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 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.
 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.”