The shield of the Episcopal Church combines crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.

Dain Perry’s heart sank as he walked into Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue two Sundays ago. The chapel was all but empty.

A year ago Perry, a national facilitator for conversations about race, sparked planning and organizing by a local diocesan committee for a service dedicated to racial healing and reconciliation, timed for the weekend before the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. As a measure of the importance of the service, the head of the Episcopal Church in America, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, had journeyed to New Orleans. Fifteen minutes earlier and with TV cameras rolling, she and Louisiana’s Episcopal Bishop Morris Thompson had spoken of the need to atone for the racist sins of the church — past and present — and to plant seeds of racial reconciliation.

Perry, a Boston resident, is part of a prominent New England family that made a fortune in the slave trade. He and his cousins examined their family history, journeyed to the triangle points of the trade and made a documentary about it: “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.”

A discussion of the film, led by Perry and his wife, Constance, an African American, launched our diocese on the year-long run-up to the service. And the chapel was empty?

Yes, a similar service in Boston had attracted a mere 15 people; and yes, it was a sunny Saturday morning in New Orleans; and, yes, Carnival season is just gearing up. Lent and thoughts of atonement can seem a long way off.

But Christ Church Cathedral is a big place, a lovely Gothic edifice erected in 1886. What Perry didn’t realize was that he had not yet found his way into the 470-seat sanctuary where the service was to be held. It was soon filled.

I am hoping that those who might doubt our commitment to the radical transformation that we asked for will … hold our feet to the fire.

The service began with a choral rendition of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by oboist Maria Elliot, that sounded as if it were intoned by angels. Tulane historian Rosanne Adderley read the biblical story from Genesis in which Joseph reconciles with his brothers after they sell him into slavery. Imagine that God could turn even this hideous betrayal into a force for good! The refrain from Psalm 51 – sung six times – was “Create in me a clean heart, oh God.”

In a sermon stressing the Christian obligation to strive for reconciliation, Schori cited historical examples of oppression from Louisiana and around the world. It was the perfect prelude to a new ministry we inaugurated then and there.

Members representing our unified community recited a dialogue of racial truth-telling and reconciliation followed by a pledge to strike out in a new direction:  A part of the dialogue: “This nation was made prosperous by the work of slaves, and our own Church profited from their servitude, in buildings built and fields tended with slave labor. Still today our church benefits unjustly from accumulated wealth created on the backs of our brothers and sisters in those awful days. For this we are ashamed and ask your mercy.”

The vow was phrased as follows: “We pledge to all who have been affected by these grievous actions our love and commitment to repentance of the time of slavery and segregation, and our diligent work in cleansing our hearts of racism.”

In 2010 our diocese commissioned a study by Tulane University scholar Michael Goldston to better understand the exact nature and specific context of our wrongs. This is some of what we learned:

The Rev. Philander Chase, rector of the first permanent Episcopal congregation in New Orleans, Christ Church Protestant Episcopal, described the city in 1805 as a “land of vice and death.” In 1811 he left New Orleans for more civilized and healthy climes, but his congregation endured. His parishioners included several of the richest and most powerful Americans in the state, among them John McDonogh, benefactor of the city’s schools; merchant William Kenner, and Edward Livingston, a former mayor of New York City who later represented Louisiana in the U.S. Senate and was Secretary of State during the Andrew Jackson presidency. Schori’s husband happens to be a direct descendent of Philander Chase.

Slave labor was critical to a system that exported cotton and sugar and imported manufactured goods. The planters, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and storekeepers who served as the first Christ Church vestrymen all had a role in this ghastly economy. New Orleans was the slave trade’s hub and Louisiana had a reputation for brutalizing its slaves.

The social elite saw things differently, of course.  They comforted themselves with the idea that slavery itself was not evil. The problems came with the trade in humans, the province of unscrupulous merchants who split slave families apart. But the truth is that slave trading — with all its indifference to the human emotions of men and women torn from their children — was an inseparable part of the planter economy — and of Christ Church.

Unlike many denominations, Episcopalians didn’t agonize doctrinally over slavery.  It was never seriously questioned by Episcopal church leaders in the South — or the North. They were more concerned with how to grow their small congregations and get their members to fill the collection plates.

Christ Church was at once a place of worship, a meetinghouse for friends, a symbol of worldly success for the Protestant community, a connection for business, and a bastion for the social elite to affirm one another in the morality of their “peculiar institution.” Very simply, they built a church that did not force them to examine the morality of slavery.

Enter the Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, a conservative evangelical from a respected slave-holding family in North Carolina. In 1836 Polk was elected missionary bishop of the Southwest, the same year the Diocese of Louisiana was formed. Three years later he was made Louisiana’s bishop. In 1839 Christ Church reported between 130 and 150 communicants, all white people.

Polk was more influential than most clergy because he was a planter; and he used his influence to expand the Episcopal Church among the slaves in his diocese. A mission to the slaves was important to him. He owned hundreds himself and so did other Christ Church parishioners.

Previous pastors had their hands full trying to augment their white flocks. The men Polk shepherded brought the Gospel to their slaves, fulfilling what they saw as their paternalistic obligation: civilizing and Christianizing an inferior race.

Here’s the tortured “logic” that underlay this self-serving theology: Blacks, it was conceded, were spiritual equals of whites but their worldly circumstances required them to fill the role of slaves. Evil as slavery might be, it was unavoidable in a sinful world, the reasoning went. Moreover, anything that disturbed the social order was unreasonable, and therefore against the will of God.

Building on these false premises, the role of a Christian master was seen as bringing enslaved people into the church without upsetting the social order. That mostly meant baptizing them. Teaching them to read the Bible could cause problems, and the white planters also looked askance at allowing their chattel to marry.

As the Civil War approached, the rationale for slavery morphed from “necessary evil” to a “white-washed gospel of subservience.” Polk declared that ministering to slaves was a matter of teaching them “to do their duty in that state in which it has pleased God to call them.” Many whites were appalled by the notion that there might be blacks in Heaven.

Polk’s theology, his twisted sense of mission to slaves, ultimately carried him off to war. In 1861 he accepted a commission as a major general in the Confederate Army. In 1864 he was killed in battle. “I do believe,” Schori said in her sermon earlier this month, “he’s the only bishop ever sent to meet Jesus by cannonball.” After the war, freed slaves were quick to leave the church of their masters. The National Protestant-Episcopal Church lost almost all of its African Americans in the South.

Fast forward to the Christ Church sanctuary two Saturday’s ago. More than a few of us were brought to tears by Tyrone Chambers, a young, classically trained tenor, long a fixture at Trinity Episcopal Church and the Opera Creole, now pursuing his career in New York. The hymn he sang, building on a passage from the Gospel of John, was both a comfort — and a warning: There’s no evading God’s wide love. You can’t go over or under or around it.

Our history and our liturgy beg a question: What next? If the spirit really moved the 500 people who attended the service of atonement and reconciliation, what will come of it? The church was filled mostly with Episcopalians, though I saw many Catholic brothers and sisters. I also saw several unbelievers, an Episcopal deacon who had condemned the very idea of a racial-reconciliation service, and a fellow reporter who is Jewish. She mentioned to a friend that this was the first Christian service she had ever attended.

We looked within. We made some promises. We asked for cleansing in front of God. We had witnesses. I am hoping that those who might doubt our commitment to the radical transformation that we asked for will stay tuned, will work with us, will hold our feet to the fire, and will ask us, year after year, what we have done and are doing to live our vows.

New Orleans journalist Orissa Arend worships at Trinity Episcopal Church and is the author of the book Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.