conventional wisdom

This past weekend, as priest-in-charge (fully knowing God is in charge!) of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, I attended the annual convention of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina.


In nearly 40 years of ordained ministry, I’ve taken part in many conventions and, truth to tell, often with little enthusiasm. I acknowledge the importance of governance; the need to translate the interpreted mandates of scripture and tradition via the gift of prayerful reason into the organization of the life of the ecclesial community. However, occasionally (often?) I find these gatherings overladen with individual human desirings masquerading (unconsciously and consciously) as divine will.


This convention was different. For many reasons. One. The person and presence of the guest speaker, Dr. John H. Dozier, Chief Diversity Officer of the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Dozier’s address on diversity and inclusion and his workshop, Talk Isn’t Cheap: Why Cross Cultural Communication is Important, were powerfully provocative

At Friday’s end, three of us, reflecting a diverse demographic of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, formed a panel of responders to questions posed by Dr. Dozier.

His queries and my responses…

Describe some of the elements of your identity.

I am an African American male of Hispanic ancestry, my paternal grandfather being Cuban (hence, and it’s a long story, being named Abernathy by coincidence!), a husband and a father, a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and, since my retirement and resettlement, a South Carolina apologist[1] in response to all who consider our state racially regressive and politically and socially reprobate. For, here, among you and from you, I have experienced the warmest and widest of welcomes.

What are you most proud about your identity?

I was raised by a father who didn’t have familial or societal support to pursue his dream of being a mathematician, who urged me “to become all I could be”, adding, “You have to be twice as good as white people to be equal.” (The downside of that counsel? If I had to be twice as good, then I never could be equal!) I also was raised by a family of educators who commended that I read and write, as my father demanded, “the King’s English.” My grandmother oft asked, “Why is the English language one of the most efficient?” immediately answering her own question, “Because it has one of the largest vocabularies. The more words you know and use, the more nuanced your expression of your ideas and your understanding of others.” I’m proud of my capacity to write and speak well, with precision, and my attendant ability to think with breadth and depth.

What about your identity causes you difficulty?

I believe in Jesus’ love and justice; unconditional benevolence and fairness toward all. Always. I fail to do this. Always. Nevertheless, it is my calling. Always. And whenever I encounter one who, in my judgment (and, I confess, in light of my prejudices), does not perceive the world around her/him with breadth, and think and process information so to form thought and opinion with depth, I, tending toward negative judgment, struggle to be loving and just.

What does the church need to do better?

Acknowledging my prejudices, I strive to stretch and reach across the boundaries and barriers existing between me and “the other” – one who doesn’t look, think, act like me. Case in point, we’re about to elect the 45th President of the United States. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton. I’m not enamored with my choice, but I cannot vote for Donald Trump. Nevertheless, I’ve sought out folk who are voting for Mr. Trump, asking them why. I have come away from these conversations, though not agreeing, with an appreciation for the thought and passion that has formed and framed their choice and without a desire or need to denigrate that choice. Not to universalize my experience, but this sort of effort of stretching and reaching is what, I believe, the church need do always and in all ways.


Photograph: The clergy and laity meeting at the 94th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, November 4-5, 2016, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Columbia, SC.


[1] By “apologist”, I do not infer that I make excuses or express regret (being, in common parlance, standard meanings of “apology”) for South Carolina. Rather, drawing on the Greek, apologia, “speaking in defense”, I am an advocate and supporter of South Carolina, at times, in response to well-meaning folk who, in wonder, sometimes in worry, have asked, in so many words, “Why, in heaven’s name, are you living there?” On occasion, I’ve employed the rejoinder and reality check of Malcolm X to people who believed that life, in regard to race and racism, always was better in the north than in the south, “As long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are South.”

5 thoughts on “conventional wisdom

  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for this post. I have so many reactions, but I will limit my response to two points:

    1) I am so gratified to hear your “apologia” regarding South Carolina. Your statement that you have received “the warmest and widest of welcomes” since you and Pontheolla moved to Spartanburg warms my heart. Although I left more than 40 years ago, I still care deeply about the state of hospitality (assigning the broadest possible meaning to that term), particularly as it touches the deep issues of race, in my home state. I would love to have a conversation sometime about what you have experienced since moving there. I would also love to have been a mouse in the corner at the conference you attended this weekend with its emphasis on cross-cultural communication. (Your quote from Malcolm X is right on; my little community, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, is struggling mightily with such communication as I write this, because we have recently encountered a difficult situation involving our local police department, on top of the lingering and much more difficult and painful situations encountered in Minneapolis and a St. Paul suburb a number of months ago.)

    2) I offer you once again my genuine admiration and gratitude for you as a pastor and as a human being, because of your deep commitment to “stretch and reach across the barriers and boundaries” that separate you from others, no matter how difficult that stretching and reaching may be. On the eve of this unprecedentedly caustic and divisive election, it is like a soothing balm to read that you (no surprise!) continue to seek to understand and simply accept those whose views are so diametrically opposed to those I know you hold. Of course, your attitude and your actions embody and encourage the type of welcome you describe you have received that I rejoiced over in point 1. I would love to think everyone finds welcome in SC, but I do know that your bringing with you and living out the true Gospel of hospitality and inclusion, as I know you do, brings out the best in everyone you encounter and helps them to respond in kind. I also know that your presence there (and dear Pontheolla’s as well) blesses the place and helps the place in turn to bless its residents and its visitors with welcome and kindness. Long may you continue your extraordinary ministry of loving, striving presence, Paul. You are a remarkable man.

    Much love,


    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, my dear sister Karen, SC has been a most welcoming state and people to Pontheolla and me.

      Have there been moments when we, each and both, detected more than a hint of racial bias? Yes. Yet, overall, we have felt openly received.

      I also, confirming your sense of things, have felt that I have had returned what I have sought to share, that is, an open and honest articulation of worldview, which has invited expressions in kind.

      As long as I have breath and strength, this is my calling to which, in the strength of the Spirit, I strive each day to answer, “Yes!”

      I love you.


  2. Paul,

    Thanks for your summary of the convention! The Chief Diversity Officer sounds incredible, given that you called it powerfully provacative!

    I liked the panel questions very much, but even more so I liked your answers. It’s so interesting that the convention took place a week before one of the most polarizing elections of our times.

    You never sugarcoat anything so I loved the honesty in your answers. Each of us bring something different to the table when we interact with others. I’m guessing your co-panelists answers were quite different from yours. I loved your recommendations for the church!

    What I really appreciate about your post is the fact that you reached out to inquire of folks voting for Donald Trump why they were doing so. I’m impressed that you came away from those conversations not wanting to change their positions or judging them. Not sure I could have done the same. I think I’m selfishly just too afraid what will happen tomorrow, and whether or not I’ll need my exit strategy for Canada.

    Thanks again for sharing…sounds like it was time very well spent.

    Liked by 1 person

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