Beyond thoughts and prayers: what I learned on the first day of school

06.03.2020 - Kanuga Stories

In 1972 I walked into an Open House to meet my first-grade teacher about a week before classes. She was a beautiful, kind woman in her mid-forties; homemade lemonade and fresh baked cookies sat on her desk. But what I remember most walking in that day was her getting down on one knee, looking me in the eye, calling my name, and wrapping her arms around me.

Fast forward a week. We are seated at our desks, school has started, and a knock comes at the door. The principal was bringing another student to class. I watched as the scared, crying boy fell into her arms. But something was wrong. The boy was limp; his arms did not extend back toward her. The principal looked stressed; my teacher was concerned. It was then that I noticed a man standing outside. He was angry. Upset. I was afraid of him.

Moments later, the principal and the boy’s father were arguing outside the door. I recall the father’s words: “She is black. My son is white. Get him another teacher.” The principal, without hesitation, simply replied: “He has his teacher. She is the best.”

Mrs. Dorothy H. Brown, 1926–2019

That was my first day of school almost 50 years ago.

I knew my teacher was black. I was born in the late 1960s amidst the struggle and strife of the civil rights movement, however in my family, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, race was not discussed. But in that moment, the whole fabric of racism in America had woven itself into my innocent life. I had witnessed its power and privilege, but luckily, I had also borne witness to the power of love.

Today, I am dumbfounded. I am shocked. What we have witnessed at the hands of those in power against our brothers and sisters in recent days is an attack on the very principles we stand for as a people and nation. We know deep within that our ability to record violence and oppression anywhere, any time on a phone’s camera has not revealed isolated instances of racism but brought to light the very systems that perpetuate its continued vile life in our country.

I am honored to serve an institution whose name literally means “gathering place for all.” And yet, as its leader, I also know that we have failed to live into that mission prophetically. Too often, we have allowed historic practices to perpetuate systems that keep our organization too white. For that, we must repent. And change.

I also know that our history has much goodness. Founded by an immigrant, Kanuga has a long history of seeking peace, reconciliation, and justice. I recall the story of our founder Bishop Kirkman Finlay encouraging his diocese to give black Episcopalians of South Carolina seat, voice, and vote at church conventions in the 1930s only to be so angered by the proposal’s defeat, he banged his gavel on the podium so hard he broke the crystal in his watch. I recall his insistence that a black man could be ordained at Kanuga a couple of years later, hosting an integrated reception afterwards against the laws of the land. He stood up for those without a voice. He put his skin in the game. Like my first-grade school principal outside the doorway, he did not back down. He stood with Jesus. And like my teacher, he knew the power of love.

Today, I invite you to likewise embrace the power of love. The time has come to repent of our wrongs, to acknowledge our own ways of perpetuating systemic injustice, and claim a new day for all God’s children to thrive in this world. That has always been our mission, but in light of the world in which we live, it must be rekindled with fervor and unwavering determination. It cannot merely be a mission statement plastered on our walls but must be written on our hearts, clearly present in our actions. It must become our constant witness, not in platitudes and prayers easily offered, but in sacrificial, difficult action for the goodness of the world.

Why? Because if we know we are children of God, we must seek God’s graces for all. We must honor all. No footnotes. No exceptions. We are to love like Jesus at all times, in all places, among all people. We are to work for peace, reconciliation, justice, mercy, and the dignity of every human being with every fiber of our being. To do otherwise is to create ourselves in our own image, elevate self above the Creator, and abandon the grace we claim in Christ. For if Christ merely came to save the privileged, Christ died and rose again in vain. Our black brothers and sisters, indeed all who are oppressed and subjected to systemic oppression, must see in our actions the liberating love of Jesus. They are tired of our thoughts and prayers; I don’t blame them. What our world deserves is our willingness to act.

My first-grade teacher never spoke of what happened that day. The young man remained in my class all year and I remember her loving him like every other child. She lived the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

She died last year at the age of ninety-two. I’m thankful she still teaches me today. As does Bishop Finlay and countless others who have stood up with the active, engaged, disorienting, radical love of Jesus. Let us commit ourselves to their example. Let us press onward. We must overcome.


Michael Sullivan, Kanuga President & CEO