Chaplin Sarah Rieth and Resident Services Coordinator April Lyles

Chaplin Sarah Rieth and Resident Services Coordinator April Lyles stand in the Chapel at Penick Village where they prepare for the racial reconciliation pilgrimage to Washington D.C. (Contributed Photo)

In the front corner of the Penick Village Chapel, five chairs were arranged into a small circle. There, Penick resident Bill Stagg and Resident Services Coordinator April Lyles sit side by side, talking about the book he was reading, “The Making of a Racist,” by Charles Dew.

“It was only in the last few months I’ve been thinking about how I grew up in a racially segregated environment in Kentucky,” Stagg said. “I was aware of the divide but it was something we just didn’t discuss.”

Back then, it would have been unheard of for Stagg, a white man, to sit beside Lyles, a black woman and have a discussion about racism. Today Stagg and Lyles prepare to embark on Penick Village’s racial reconciliation pilgrimage on Tuesday.

Penick Village will send 30 staff members and residents to Washington D.C. on a four-day journey to bridge the gap between races, cultures and generations.

“It’s not often that you can sit with your coworkers and say ‘Let’s talk about race,’” Chief Development Officer Hunter Wortham said. “We’re all going to be on a level playing field, which I don’t think is always the case.”

The group will visit many sites, including the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, National Museum of African American History and Georgetown University’s slavery archives with the goal of learning about each other’s experiences concerning race.  

“When I first heard about this trip, I was very interested because you don’t hear of many organizations doing things like this,” Lyles said. “I feel like this is a big step for Penick Village and being new to the leadership team, I wanted to be a part of that.”

Rev. Sarah Rieth, Chaplain of Penick Village, was inspired to organize the trip after Penick hosted monthly seminars and discussions about race last year.

“The point of this is not for anyone to feel guilty or ashamed or defensive, but we can have holy conversation with respect, love and kindness and learn from one another,” she said.  

Rieth grew up in Buffalo, New York where her parents fought for economic equality and equality in education. She draws her inspiration from John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. but she said fighting for racial equality is in her DNA.

“Jesus was about growing the edges of the table so that all were welcome,” she said.

 The Rev. Jayne Oasin, developer of the anti-racism curriculum for the Episcopal Church, will help guide the group.

“It’s undoubted that there are many churches, many Christians and many people of God who vigorously fought against slavery, the church as an institution was often not so quick to do so,” Oasin said in an interview with the Episcopal church in 2007. “We need to be one of the major voices that says this was wrong. To the extent that we ever supported this, we were wrong, and we apologize.”

The Episcopal Diocese and many others locally donated to the trip, allowing Penick to send 10 staff members free of charge.

CEO Jeff Hutchins, who will also be participating in the pilgrimage, hopes that the trip will bring the Penick community closer together.

“We’re building a foundation that will give us the opportunity to see people as people all the time, and hopefully the work we do will welcome and increase the diversity of the people who live here.”

The group will share their experiences with the larger Penick community after the trip, and they are planning to document what they learn on film. The group hopes to continue to have discussions about race and understanding racial inequality even after the pilgrimage is complete.

“To me personally, [the pilgrimage] means growth,” Lyles said. “I hope the conversations we have will bridge the gap between generations.”

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