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Might a focus on Black History Month inspire us to engage with the stories and histories beyond our pews? Black History Month is an occasion ripe for meaningful learning and inspired conversations.

By Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle

Among the many memes, posts, and stories that crossed my social media feed in the lead up to Christmas, there was one that posed a simple question: how many churches have nativity scenes that feature mostly white characters?

The question stuck with me as I looked at the decorations at the church, and my own decorations at home. There are a lot of white angels, and white depictions of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and even Magi in the decorations, cards, and stories available for the season. White people take up a lot of space in our Christmas celebrations. If we are honest, we may have to admit, we take up a lot of space every day.

What happens when we start to pay attention to how much space is taken up by White people? How often is history told from the perspective of White people? How many times do we hear stories of White people? To what extent do we envision the characters of the Bible as being like us, meaning white? How does this impact our understanding, our behaviour, and our assumptions towards those who are different? What would it look like to centre the voices and stories of individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) with humility, care, and an openness to learn?

Black History Month is an occasion ripe for meaningful learning and inspired conversations. This time offers a great opportunity to be intentional in our choices of whose voices and stories we centre. There are possibilities we can explore. How much do we know about saints and theologians of African descent like St. Augustine of Hippo, and Monnica, his mother? Could we centre the life and words of people like Sojourner Truth and her intersectional work for freedom for Black people and women? Might we find meaning in the poetry and reflections of authors like Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou? To what extent have we read and studied books written by modern day Black theologians like “The Church Cracked Open” by Stephanie Spellers?

Ever notice how many songs in our hymn book are African spirituals or written by Black musicians? Common Praise includes: “Guide My Feet”, “I want Jesus to walk with me”, and “Were you there”. How many others do we know? How often do we use these in worship? What would be needed to include more music with origins in Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America?

Might a focus on Black History Month inspire us to engage with the stories and histories beyond our pews? The Josiah Henson Museum of African Canadian History is within driving distance of many churches in this diocese and does tours for groups of 15 or more even during the off-season. What would it look like to have a field trip to the museum or access another local resource for Black History? Are there local Black History Month events that congregations could attend? Don’t forget to financially support these programs as much as possible. This could be through admission, or donations.

Is it possible to bring in a speaker knowledgeable about Black History? Perhaps there are racialized individuals in the congregation or the community willing to share their stories or is there an organization that provides speakers for events? Note: there is not a universal Black experience. The stories and histories of those descended from those who travelled the Underground Railroad are different from 21st century immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. There is value in centering diverse stories and histories as appropriate to the context.

When incorporating a speaker, remember, storytelling, particularly when it is personal stories, is emotional labour that should receive compensation. It is also vital to ensure these individuals feel safe. Chiefly, this means, when they tell you what they’ve experienced, believe them, and then with love, candour, and commitment, discuss what it looks like, in practice, for each of us to transform unjust structures of society, challenge violence of every kind, and pursue peace and reconciliation.

Black History Month is an important time that challenges us to be intentional in centering the voices and stories of Black people. How this time shapes and forms the other 11 months of the year speaks volumes about the willingness of the dominant voices to learn, perhaps sit with discomfort, and grow. If our efforts are merely token, placebo-like engagement to say we did something, we are no better than performative in our allyship. For those who take seriously the Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being, we should be continually reflecting on the ways in which space is shared across the diversity of human existence. This means, the goal is to ensure that Black people’s voices and stories are heard throughout the year. May we find inspiration in the choices we make for Black History Month that leads us to embody our Baptismal Covenant and Marks of Mission more authentically.

This article would not have been possible without the wisdom and stories of Black Anglicans in our diocese. I am particularly grateful to Irene Moore Davis whose words can be found woven throughout this text and to the Ven. Osita Oluigbo whose thoughts informed important points. Thank you for generously sharing your time to enable me to write this article.

Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle is a co-chair of SEJH and a co-chair of Justice League of Huron.