On Monday night, the public was invited to get its first glimpse of the changes at the Cathedral of St. John, including extensive exhibits from Brown University’s Center For the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Little Compton Historical Society’s presentation on the history of Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.
PROVIDENCE — As the nation grappled with heightened racial tensions in 2015, the U.S. Episcopal Church made a formal commitment to the work of racial reconciliation and installed its first black national leader.
That same year, a project in Rhode Island began to get some national attention, too.
Undertaken by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, it was a reconfiguration of the diocese’s Cathedral of St. John, in Providence, one of the oldest Gothic Revival churches in the New England.
Basically, the idea was to make use of the old church, located near the original homestead site of Roger Williams, as a base of support for racial reconciliation.
The membership of the Episcopal diocese numbers about 20,000 people and the diocese voted in favor of the change.
On Monday night, the public was invited to get its first glimpse of the changes in the old cathedral, where Sunday services were suspended in 2012.
The building itself hasn’t changed much because the new strategy for using it is programmatic.
But in a basement room, extensive exhibits from Brown University’s Center For the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Little Compton Historical Society present the history of Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.
Profits from slavery helped pay for churches, according to the Rhode Island diocese’s leader, Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely Jr.
“So much of our history as Americans and as a church has been impacted ... by our participation in the slavery industry over the years,” Knisely said.
Being “free of the stain it has left” will require “telling the truth about our story,” he said.
A handful of community organizations will now share the facility, including a nonprofit group, the Center for Reconciliation.
The organization offers programs for learning about the history of slavery in America and continuing legacies related to that history.
The staff of Rhode Island for Community and Justice are moving into an office wing attached to the cathedral.
The organization, which is also committed to racial reconciliation, offers programs to teens.
“We talk about understanding and building trust and about building mutual respect,” said Toby Ayers, executive director of Rhode Island for Community and Justice. “That’s a huge part of reconciling across differences that have existed for generations and hundreds of years.”
Church Beyond the Walls, which holds a service in Burnside Park each Saturday afternoon, has been using the cathedral’s basement as a staging area for its efforts for many years. That will continue.
Using the cathedral for such programs is in sync with an understanding of a cathedral as a place not just for prayer but for community activity, Knisely said.
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza was at the open house and he said that cooperation between the church and the community organizations is the type of teamwork that strengthens cities.
“It aligns so perfectly with what we do in the city,” said Elorza.
“The role of a city is to bring people together,” he said. “That’s what cities do.”