When Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown spoke out against President Donald Trump’s photo op at an Episcopal parish last week, she said, it wasn’t because she was holding her tongue about the events leading up to it.
The week of news about black Americans being harassed or killed — starting with a birder in New York being falsely accused of threats, and continuing with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police — was “like a sucker punch,” MacVean-Brown said in an interview, “just thing after thing after thing.”
MacVean-Brown, who is Vermont’s first black Episcopal bishop, wrote an open letter last Tuesday after police used tear gas on protesters so the president could pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “Using precious objects of our faith as props in a display to uphold white dominance and violence is a blatant display of evil,” she wrote.
As the series of incidents continues to inspire a national protest movement, MacVean-Brown said it’s important to recognize that honoring human life is nonpartisan. And with the conversation about racism playing out against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, the bishop said, people also need to find space to grieve.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The president’s photo op came after days of surreal images that we were seeing from across the country. What was it about that incident that prompted you to speak out?
You know, I always worry about our country. It’s sort of like, a black person’s preoccupation is the heart and soul of our country that continues to fail us. And to see those things that are in place that could make it a possibility that we could have a country that actually cares about everybody, where the laws are applied evenly to everybody — to see those things just eroding day by day, with the backdrop of a disease that we can’t control, and that also happens to be impacting black and brown communities, native communities, at greater rates.
I just found myself for a while sort of speechless. I couldn’t say anything. There’s just this constant wearing at one’s spirit. So by the time Monday came around, I was exhausted. And suddenly my voice came back, and I could not help but say something.
What kind of concerns have you been hearing from people in your church?
They’re saying, I can’t believe it. This is terrible, but something has to happen. Our country can’t continue like this. I mean, just lots and lots of people just feeling bewildered, upset, grieved.
When you get these concerns, how do you respond to them? When people are coming at you with things like fear and anger and frustration about what’s happening right now, do you feel like it’s more productive to try to put those feelings at ease, or is there a reason to say, these are things that we should talk about and explore?
Two things. I remind people that all of our emotions are a gift from God, even the uncomfortable ones — things like shame and anger, guilt, all of those things are a gift from God.
It’s also where people get hung up on dealing with racism, because then they feel guilt. I’ve taught healing racism courses, and people say, “Oh, I don’t like you trying to make me feel guilty.” No. I’m not making you feel guilty. You’re actually functioning as a normal human being to feel that guilt or that anger or that shame — so that then, to examine yourself, to examine what’s going on in society, and to do something about it.
I think the thing that’s difficult for me right now, and for others, is that — I’ve spent a lot of time being part of community organizing groups. I was raised going to demonstrations dealing with a multitude of issues. And I’m here, and not out with a sign. I’m not at meetings, planning what we’re going to do. It’s just the shifting of, how do we deal with that while we’re sheltering in place? We’re at a loss because the tools that we would normally use aren’t available to us.
Right. And one thing that always comes up when we have conversations like this is that with the demographics of Vermont, we’re in this predominantly white space. I do know, though, that there are thousands of people attending these rallies and these vigils, who want to be the best allies that they can. I’m wondering, what do you recommend to those people? What are you telling people who are trying to make as much progress in this moment as they can?
Always speak up. Every opportunity that you have, speak up. And don’t worry about getting it perfectly. Because sometimes people feel like, “Oh, what if I’ll say the wrong thing?” Yeah. You’re going to, at some point. But it’s better that you speak up and do something rather than guard yourself, and nothing ever happens. Because if this had been an issue that more people took up a long time ago, and allowed themselves to feel uncomfortable, I don’t think we’d be in the same place.
That was one of the conversations that I was having with my clergy on Wednesday. Episcopalians are known for being a little progressive, but we also have really conservative parts of the Episcopal church. We’re this big tent with all people — we’re hanging in there with each other. And part of how we’ve maintained that is by saying something, but not too much, and not wanting to be too uncomfortable or make other people uncomfortable. We can’t afford to keep doing that. Because that isn’t the work of the church, to make ourselves feel comfortable. I just think about Jesus. He wasn’t comfortable on the cross. So if we think that we should feel comfortable with the things that we talk about, we’re fooling ourselves.
The other thing that I told the clergy: I said, yes, you might have parishioners that might not agree with you bringing up certain things, but it’s not like you’re doing things to harm people. Remind them that these are not partisan issues that we’re talking about. Yes, someone might label it as political, but is it partisan to say that people should be able to walk down the street without fear because of their color? You can’t say that that’s a partisan issue. You can’t say that it’s a partisan issue, that someone should be lying in their bed, and police break into the house and shoot them dead. I mean, where is there a partisan issue around that?
I do wonder how you navigate the politics of this that specifically surround law enforcement. Because it does seem like there are very specific complaints among activists about policing, about structural racism within law enforcement organizations, and specific demands about what they should think should happen with that.
Well, the thing is that we can train police to do what they do. I mean, they are people, and it’s difficult. I can’t imagine being a police officer. You’ve got to weigh the safety of the community, your personal safety, and all these things that you have to keep in mind. And yes, I know in the heat of the moment things get lost. But when you add in systemic racism and the things that are allowed and things that have shown themselves in how we police people, clearly something has to be dealt with.
My nephew is a police officer. It was his day off, but he was called in because of protests in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And so my sister-in-law and I were praying that he would be okay. I hate that he’s in a situation where all these other things that complicate keeping our citizens safe get in the way of him just doing the work that he committed to. I know why he went into police work, and it was because his sister was murdered. So it makes sense. He’s working out his life and trying to make sure that other women aren’t abducted and killed.
This is not against police and people in the work that they’re called to do. But this is about, as a society, we’ve got to fix these structures that are not working for all of our people.
It does seem like that becomes the challenge: when you’re having these conversations on a very broad level, how then do they come down to actual policy changes, actual fixes in the system?
I think that we have to trust those people who know how to make laws and get them enacted. But part of how we influence that is to say what is and isn’t okay in society.
It just keeps showing up in a lot of these cases, where some of the people that have been employed to be police, they’re also a part of groups that clearly aren’t interested in fair policing. And so there can be things in place to check, to find out what people are up to, and to make sure that we don’t have police who will sully the names and the goodness of other police. There are ways to avoid that. It’s not rocket science, really. But people have to have the will to do it. That’s the thing.
You mentioned earlier that even before the events of last week, we were dealing with this incredibly stressful time with the pandemic. I wonder how you see that as affecting the conversation of the past couple weeks.
The thing that was my task for the day on Monday was that, as a church, part of our work is to create a space for honoring the dead, for offering concern for those who have lost loved ones. And then to have over a hundred thousand people dead, leadership has to acknowledge that grief of a nation. I mean, when has there been a time when there are so many people in the country touched by death?
Our churches, we’re not meeting in our buildings. And as we are talking about certain steps of reopening, we realize that when we get back together, it will not look the same. The church that we knew is gone. And so we’re grieving that as well. Part of the healing is acknowledging that. You know, we believe in Jesus. And so our conversation around resurrection also sounds and feels different now. We’ve found ourselves identifying with the early church and how, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were still dealing with hope and grief all at the same time. That’s, you know, life.
That’s also reminded people of how oppressed people are always living with wanting to maintain hope, but also knowing that there’s so much, so much grief in life all the time. But you live anyway.
It’s hard to maintain hope. And so we do have to give ourselves the opportunities to cry, to lament, to mourn, and to know that is all tied together with new life.
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