When the Rev. Canon Eugene T. Sutton was elected the 14th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the first person he called was his 94-year-old grandmother, a devout Baptist who lives in a Washington nursing home. "Her prayers for me have made all the difference in the world," Sutton said.
But more than that, he knew she could appreciate the twists of history that led to his election. Sutton, who will be consecrated tomorrow as the state's first African-American bishop, is the great-great-grandson of slaves. Maryland's first bishop, the Right Rev. Thomas John Claggett, was a slaveowner.
"I'm immensely proud and humbled," Sutton said as he prepared for tomorrow's ceremony at Washington's National Cathedral, which will be attended by his grandmother, parents, wife, four children and stepchildren and thousands of others. "I'm proud because of the work of my ancestors of African heritage, who by the work of the hands and the sweat of their brows made it possible for me to be here today."
Sutton, whose denomination has an overwhelmingly white membership and only six other active African-American bishops, said that while it's important for black constituencies to have black leaders, it's also important to have people of color leading others who don't look like them. In a city - and a state - with a large black population, his race carries weight.
"Even when I walk around the black community, one of the things young people can see is, 'There's a leader of people. We're proud of him, and if he can achieve that, maybe it's possible,'" he said in an interview at the National Cathedral. "In some ways, all I have to do is show up. Being who I am in the position I'm in helps heal wounds."
His son, Kyle Sutton, 28, a slam poetry performer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, reiterated that "it's huge for the African-American community in general. ... It does fantastic things for the hopes and spirits of black people and humanity as a whole to see that we've come to this point."
Eugene Sutton said he hopes to have a conspicuous presence in the city of Baltimore, where he is moving, and the entire state.
"I want to make sure that people know that the Episcopal Church is concerned about the welfare of people in Maryland - not just Episcopalians," he said. "I want to be visible in the streets, in political institutions, in organizations that foster positive social change.
"I want to be a voice for the voice-less, speaking for the poor, the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the hopeless."
Sutton, 54, grew up in Washington, where his father owned an auto repair shop and his mother worked for the State Department.
He was raised a Baptist, but at 17 he began exploring other religious traditions, visiting more than 50 churches, from storefronts to cathedrals. He found that the Episcopal Church opened up a side of him that was drawn to contemplation, silence and the beauty of language. He was also captivated by the Gothic architecture in many Episcopal churches, he said, and the sense of awe the arches and soaring ceilings convey.
A tall man with a soothing voice, ready smile and preacher's penchant for drama, he stood and gazed skyward to emphasize his point: "It's a feast for the senses that all draws you up."
"These people get it," the teen decided. "They want people to soar."
Sutton, who has held both academic and pastoral posts in several states, has served as the canon pastor and director of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at the National Cathedral for the past eight years. In that role, he has created a quiet space in the crypt level of the cathedral where people - Christians and others - gather for the ancient practice of meditation (also known as contemplative or silent prayer), a subject he has taught and lectured on widely.
"I like to say the first language of God was silence," Sutton said at the center's suite of rooms in the crypt level of the cathedral. A single candle burned in the still, windowless space, which Sutton describes as the quietest place in Washington.
But while Sutton is well known for his learnedness on contemplation, he is also admired for his charisma, gentle humor and ability to bridge divides, according to colleagues and clergy.
As bishop to 116 parishes and 50,000 members across Baltimore and 10 surrounding counties, he expects to be anything but silent.
The era of privatized faith - the notion that faith is a matter only between an individual and God - needs to be done away with because faith affects everything in life, he said.
"I'm not a political leader or a community organizer, but I get involved in these issues because I'm a pastor," he said.
Two issues he hopes to focus on as bishop are the environment and education.
"I don't want to be known for being the first black bishop of Maryland, but as the first 'green' bishop," said Sutton, adding that he had an environmental conversion experience in South Africa, when he saw the devastation that climate change can cause.
That could mean figuring out ways to reduce the church's use of resources or supporting a major environmental project in the area. He has testified before Congress about global warming and plans to continue speaking out publicly.
Sutton also dreams of starting an Episcopal school in Baltimore for low-income children. "I'm particularly concerned about those who have been left behind," he said.
The ills of Baltimore, where he will be based, are on his mind as he completes his move and explores the city's neighborhoods. The fissures of society - rich and poor, black and white, old and young, highly educated and poorly educated - are always more concentrated in cities. "I want to be at the intersection of those societal divides," he said. "The way of Jesus is trying to heal divisions and break down walls and reconcile all that is broken." That's a tall order at a time when there is much healing to do within the Episcopal Church, which has been deeply rattled in recent years by questions about same-sex unions and gay clergy.
The dispute was accelerated by the 2003 consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire. In the wake of Robinson's election, some traditional congregations placed themselves under the oversight of foreign bishops.
"We bless animals. We bless ships. Why can't we bless the union of two people in love?" Sutton said. "The church is struggling to find a way to bless those in committed, monogamous relationships no matter what their sexual orientation, and I support the effort to find a way to do that."
Despite these divides, he believes there is a way for the church to move forward. As he sees it, the internal fight is fundamentally about embracing the new versus holding onto the old: "This is a church that can hold onto both and, even when we disagree, we can pray together and work together. ... If the church can't do that, why would anyone want to come?"
The Rev. Howard R. Anderson, president and warden of the Cathedral College at the National Cathedral, is such an unmitigated fan of Sutton that he choked up when speaking about him.
"Baltimore is really lucky. This guy is a star, and he's a mensch. He's the real item," he said. "He's larger than life, energetic, funny. Just a person who is so grounded."
He also described his colleague as potentially controversial because "he's not a shrinking violet and he's not risk-averse."
Sutton likewise recognizes the perils of striving to be what Anderson calls a "bishop of the streets."
"Everyone will be mad at me sometime," Sutton conceded. "Some will believe I'm moving too quickly in favor of change. Some will believe I'm so conservative and not moving fast enough. They give you a good seat and honor you, and then they get mad at you. That's what it means to be bishop."