A Statement from Bishop Benfield
Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly
Read the Bible, especially Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Our nation is currently suffering the effects of what is truly its original sin: human greed that has manifested itself through four hundred years of self-serving racial superiority, the ownership of human beings, and an ongoing economic inequality that praises profits above all else and tries its best to keep people of color and the poor marginalized.
Why is this statement necessary, here and now? The Episcopal Church in Arkansas unfortunately has a history of being complicit in the sin of racism, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Here are some facts.
- The first Episcopal priest ordained in Arkansas, William Stout, was a major slaveholder with plantations at the foot of Petit Jean Mountain. During the Civil War he left his family in Arkansas, while taking a majority of his 151 slaves to Texas to protect his investment.
- In 1903 the then bishop of Arkansas determined that the races must be separated for the greater good of the church, and thus the Episcopal Church in Arkansas was segregated.
- Arkansas made progress in 1917 in electing Edward Demby as the Episcopal Church’s first African American bishop to be ordained on U.S. soil. The unfortunate side to the story is that many people hoped that he could organize our black congregations so that they could eventually form their own denomination, thus leaving the Episcopal Church to white people.
- In the early part of the twentieth century, the murder of several black Arkansans was planned, in part, in an Episcopal church building.
- In 1932 the search for a new bishop in Arkansas resulted in the election of someone generally perceived as a racist. The black members of the clergy were not allowed to receive Holy Communion with the white delegates at that electing convention. Told to go to the basement instead. The uproar was so fierce that the larger Episcopal Church refused to give consent to Arkansas’s election. That is a very rare occurrence.
- Eventually, during the Civil Rights era, our church’s well-intentioned effort to integrate churches resulted in the closing of our historically black congregations and inviting their members to join our white congregations. In an act of unintentional racism, we were making it known which congregations we saw as more important.
It is important not to remain silent. To say nothing now would be to add another chapter to our diocesan history. We need to face racial discrimination in America and in our own diocese, and take actions to change the structures that perpetuate racial and economic inequality. To use the imagery of Old Testament prophets, sometimes the church has to stand at the city gate and say some hard things.
The overarching, consistent message of the Bible is compassion: the very mercy, justice, and humility that Micah proclaimed as a prophet. The overarching, consistent message of Christianity is resurrection: to seek and serve the risen Christ in all persons. We Christians are called to step into the breach through our own lives and actions and proclamations.
I encourage you to use the resources on this page as we pursue this necessary work as a diocese, as congregations, as families, and as individuals.
Larry R. Benfield
Bishop of Arkansas