By Jasmine Huang
The evening of March 6 in Gailor Auditorium saw the commanding presence of Dr. Catherine Meeks, the executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, during an event entitled “Racial Healing and Reconciliation: The Inner and Outer Journey.” Seated at a table in the center of the stage, she shared personal stories and knowledge regarding the ways in which communities perceive, address, and dismantle racism.
The Sewanee Slavery Project and the Beecken Center of the School of Theology collaborated to create this event in an effort to provide the Sewanee community with an understanding of what racial healing entails while also generating productive dialogue. An experienced theologian and social activist, Meeks’ arrival was sponsored by the Beecken Center. Since the Sewanee Slavery Project explores the school’s connections to the slave trade and has hosted a series of community-wide forums, the two worked in partnership to oversee this occasion.
The groups hosted Meeks and a follow-up panel consisting of Nicky Hamilton, the senior associate director for the offices of civic engagement; Dr. Jody Allen, a visiting professor of history; School of Theology visiting professor the Right Reverend James Tengatenga; and the Reverend Deborah Jackson, the School of Theology’s Associate Dean for Community Life, Recruitment, and Admission.
Karen Meridith, interim director of the Beecken Center and executive director of the Education for Ministry, opened the discussion. Department of History Chair and Director of the Sewanee Slavery Project Woody Register (C’80) also made remarks before the program began.
Looking at the crowd, Register reminded everyone, “Our project is a University project. Its success will be determined by the degree to which its students, faculty, staff, and resources, and the School of Theology come together and work to understand the long history of racial history and justice in our community.”
Meridith introduced the distinguished Meeks and her career in the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Meeks began by reading from a chapter from Living Into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America, a book she helped compile and edit. She told the story of her brother, who died when the hospital refused to treat him because he was a black boy. Remembering her father’s grief, she read, “His poverty and skin color were two major strikes against him; he could not do anything about them.”
Calling herself a “midwife to the souls of her students,” Meeks then gifted audience members with an hour-long lecture that addressed a variety of topics such as white guilt, lynchings, and mobilizing. “It is by remembering, we can reclaim ourselves,” she emphasized. “We reclaim the history that we are having keep us apart.”
Later on, Meeks also noted, “The truth of the matter is that you don’t escape racism in America…so you might as well put on your warrior woman suit and be a resistor.”
Afterward, panelists came on stage to speak, answer questions, and participate in the audience discussion. Community members, students, and professors all contributed, asking questions that produced a wide range of wisdom and advice from the speakers.
Providing a mix of theological thought and other philosophy, Tengatenga opened the talk. “The whole obsession about the Eucharist for me, it’s all about eating and drinking,” he commented, amongst the laughs of audience members. “So that has to do with repentance, reconciliation, and remembering the story and continuously telling yourself and telling others the way it is. That we are of people of Christ, human together. We are, because you are and I am. And I cannot undo that.”
Following Tengatenga, Johnson observed, “I’ve been through all sorts of programs and things where we’re supposed to be making progress. I think some progress has been made.” However, she maintained, “But again, we have so far to go before we can truly look at each other and see each other, and not see race. Not be blinded by the packages we’re in. I’ve always thought that to get there is a one person at a time. One heart, one mind at a time. And so it’s going to be a long work.”
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Hamilton reflected on her time spent in the era of apartheid, remarking, “I knew about race from an early age. I had no choice.” Nonetheless, she referred to people like Nelson Mandela, who she saw demonstrate the resilience and capacity for racial healing in the public sphere. “I always think back to the fact that he invited his two officers to his inauguration and invited them to sit with him. For that, I always say to myself, okay, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and invited his jailers to the table. What am I doing?”
On the topic of reconciliation, Allen, who also serves as the director of the Lemon Project, an exploration of the College of William & Mary’s connections with slavery and racial injustice, said, “It doesn’t happen overnight. I think there are steps forward, and there are steps backward.”
She continued, “I think we have to…participate in those hard, uncomfortable conversations, we have to be willing to cry, we have to be willing to be angry, we have to be willing to ask questions and to answer questions.”
Lastly, she pointed out the importance of having dialogue. “So I guess that’s the bottom line, something I say to my students—is that we have to talk, that these conversations have to happen because the healing has to happen.
At the very end, Meeks gestured towards the audience and affirmed what Allen said before. “Don’t leave here thinking who you wish was here tonight,” she concluded. “Leave here thankful that you were here in this room tonight.”