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Episcopal Center Continues Focus on Racial Healing, Adds Fearless Dialogues

Feb 7, 2024

ATLANTA – The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing isn’t missing a beat in transitioning to new leadership following the retirement of founding executive director, Dr. Catherine Meeks.

The Center’s core racial healing program has a new leader, and a new partnership program promoting fearless dialogue has been added.

Dismantling Racism training grew from a requirement for leadership roles to a spiritual transformation brought about by centering the sessions on the Eucharist and the Episcopal baptismal covenant.

The training, at The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, is continuing and expanding that approach with longtime trainer Judy Fielder taking the lead. Fielder, a Holy Innocents’ parishioner, has been appointed Lead Trainer by Bishop Rob Wright.

“The work of The Absalom Jones for Racial Healing has always been centered in the work of dismantling racism. As lead trainer, Judy brings with her years of experience in this critical work and the dedication to further our shared work together,” Wright said.

Fielder, a lifelong Episcopalian, brings both a deep knowledge of how life is for white church members and a profound spiritual awakening to the anguish of those marginalized by the color of their skin.

She started as a trainer prior to the creation of the Center for Racial Healing in 2017.

“I started about eight years ago and have probably averaged five or six trainings a year, maybe more,” she said in a recent video on her appointment. What keeps her going, Fielder said, is the importance of the work.

I feel in my heart that this is really important work, and that it’s a way for me to give back and help educate people around a very difficult subject,” Fielder said.

Her career in women’s healthcare was good preparation, she said.

“So, I’ve spent that career really trying to support women and giving them voice, and I believe this to be kind of an extension of that. But with the incorporation of it being part of our baptismal, covenant and spiritual journey that we’re all on together and helping others continue that journey toward healing and social justice as it applies to all people.”

Fielder previously held an unofficial leadership role in the racial healing training program.

“I had begun to step into that role over the last couple of years. We’ve been working on changes to the curriculum together and I feel a real bond and closeness to the group and want them to be well supported in the work that we’re all doing together. And I’m willing to continue that for a time,” Fielder Said.

Fielder said it is time to build on the solid foundation laid out by founding Executive Director Meeks.

“You know, when we started, we had no idea where we were going to end up. And it’s been exceptional, the growth and how the Center came about and with the leadership of Catherine. And I think now it’s our time to maybe turn the direction a little bit, add something to it. I’m really open to what the Spirit has in store for us and excited about these next steps that we’ll be taking together.”

Fielder said she believes everyone in the Diocese and The Episcopal Church would benefit from participating in the Center’s programs and Training.

“My experience has been that people are changed at the end of the day in some way. And in a way, that opens their heart to the needs of others,” she said. “You know, if we operate in a box, all we hear is our own echo. And how we grow as a person, as a community, as a culture, as a country is being inclusive and open to those other voices and ideas and ways of doing things that we otherwise would not have thought about.” The training, required of all in leadership and service roles, is open to everyone. Learn more about the Center’s training program.

A Brave Space Hosts Fearless Dialogues

A new partnership with Candler theologian Dr. Gregory C. Ellison II will build on the Center’s legacy for creating spaces for fearless and brave conversations.

Dr. Ellison, the Associate Professor of Transformative Leadership and Communal Care at Candler, is bringing Fearless Dialogues to the Center. Ellison created the nonprofit in 2013 for ”unlikely partners to have hard, heartfelt conversations on taboo subjects like racism, classism, and community violence.”

Ellison based Fearless Dialogues on his experiments engaging unlikely partners in transformational conversations. Ellison said Fearless Dialogues “relies upon a radical form of hospitality capable of disrupting the fear of the unknown, the fear of strangers, the fear of plopping (conversationally, it’s just what it sounds like!), the fear of appearing ignorant, and the fear of oppressive systems.”

Ellison said his passions are caring with marginalized populations, pastoral care as social activism, and 20th and 21st century mysticism. The first Fearless Dialogues session at the Center January 27, 2024, Fearless Dialogues – the Thurman Leadership Workshop, was everything for which he had hoped, Ellison said.

“We examined the life, the legacy, and the wisdom of Howard Washington Thurman as we reflected on some really deep questions that Thurman asked over the course of his life. Questions like ‘What is the sound of the genuine in you? Who am I really?’ And my favorite ‘What must I do to die a good death?’ These are all central questions that we as leaders must face in these very perplexing times,” Ellison said.

Bishop Wright, who attended the session, said he is excited by this new offering.

”It is exciting to see new partners emerging at The Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. To be with over 40 people, including our own clergy, learning about the ministry of Howard Thurman, and sharing our own stories, gives us hope for the work ahead.

Afterward Ellison reflected on an experience as he was leaving the workshop. “It was raining as we left the Center and just as we were taking our equipment to the car a mule-drawn wagon passed in the mist carrying the body of a king.”

Ellison said the procession, moving the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Corretta Scott King’s older son Dexter Scott King, “brought to mind all the history and trials faced by those fighting nonviolently for brotherhood and freedom,” Ellison said.

Learn more about Ellison and Fearless Dialogues.

The racial healing work of the Center is part of a larger effort by The Diocese of Atlanta captured in its mission statement: We challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.

Don Plummer is the beat reporter for The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. If you have story ideas, please reach out to Don.

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