Earlier this year, a self-proclaimed pack rat, the Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer — Bishop Mike, as he’s known — was going through some of the stuff he’s collected in his 65 years.
Reportedly, this was at the urging of his wife, who may or may not have been thoroughly exasperated with just how much stuff there was.
Decades worth, as it turns out.
“I had my notes from college ... and I have my notes from seminary,” he admitted.
Now the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, he received his Master of Divinity degree back in — wait for it — 1980.
“I also have old letters and old files from the bishops of the Episcopal Church going back ... well, I’ve been ordained for 40 years,” he sighed.
So you can begin to imagine just how much stuff there was.
But there in the stacks of all that stuff was a letter he remembered well. A letter that may help define what could be his final year as the head of the diocese.
“In 1996 ... there was what’s called a pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Episcopal Church to the Episcopal Church at large,” he said. “And it was entitled, ‘The Sin of Racism.’”
At the time, he was the rector of Trinity Church in Wheaton, Illinois.
All these years later, what struck him about that letter, besides the starkness of the contents, was that, “It could have been written last week.”
“I mean, I don’t remember a time in my ordained ministry that we haven’t been talking about the sin of racism and what can the Episcopal Church do,” he said.
The entire United States has an ugly history with racism.
The Episcopal Church, said Klusmeyer, has been a part of that ugly history.
Prior to 1863, “When West Virginia was, was a part of Virginia, 80% of the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia owned slaves ... or I should say they owned ‘enslaved persons,’” he said.
Ending slavery didn’t end racism, he pointed out.
“Over in the Eastern Panhandle, in Charles Town, we have two Episcopal Churches. Zion, which is the oldest established church, just celebrated its 200th anniversary a few years ago,” he said. “Interesting, three blocks away is St. Phillips. St. Phillips is the historically African-American parish.”
Why would there be two separate Episcopal churches within three blocks of each other?
African Americans “used to go to Zion back when they were enslaved persons or they were servants. And then Zion got rid of its, what we call slave gallery. Old churches used to have slave galleries. We take the slave galleries down, you have two options: They can either come and sit in the pews with you or you build ‘em another church,” said Klusmeyer.
That was just over a century ago.
Back in 1996, when that “Sin of Racism” letter came out, he and other pastors were required to read it to their congregations.
“I got up one Sunday. I read all eight pages of it and said, ‘Here it is,’ you know. How much did we do afterwards?”
So a few weeks ago, after he found that old letter — and, one imagines, much to the dismay of his clutter-battling wife — he stopped sorting through stuff and instead began to write his own letter, issuing a challenge to the heads of all 63 Episcopal churches in West Virginia and every parishioner in the state.
In it, he referenced “The Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 following his arrest during a nonviolent protest in Alabama.
“As you read the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., please understand that he was writing to us — to the white church — and he was telling us that his fight is ours as well.
“Are we better today?” he wrote.
“Yes, our country has recently had a Black President, and our church currently has a black Presiding Bishop, but our collective history as a country is one of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and most recently, high profile unjustifiable killings of African Americans by white police officers. Have we progressed to the point we can declare victory over racism and rest on our laurels?”
Despite the pleadings of King, himself a minister, racism and the efforts to contain it aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind when most people think of their local churches. Traditionally, there’s more of a focus on helping those in need and perhaps saving souls along the way.
But it is absolutely and appropriately an issue for the church, said Klusmeyer.
“I think the answer, first of all, was called the Imago Dei. We were made in the image of God. So I can’t say, ‘I’m made in the image of God but you’re not.’ And I can’t say ‘I’m made in the image of God but you’re not because you’re of a different skin color.’ We’re all made in the image of God. So that’s the first.”
Further reason for taking on such a seemingly secular issue is also in the Baptismal Covenant, found in the Episcopal prayer book — recited at baptisms, confirmations and various times throughout the year.
Klusmeyer rattles off some of the question from memory.
“‘Do you believe in God the father?’ Yeah. ‘Do you believe in God the son?’ Yeah.”
And then, further down, “‘Will you seek and love Christ in all person, loving your neighbor as yourself?’ Ehh ... now you’re starting to meddle. ‘Will you strive for justice and peace of all people and respect the dignity of every human being ...’ If you want to know what the church believes, listen to their prayers. They will pray what they believe and they will believe what they pray.”
So in writing his own letters to his own parishioners, he was direct — blunt, even.
“As a church, we have said what we will do, and brothers and sisters in Christ, in all honesty, we have not done it,” he wrote.
Thoughts and prayers are not enough, he added.
He spelled out a list of action steps, and with that, he issued a challenge to each church: “As your bishop, I ask you to engage with me in committing to ending racial injustice. I ask each of you, and each church in the diocese, within the next twelve months, to commit to the Seven Steps to Justice attached to this letter.”
He wants parishioners to actively seek ways to make a positive impact on race relations in their communities. To advocate for reforms, call out acts of prejudice, to form relationships with people who don’t look just like them.
They are simple, except they’re really not.
“We have been commanded to love one another. Love is more than just words, it is action,” he wrote. With an eye towards retirement perhaps late next year, Klusmeyer is realistic about what can be accomplished in these final months.
“Why this? Why now? I would say, as Rosa Parks said, I’m tired. I didn’t mean to make a statement. I’ve been sitting in this church for 65 years, I’ve been ordained for 40. I’m tired. It’s time.
“I don’t believe I’m going to fix the problem in the next year, but I do believe West Virginia and the whole church and the country, we need to have this conversation. We need to be breaking down the walls.”