challenge the congregation and the community to think and to act with an intention toward justice.

Calvary has initiated conversations – contentious, difficult, provocative and otherwise – over the last two years in particular. Church leaders began talking in earnest after the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014 and decided to host a community-wide forum, “Ferguson: Could It Happen Here?” The forum brought together church and community members, and law enforcement officials.

“It was a peaceable back-and-forth, that Ferguson can happen here given the right circumstances,” said the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Calvary’s associate rector, and a 20-year, now retired, veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police. “We know that 90 percent of all civil disorders in this country have the police at their nexus; it doesn’t mean that the police caused it, but that the police were somehow involved, and it could be something fairly simple that blows up.”

The Ferguson conversation led Fisher-Stewart, newly ordained a priest last November, to create the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice at Calvary with the help of a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society.

The grant has allowed the church to host forums focused on themes related to community involvement, race and social justice: police in the community; the black church; and white spaces off limits to blacks, among others. The latter two were workshops facilitated by the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, the author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.”

“We realized here at Calvary that we are a black congregation in a predominately white denomination and we’ve kinda had this split personality going,” said Fisher-Stewart, adding that Brown Douglas helped Calvary to redefine its call.

“The black church was formed because of injustice. And so if we pick up that mantle again to do justice, which we find in the mission of Christ when he read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18) in the temple – it was about doing justice, it was about the least of these,” she said.

For example, the most recent forum focused on young black males, asking the question: Are they an endangered species?

“We had community organizers, activists, and psychologists, theologians, educators, to help us think about why young black males are endangered beyond the issue of policing, but also: What we are called to do to assist them in becoming the people God has called them to be?”

The “what” that God has called young black males to be is something of a focus for Brittany Livingston, a 26-year-old social worker who counsels primarily middle-school-aged African-American males at an all-boys parochial school.

“Most of our boys are young African-American males and it can be a challenge because I look at little brown faces every day and they often have real feelings about what’s going on,” said Livingston, adding that sometimes the violence and the overall situation makes her feel helpless. “But going in every day working with those little boys helps me. I’m working with them day-to-day and their lives matter day-to-day to me.”

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Source: Episcopal Digital Network | Lynette Wilson