Creating a Center for Reconciliation in Rhode Island

We’ve been guided by the work of the Traces of the Trade Foundation, founded by people with deep Rhode Island roots, and inspired by the reactions that Episcopalians in Rhode Island have had to learning their own history.

There’s been a great deal of interest in the last few days in a decision we made at our diocesan convention regarding the future of our Cathedral in Providence. Convention voted overwhelmingly to start working to create a Center for Reconciliation at St. John’s and to begin working toward telling the truth about our own denomination’s participation in the slave trade as part of our own reconciliation work.

Header logoWe’ve been guided by the work of the Traces Center, founded by people with deep Rhode Island roots, who created the “Traces of the Trade”. And we’ve been inspired by the reactions that Episcopalians in Rhode Island have had to learning their own history.

On the Tracing Center website blog there’s a wonderful account of the process that has brought us to this moment:

“Also in 2006, Katrina was invited to preach at St. Michael’s Church in Bristol, R.I., where many of the slave-trading DeWolf family were practicing Episcopalians in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Rev. David Dobbins and the Ven. Janice Grinnell of St. Michael’s were moved by the sermon Katrina gave during the filming to initiate a spontaneous healing ritual during the service. This became the final scene in the film. Over the years, David and Jan have remained conscious of the need to continue to implement the process outlined in the 2006 resolutions within the Diocese of Rhode Island. Jan became the diocese’s archdeacon in 2013, and when Bishop Knisely issued a call for ideas to reimagine the cathedral, she and David conceived the idea for a museum and reconciliation center. They convened a diverse group of Rhode Islanders to explore the concept, which has grown and flourished from that beginning.

In Rhode Island, the Episcopal Church’s complicity in slavery and its economic benefits were especially stark. As Bishop Knisely notes:
  The ship building and shipping industry in Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade and much of Rhode Island’s economy was built with the profits of that trade. Many … of those businesses were owned and operated by Episcopalians. So we feel we have both an obligation and an opportunity to speak the truth about the church’s role in the slave trade.

Of course, the Episcopal Church is not unique in having historic ties to slavery, nor in having wealthy benefactors who made fortunes in slavery or the slave trade. In Providence, Brown University embarked several years ago on its own process of discernment and atonement for its historic dependence on the slave trade, a process which culminated in, among other concrete steps, the establishment of a new Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which, along with the Tracing Center, is a partner in the cathedral project. Nor is this institutional complicity limited to Rhode Island: other religious denominations in the U.S. have been exploring their historic ties to slavery in recent years, as have other colleges and universities. For a scholarly analysis of the latter history, see Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).”

More here. Please go and read the whole account.

Please pray for what we are hoping to accomplish here. We will need your help.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 thought on “Creating a Center for Reconciliation in Rhode Island”

  1. Bishop, this is a fine idea, and perhaps a good use for a building we no longer use or afford. One caution, and one thought on similar journeys. The caution is, African Americans have expressed reserve about how the history of slavery is explored. Keith Stokes commented in a public forum, ‘this (slave trade study) seems to be something white folks enjoy discussing. We don’t…’
    My thought for possible similar models to guide the slave trade/church role study is the current studies of the Irish potato famine in the 1850’s. The Irish are now conducting new studies and public debate to come to grips with an era that seemed to be a settled event. I would ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu to return to Ri, and include Thomas Cahill in the advisory group. Thanks for starting this. john

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