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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Black History Month — Beyond Our Borders

As we move into the month of February, the phrase “standing in the breach” and the concept of “breach-menders” keep coming to me. Perhaps it is because we are leading up to this year’s Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 2). Perhaps too it is because this is Black History Month, and this year I have some new insights into the month’s observances.

Salvation history sees Jesus as one who came to stand in the breach for us. In military terms, standing in the breach means keeping watch and bearing the brunt of being in an almost defenseless situation. Being a breach-mender is an image we find in Isaiah 58:12. It comes after a passage in which the prophet, speaking for God, insists that the fasting and sacrifice which God most desires is focused on feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, easing the misery of the afflicted and letting one’s light shine for the good of others. These, assuredly, are descriptions of much of Jesus’ behavior and his teaching about the integral link between love of God and love of neighbor.

Standing in the breach and being breach-mending also have much to do with an experience I had in early November. From Nov. 8-12 I was privileged to participate in a number of sessions of the Conference on Theology in the Caribbean Today (CTCT). The scholarly papers, the prayerful interludes and the artistic moments during the conference were ecumenical, honest and inspiring.

I adjusted to Trinidad-Tobago time as sessions focused on how the pandemic affected ministry, how people celebrated liturgy and used social media during lockdowns and the ways in which people of faith dealt with the mystery of suffering. There was much discussion of how love of neighbor concretely plays out in a time of crisis.

Aside from the obvious COVID-19–driven reflections on the interrelations of God and humanity in a broken world, there was always standing in the background another lived reality: the scholars, researchers, leaders of prayer, bishops and the prime minister of Barbados were speaking from a post-colonial context, a much more recent one than that of the North Americans attending. And most of them were wholly, or in part, of African descent. So the history of slavery and the history of colonization, along with salvation and ecclesial history, were embedded in their bones.

Alison McLetchie, Ph.D., assistant professor of social sciences at South Carolina State University and frequent contributor to our diocesan Ethnic Ministries productions, invited me to join this conference and offered online gracious hospitality as we broke into conversation after presentations. I cannot help but think of her as one who stands in the breach — because she is so forthright in her analysis of racism in terms of both the impetus and legacy of slavery and in its grim persistence in this very moment. She is also a breach-mender in the way in which she engages multi-racial groups and people of all manner of faiths — Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Rastafarians.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we also must ask ourselves how we are called to stand in the breach and also be breach-menders. Perhaps it will take us, as the CTCT events did, beyond the usual borders of our minds and hearts.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is diocesan director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at