12th Night: Reflections on Diversity. By Lou Schoen
As we entered the Christmas season a few weeks ago, I responded to an invitation announced to us by Lynette Simpson to visit her art exhibit at the Center for Change on 24th & Park Avenue. It was a very moving display that portrayed the challenges she had faced growing up African American in a society that imposes systemic as well as personal aggressions upon anyone not defined as “white,” and how she learned to overcome the negative personal influences of this destructive racial system. Reflecting on the visit, I was deeply grateful for Lynette’s invitation, and for her presence and her musical as well as other personal gifts in our congregation. Then I was prompted to reflect on Gethsemane’s history, beginning with the change that was symbolized when Sandi Wilson became our rector in 1998.
Sandi was the first African American priest in a church whose very first rector was an advocate of slavery. Rev. Knickerbacker, in 1860, even proclaimed his position in a public statement. After a judge in Minneapolis freed a slave who had been brought by a Mississippi plantation owner to his summer home on Lake Harriet, Rev. Knickerbacker stood up in the courtroom to denounce the judge’s order and claim that slavery was the will of God. And a generation later, African American members formed their own congregation in South Minneapolis rather than remain “second class” members of Gethsemane.
So our historical image, as a congregation, was transformed when Sandi Wilson came - and she was also the first female priest after the last previous rector had refused to accept the General Convention decision that had finally authorized women’s ordination in 1976. He even refused to permit a visiting service at the altar here by the ordained daughter of one of Gethsemane’s leading families.
My first worship experience at Gethsemane occurred during the 1976 convention, in a special service that we organized, with a previous rector’s permission, as a prayer service for the women’s ordination movement prior to delegates voting on the issue.
Then I remembered my experience in another special service here at the Episcopal Church’s next Minneapolis General Convention in 2003. That was a service celebrating delegates’ approval of the first openly gay bishop in the church.
And I reflected on the changes within our congregation. Although we could no longer afford a full-time rector after 2003, we managed, as a mission church, to launch the Shelf of Hope, to address needs of homeless and other low-income people. That ministry was inspired and initially led by the late Roger Green, homeless himself when he first walked in our door. And now, Deacon Vant Washington is providing creative leadership in that work, reaching out especially to the families at what used to be the Drake Hotel - even inspiring some of them to help at the Shelf of Hope. And Vant is among a growing number of people in Gethsemane of other than European ancestry.
The original 12th Night of Christmas marked the dream that led Joseph to take his family to Egypt to escape the Roman massacre of new-born Jews in Bethlehem. So Jesus spent his earliest years as a political refugee, which certainly suggests that Christians should be welcoming diverse communities.
We’re not quite officially a multicultural congregation (which requires that members of the largest racial-ethnic identity comprise less than 80% of membership), but we may be headed in that direction, which could become a healthy growth development for all of us to celebrate in a future Christmas season. Let’s pray for that.
May God bless us, especially in our diversity - each and every one.