JSA’s Don Edwards shared his insights on racial reconciliation projects featured in March 16, 2017 Episcopal News Service article.
He felt attacked, and says so, specifically choosing the word to convey his strength of emotion. Yes, he felt personally attacked. But A.W. “Buster” Lewis also felt that R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia–his parish–“as I knew it, was being attacked and that we needed to do something about it.”
Lewis’s feelings first welled up in the summer of 2015, when the vestry of R.E. Lee Memorial decided to explore the idea of changing its name of 114 years. The decision came in the wake of the June 2015 shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left three wounded and nine dead. Quick on the heels of the shooting, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution at its 78th General Convention urging “…all persons, along with public, governmental, and religious institutions, to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.”
Confederate flags were not the issue in question at R. E. Lee, a reasonably large parish of 465 members in a small town of some 7,200 residents. Lexington is home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are buried there, and the Appalachian Trail wends its way north just a few miles away. This university town’s rural surroundings and deep historical roots blend into its own ecosystem—one that feeds R.E. Lee.
“[Our parish is] a rather diverse community on the conservative-liberal spectrum,” says the Rev. Tom Crittenden, rector of R.E. Lee Memorial.
In that diverse setting, with the Charleston massacre looming large in the country’s conscience, a parishioner had written a letter to the vestry about the church’s name. The parishioner “just wanted to go on record that the name was not helpful to the mission of the church, and asked the vestry to consider changing the name,” says Crittenden. Given “the context of those killings and the Confederate memorabilia,” Crittenden says, “when [the vestry] received the letter, there was a general awareness that the name was on some level problematic.’’ With that awareness and with the letter as a catalyst, a discussion of its name opened up among R.E. Lee Memorial’s 465 members.
That same summer, just 138 miles to the east at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley spoke from the pulpit about the Confederate symbols in his church, long known as “the Cathedral of the Confederacy.” During the Civil War, Richmond was the capitol of the Confederate States of America. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, worshipped at St. Paul’s and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was a member.