A total of 26 Partner Council members and staff gathered at St. Patrick’s Church on June 20 for our first in-person Partner Council meeting since January 2020, with great enthusiasm and delight at being together in person!
We were greeted by Karen Melchar, Partner Council member from St. Patrick’s, one of SMGW’s longstanding partner churches, and by Rev. Kurt Gerhard, St. Patrick’s Rector, who welcomed the group and offered a blessing.
After welcoming new Partner Reps, the meeting focused on Samaritan Ministry’s response to systemic racism both within the organization, as it impacts participants and caseworkers, as well as within our communities at large in Greater Washington.
Carol Coonrod, Partner Council Convenor, opened this conversation reminding us that issues of racial equity and justice that were rarely or explicitly talked about are now out in the open, and that we’re grappling with them as individuals, families, organizations, and as a country. Executive Director David Wolf noted that while Samaritan Ministry has been involved in individual change-work through the Next Step program ever since its inception 35 years ago, we have struggled to engage in community change work, and that addressing systemic racism gives an opportunity to do that while addressing racism in our own ranks.
Recognizing that the Episcopal Church as a whole and the Episcopal churches who founded SMGW are predominantly White churches, Samaritan Ministry is committed to addressing the White power structure that has predominated its leadership, particularly at the Executive and Board level. Recent developments in that regard include a Board of Directors that is 50% Black for the first time in its history and a Partner Council that, while still predominantly White, includes more historically Black parishes than ever before. But, David indicated, there is still much more equity work to be done.
Sophia Nalty, Caseworker at the NW Office, led the conversation further by asking, “How could Samaritan Ministry be dedicated to empowering our participants, engaging our partners, and identifying basic, systemic and unmet needs without first addressing these systemic issues from within? How could Samaritan Ministry, an organization whose service demographic is 89% Black and Brown, truly embody the values of compassion, transformation, dignity, and community without intentionally seeking greater consciousness around the realities that blatantly plague the Black and Brown members of our community, both internal and external?”
She informed the group that the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 catalyzed a response to this tragedy within Samaritan Ministry which led to the formation of the 12-person Racial Equity and Justice Roundtable. The Roundtable, which has met for the past six months, is made up of paid staff, volunteer staff, Board members, and Partner Reps, and is making recommendations to the Board for addressing systemic racism within the organization and beyond.
Looking beyond Samaritan Ministry internally, Amy Vruno, Lead Organizer of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), joined our Partner Council meeting and challenged the group with statements like,
- Racism is a social construct; we all know that, right?
- If we don’t name issues that need to be addressed, we’re not telling the truth
- Nothing moves without power
- Power without love is reckless and abusive
She distinguished two types of power: that of dominant power vs. relational power. She reminded the group that only with relational power can you fight the power of domination.
The group identified issues that impact our participants including environmental racism, access to health care, limited availability of technology and the knowledge to use it, the expense and limited availability of child-care, and affordable housing. She then briefed us on specific issues that WIN has taken up recently, each of which requires citizen participation to counter the powerful special interests that usually prevail.
David ended the meeting with a reminder to schedule Empower Our Neighbors in Need (ENN) events at our churches if they haven’t already taken place – and promised “next steps” for the Council to consider in terms of collectively engaging in WIN’s work which, as Amy highlighted, is principally focused on social and economic empowerment for predominately Black and Brown communities where unemployment and insufficient housing is most prevalent.