“Baskerville-Burrows on ascension eve,” Robert King, Indianapolis Star April 28, 2017
Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows stepped out of the historic Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan into a city where she’d lived most of her life but suddenly couldn’t recognize.
Cars flipped upside down, buildings with shattered windows, ash coating everything. These were the features of the hellish streetscape a few blocks from Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
In that moment, the North Tower of the World Trade Center came crashing down. Someone urged her group, which had been huddled in a stairwell during the attacks, to run for a nearby ferry terminal. Baskerville-Burrows, who grew up in a housing project on Staten Island, knew the way. Soon a ferry was carrying her away from the smoking city. Back in the building where she’d lived as a child, she knocked on doors she hadn’t visited in years, seeking refuge from terrorism where she had once only feared the gunfire outside.
The trauma of that day lingered with Baskerville-Burrows for years. She remembered it earlier this week in another historic Episcopal church — Indianapolis’ Christ Church Cathedral — as the most dramatic chapter in a life that has led her to the eve of a new milestone: becoming the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.
Her ascension is historic. The denomination, which spans the United States and 17 other countries, has seen a few black female bishops in assisting roles. But never has the Episcopal Church chosen a black woman to lead a diocese.
“Like all positions of leadership in the church and corporate America, being first is a wonderful thing,” she said, seated in a dark wooden pew in the cathedral. “It’s breaking the stained glass ceiling.”
Baskerville-Burrows, 50, was elected last fall at the diocesan convention and replaces the retiring Right Rev. Catherine M. Waynick. To mark the occasion, 44 bishops from throughout the United States and beyond will descend on Indianapolis for an installation ceremony set for Saturday at 11 a.m. at Butler’s Clowes Hall.
As a black woman who grew up in the projects, Baskerville-Burrows might seem an unlikely person to lead an Indiana diocese where the vast majority of the parishioners are white. But her journey to this point is insightful.
An eighth-grade English teacher asked young Jennifer Baskerville and her classmates to read “Life With Father,” a comedy about a man whose wife was pressuring him to be baptized. A bookish girl with a love of words, she was captivated by terms such as Episcopal and catechism, even though her family members were infrequent churchgoers. Four years later, on a high school trip to Washington, D.C., she and other students were given the chance to visit a church of their choice on Sunday morning. She chose the Episcopal option, and headed to St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, sometimes called “Church of the Presidents.” In the midst of the service, Baskerville-Burrows had her own epiphany.
“I remember, as clear as day like as you are sitting here, hearing God say: ‘You are home.'”
The next fall, while a student at Smith College, she began attending Episcopal services and became enamored with the incense-scented trappings of high church — the “smells and bells,” as she says — and she never looked back.
In early visits to 13 of the 48 diocesan congregations across central and southern Indiana, Baskerville-Burrows said she has been impressed with a church that is less homogeneous than it might seem. “Sometimes there is the narrative that we are not diverse because we are in Indiana,” she said. “It is new Americans. It is racial diversity.”
Baskerville-Burrows knows about diversity. Her grandfather grew up on a Shinnecock Indian reservation on eastern Long Island and, as a child, she spent Labor Day weekends at tribal powwows. She had enough Shinnecock in her blood to qualify for college scholarships aimed at Native Americans.
At Cornell University, where she studied historic preservation, her friendships with Muslims would inform her later response to the terrorist attacks — a rejection of Islamophobia.
As a chaplain at Syracuse University, she traveled to the Holy Land with friends who were Muslim and Jewish, finding it “a great way to learn the full story.” Her husband of 14 years, Harrison Burrows, is a native of the Bahamas. (They have a 6-year-old son and have settled in Nora).
That sensitivity to diversity seems in line with one of the conversations going on in her new diocese — concern for immigrants in the community and in the pews. At this early juncture, Baskerville-Burrows wouldn’t wade into the controversies about the sanctuary being offered by churches, universities and cities. But it’s clearly on her radar.
“The issue for immigration is a big one for our faith,” she said. “It is actually all right there in the story of our faith. When you talk about what does it mean to be people who follow a savior who was a refugee of sorts, we’re going to have to see what the time and the immediate needs demand.”
A larger issue facing the new bishop is an existential one — a dwindling membership. The Episcopal Church peaked nationally in the late 1960s but, like other mainline denominations, has been on a 50-year slide. The largest demographic in the church today are those older than 65.
That’s been reflected in Indiana, where there were more than 25,000 Episcopalians in 1980, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives. Today, there are fewer than 15,000. The Diocese of Indianapolis now has more than 9,300 members. It’s a byproduct of an evolving spirituality that, increasingly, is untethered to the institutional church.
Baskerville-Burrows recognizes that. She notes that many church buildings are situated in locales where the overall population has declined. Still, after her early visits around the diocese, she reports finding vibrancy, and that the church’s message of hope and inclusion is changing lives, which she sees as the best metric. Above all, she says the church is well-equipped to meet a yearning in today’s culture — for belonging.
“We are in a fragmented culture that seems to have no end to fragmentation. It’s easier now to be isolated than it has ever been. Our scriptures tell us … that we are meant for community and for belonging, and so I hear that yearning. That’s why I am hopeful about the future of the church.”