St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin was founded in the 1940s by a group of black Episcopalians who were not welcome in white churches in Austin. Over time, they made the decision to become a more inclusive, multicultural congregation in order to grow and include the full community. As the diversity of membership increased, St. James recognized the need for knowledge and tools to integrate new members into their diverse community.
How the “One Human Race” effort began
Church members wanted to make sure they preserved the historical African-American heritage of the congregation, while practicing “radical hospitality” and ensuring everyone felt welcomed and included by the community. Creating a safe space that is inclusive, while allowing for difficult conversations, is not always easy. Congregation members looked for tools and resources that could help them do this successfully.
Long-time congregational leader Ora Houston (also now an Austin City Council member), encouraged fellow parishioner Teresa Chang, a member of the Myra McDaniel Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, to participate in a diversity training provided by the City of Austin so she could determine its usefulness for the church.
The one-day training used the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion. The documentary is a three-part series that explores race in society and in the history of the United States. After attending the training, Chang and other St. James’ members made the decision to use the documentary and integrate other tools to adapt the workshop for their congregation.
Using the training at St. James and beyond
“The benefit was that the workshop, along with other parish conversations, helped St. James in its efforts to integrate members of all races, while remaining a multicultural, rather than a white-dominated, institution,” said Chang.
The workshop was originally meant to be used for St. James and provided a space for diverse small groups of people to share experiences and listen to each other. But after hearing of their successes, other churches began to ask for the workshop in their congregations. St. James’ leaders then began to expand the workshops across Austin.
“We developed communication agreements which establish a safe zone where we’re all learning, no one is an expert, and we are all being respectful,” said Chang. “We also began using mutual invitation, a concept from Eric Law’s The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb where each person has to be invited to speak.”
Increased demand to have a conversation about race
In 2014, given the surge of attention around social issues involving police violence, the St. James group saw a groundswell of interest and need for the workshops. After feedback from previous participants, Chang and Sandy Batisse ramped up their efforts by branding the training and solidifying their curriculum.
“We wanted something catchy, and something that embodied the main take-away of the workshop: that we are all one human race,” said Chang.
Today, the One Human Race Initiative is an active ministry of the Myra McDaniel Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. It seeks to create a safe, open, and productive environment for everyone to participate in discussions about race to build community and common ground. Groups attending the workshops meet over three Saturdays to view the three-part documentary. Then they engage in facilitated small-group discussion to share feelings, experiences, and perspectives on the individual, institutional and systemic impacts of race.
Following the training, participants are invited to the One Human Race Facebook group where they can safely engage in discussion about race, ask pressing questions, and share opportunities for action.
To date, the initiative has been hosted in more than a dozen Austin-area churches made up of different denominations. It’s transformed the lives of participants, the way they see others, participate in community, and communicate about race.
“Through our work with the community, I’ve learned how a little knowledge and intentionality can make community building so much easier and a little knowledge can bring people together in an amazing way,” said Chang. “I love to see people visiting with each other, having open discussions and connecting at the end of the session. It’s powerful.”
The initiative’s success, however, has not come without challenge. The demand for workshops is more than the number of churches willing and able to host the sessions. Additionally, the workshops are run entirely by volunteers from Union of Black Episcopalians and St. James, and they have a hard time recruiting and training enough facilitators to keep up with demand.
Despite these challenges, the One Human Race Initiative has expanded this year to include The Austin Story: a history of the events leading up to the racial segregation which exists in the city today. The presentation includes a 30-minute video from KLRU local public television, historical background information, and a panel of Austinites familiar with the city’s history. So far, there have been two of the expanded workshops hosting more than 65 participants.
The Austin Story is largely focused on the African-American experience in Austin and the team is looking to create another workshop focused on the history of the Latino population in Austin.
Looking to the future
In the future, One Human Race hopes to reach all corners of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to start the conversation on race. The goal is to engage people so they can openly talk about our nation’s history with race, our differences and similarities, and how we can use perspective to better relate to one another and to those we serve through our outreach.
Becoming a catalyst for change
The Austin Union of Black Episcopalians Chapter demonstrates how a group of individuals, or even a congregation, can be the catalyst to create space for open dialogue, a multicultural community, and even reconciliation. Being intentional about learning and understanding different perspectives is a great way to build trust, more effectively serve and work with neighbors, and create a more close-knit relationship and healthier community.
You can find upcoming One Human Race workshops online through our learning opportunities page. If you’re interested in hosting or learning more about the One Human Race initiative, click here to contact Theresa Chang.
If you’d like to start the conversation about race in your community, learn how to bring diverse groups together for a common goal, or for more information on health equity, send us an email to get started!