(RNS) — The weekend before Election Day, Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, led an interfaith prayer service livestreamed from Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital.
The service, “Holding on to Hope: A National Service for Healing and Wholeness,” began with a time of confession and reckoning, followed by a time of grief and lament.
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It was All Saints’ Day, and there were prayers for the 200,000-plus Americans who have died from COVID-19. Their deaths are among a number of things Curry believes Americans need to grieve.
That’s the first step to hope and healing, he said.
“You can’t just jump to hope,” the presiding bishop said afterward. “There’s a process you have to go through. There are no shortcuts to it.”
Curry spoke to Religion News Service in the days between Election Day and the projection of a Joe Biden win. The presiding bishop shared his thoughts about what divides the United States, what people of faith can do to help bridge those divisions and why he believes healing is ultimately possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earlier this month, you led a national service for healing and wholeness. Why did that feel important in the days going into this election?
I think part of that is because the country — and the world, but, in particular, the country — has been through a lot. This is clearly a divisive election. That’s self-evident.
But that’s reflecting other things. That’s reflecting the impact of COVID-19. We still don’t know the full social, spiritual and personal impact that’s having, but we know it’s having it.
Then you add on top of that, not COVID-19, but the pandemic of 1619, which goes back into the painful reality of our racial past, of white supremacy, of domination.
So you add that racial reckoning on top of a viral pandemic and all its implications, and then on top of it, America has some deep divisions, and they’re not just racial. There are divisions of class, divisions of those who do feel left out, and they play out deeply. They played out the last time, in 2016 even, in the election.
What will it take to heal those divisions?
I didn’t tell the story at the cathedral, but this was in the 2015 campaign at a Trump rally here in North Carolina — in Fayetteville. There were protesters present. That was sort of normal, if you remember, in that last campaign. And at one of them, this one particular guy, who happened to be an older white guy, punched a younger Black guy who was one of the protesters. He was arrested and charged with assault. He apologized in court for what he did and accepted responsibility for it. And then this is the quote I can remember: He said, “We’re in a political mess, you and me, and we’ve got to do something to heal our country.”
In a subsequent story about those two, the Black guy said to the white guy, “Let’s go out and eat lunch.”
That’s what we must do in America. We must go out and eat lunch together. That’s a metaphor for the hard work of what it is going to take to heal the divisions. When people eat together, over time, they actually get to know each other. And sometimes, a whole lot of stuff you assume about the other, you discover isn’t true. At its best, you discover there’s a story behind why that person thinks or feels the way they do. You may not agree with it, but you can kind of understand it.
Then, you see, we have the capacity to figure out how to do the structural healing. You’ve got to pass laws. You’ve got to change the policy. But the truth is: Changed laws and changed policies don’t change hearts, and until you change hearts, you don’t change everything. You’ve got to take a holistic approach.
That man was right. We are in a mess. We must heal our country. I think some of that is the great work that is before us as a country, and certainly before the church and people of faith.
Can you talk about this idea of Christian unity? Does that identity supersede political beliefs or some of the other divides we might see in the wider society?
I think that is the case. I do remember some instances — I’m going back some years now — when we were close to comprehensive immigration reform. I remember going to see one particular congressperson and making the case for that. He was a devout Christian, represented himself as a conservative and a conservative Christian, but he was open, and I jokingly said, “You know, this is one subject on which I as the Episcopal bishop and the Roman Catholic bishop here, we happen to agree. And I’ve been with some Pentecostal officials and they agree.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, the Southern Baptists were here this morning, and they were making the same point.”
There is some common ground on some questions of moral, human decency and compassion. We actually share common ground because it’s so embedded into the faith, and we share it with other traditions.
You build there. You start from the common ground. You don’t start from the differences. We start from the common ground of common values. And then let that be the moral foundation for practical ways to actually live that out. That’s where there’s differences, you know? And that’s fine. That’s what democracy is about. We sort it out, figure it out, come up with the best solution.
What are some practical things people of faith can do to be part of that work?
Braver Angels has specific programs — With Malice Toward None is one — for churches and civic groups to be involved in, actually bringing together people across political differences. The Episcopal Church has a program, Make Me an Instrument of Peace, which is a five-week curriculum on civil discourse. Again, it’s not about talking nicely. It’s actually some of the dynamics of how do you foster humane, decent and respectful discourse and interchange across differences?
Nothing happens accidentally. We have to learn how to do this. There are other organizations and groups that do this. There’s plenty. We don’t have to invent the materials. We just have to implement them, bring people together for dinner.
For example, what would happen if religious communities of all stripes paired up and said: We’re going to be in a relationship for two years, and we’re going to start out by doing With Malice Toward None. We’re going to do civil discourse. And then we’re going to have a planning group that thinks through how do we nurture this relationship over time? That is very practical.
Failure to know the other is a setup for conflict.
You sound optimistic. Do you think this kind of healing is possible — that it is possible for us to bridge these divides and move forward together as a country after a really polarized season?
Oh, yes. Now, I’m not naively optimistic. I know human progress and growth is possible and can happen, but it only happens as a result of hard work, of struggle over the long haul, and that hard work and struggle includes setback.
I mean, I’m an African American man. I’m a product of the Black community. I’m a product of — go far enough back, you’re into Jim Crow; far enough back, you’re in slavery; far enough back, you’re in the Middle Passage crossing from West Africa over here. I’m a product of that tradition that has learned there is progress and there are steps forward and then there’s a pushback. There always is, but you keep moving forward. You don’t go back.
I have seen progress happen in my lifetime. I have seen the pushback, but I’ve seen we’re always moving forward. There’s a spiritual of the old slaves. I think they were talking about this when they said, “Keep a-inchin’ along like the inchworm.” That’s how progress happens. It doesn’t happen in quantum. It happens inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, and before you know it, you’ve moved farther down the road than you ever thought you would.
I believe it is possible for us to be instruments of healing in this culture. And I refuse to give up. As long as there’s a God and God doesn’t quit, I’m not quitting.