Black female Episcopal bishop of Indy diocese breaks stained glass ceiling

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INDIANAPOLIS — On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 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.

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 descended on Indianapolis for an installation ceremony on Saturday.

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…

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