Once upon a time, a young woman on a quest to find faith wandered into St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Though church was not a part of her childhood upbringing, she was intrigued by the few instances she had visited with relatives. This particular church, however, stuck out to her for an almost comical reason — she’d first heard the word “episcopal” in a play and liked the way it sounded.
The service that Sunday was a fateful one for her, the start of a tale that could only have been written by an author of divine proportions. The liturgy was captivating and familiar. She heard the voice of God say to her, “Welcome home.”
Sometime later, the young woman decided this was the place for her, and she was baptized. This weekend, Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows will be consecrated as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, the first Black woman to hold this rank of leadership over a diocese in North America.
“If you would have asked me when I was 25 years old if I’d ever imagined this, I would have laughed you out of the room,” said Baskerville-Burrows with a smile. “But here we are.”
Baskerville-Burrows, who previously served as director of networking for the Diocese of Chicago, got her start in ministry by founding a group for young people at her church, Trinity Church in New York City, as a way to meet other people her age. A mentor, Rev. Caroline Stacey, asked Baskerville-Burrows about going into priesthood.
“I said no, because I was planning to go into architecture or landscape design,” she said. However, she felt a pull inside to explore the possibility. This period of time, referred to as the discernment process, is a lengthy one, said Baskerville-Burrows, when a person prays and seeks the voice of God to confirm their path. Hers eventually led to ordination and, more recently, to bishop-elect.
Baskerville-Burrows’ elevation is indeed a historic one, but she does not neglect to mention the number of women whose own journeys made hers a bit more plausible. Women like the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, who was the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. Harris was ordained bishop suffragan (assistant bishop) of Massachusetts in 1989 and is also African-American.
“The first thing that comes to mind is how grateful I am to the women that have come before. Barbara Harris will be at my consecration, and when I think about what she’s done for me and how I’ve even encountered little girls saying, ‘Oh my gosh. One day, may I discern such a call?’ That is just everything,” she said.
“We believe in what you call an incarnate faith, meaning that God came to us in a human body (through Jesus Christ), so having people in flesh and blood exhibit those possibilities is a big deal. It’s an honor to walk in this path.”
This instance will also mark the first time that a woman has succeeded another woman in overseeing the Indianapolis diocese.
“These are great firsts and great breaking of the stained glass ceiling, so we hope there will be more,” said Baskerville-Burrows.
The Episcopal Church first ordained women in 1974, but the practice was not approved by the denomination’s highest authority until 1976. Currently, six of the 109 dioceses around the world have female bishops over them. In 2015, approximately 35 percent of the priests were women.
Though she believes that church leadership should not be intentionally gendered or based on a race quota, she hopes that more diverse representation will occur.
“I just don’t want barriers. I think the issue is how do we make it possible for women and people of color to take on leadership. I think if we work on that, the representation issues will take care of themselves.”
Other issues on Baskerville-Burrows’ radar are those surrounding social justice. In her career, she has been involved in a number of efforts around food equity, homelessness, gun violence, youth mentoring and the rights of the LGBT community. For her, social justice work is a consistent facet of faith and not an unrelated endeavor.
“For us, this is a matter of faith in our walk to follow Jesus,” she said. “We’re just called to make the world a better place. … Standing with those who are vulnerable is a core faith issue for us.
We believe that God created all of us in our rich diversity and we’re called to be with each other and to honor the creation that God has in each person. It’s complicated for sure, but the work to love our neighbors and get to know who we are in the crux of our humanity is part of the journey.”
When asked about what her plans will be surrounding that work here in Indianapolis, Baskerville-Burrows remarked that her intention is to listen first to the needs of the community.
“There is some great ministry happening already, and my job is really to amplify that,” she said. One example of that is work being done around the topic of racial reconciliation.
St. Philips, one of the few historically Black Episcopal congregations in the country, has a complicated history all its own within the denomination, as well as the city of Indianapolis. The congregation was formed more than 100 years ago, and though they were relatively shut out of fellowship with the majority congregations in the city, they forged ahead, purchasing their own land and building a congregational home near Indiana Avenue. The land upon which the church sits today, according to Rev. Michelle Roos, was once not legally available for purchase by anyone who wasn’t white.
“I think it is painful. … There are so many things that we would rather forget than deal with,” she said. But deal with it, they have. Roos noted that congregants of St. Philips and other churches around the city have participated in panel discussions at the diocesan level around race relations and have even joined together to read Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed work, The New Jim Crow. These actions are in line with the Episcopal Church’s recent efforts to reconcile internal issues surrounding the denomination’s historic complicity in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, among other transgressions.
These efforts, according to Baskerville-Burrows, made her feel even more comfortable about calling Indiana her new home.
This Sunday, following her consecration, Baskerville-Burrows will be seated at Christ Church Cathedral, marking the start of something new in more ways than one. St. Philips and other congregants will be welcomed to come together in fellowship, forging a bond that has been a century in the making.
“We’re doing something symbolic in the service to note that this is a brand new day,” she said “And those broken relationships from the past, we’re going to do some healing around them.”
On Saturday, April 29, at 11 a.m., the Rev. Baskerville-Burrows will be consecrated as bishop during a service at Clowes Hall, at Butler University, 4602 Sunset Ave., in Indianapolis.