In Celebration of Black History (African Heritage) Month
Today, in addition to celebrating the Transfiguration, we celebrate Black History (or African Heritage) Month as an expression of the need for people of African descent to celebrate and explore their own history, and not from a white European point of view.
Black History month recalls images of the slave trade: violence and oppression; prejudice and separation; ghettos; lynching; the bombing of churches. It also recalls great moments like Rosa Parks’ simple act of defiance, the confrontation at Selma, Alabama, the March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s great speeches.
There were numerous Canadian aspects to this story, including the fact that many Canadians at the end of the 18th and early 19th Century were slave owners, and slavery was not generally opposed. But the names of certain people like Josiah Henson, Chloe Cooley, Harriet Tubman, and Anderson Abbott, the first doctor in Canada of African descent, also emerge as significant in the fight against racism and slavery. Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for Black people grew during and after the War of 1812 (which was also after the government in Britain had ruled against British involvement in slavery). Between 1815 and 1865, tens of thousands of African-Americans escaped slavery and found refuge in Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Canada was not entirely a bastion of tolerance. For example, many slaves thought they were arriving to complete freedom and acceptance and often were met instead with hostility and exclusion. In the early part of the 20th Century, as hundreds of Black people from Oklahoma attempted to settle on the Canadian Prairies, they experienced severe discrimination. In 1911, newspapers in Winnipeg even predicted that the Government would take steps to exclude “Negro immigrants.” In 1946, in Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond, who had trained as a school teacher and owned her own business, was arrested by police and handled so roughly that she seriously injured her hip, simply because she sat in a section of the movie theatre reserved for white people – blacks were supposed to sit in the balcony. The city also sued her for the difference in tax between a first class and second class ticket – the amount was one cent!
Canada’s first anti-discrimination law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race was passed April 1, 1947 in Saskatchewan (of course), under the government of the great T.C. “Tommy” Douglas (who also happened to be a clergyman).
The slave trade developed as a way of providing cheap labour for the American and British colonies of the New World, and brings to mind the suffering of countless individuals. According to Dr. Nathan Nunn, Department of Economics at Harvard University: “During the trans-Atlantic slave trade alone, approximately 12 million slaves were exported from Africa. Another 6 million were exported in other slave trades. These figures do not include those who were killed during the raids or those who died on their journey to the coast” (The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades).
Most of us don’t make the connection between the way in which Africa’s inhabitants were carted off, and the degree to which Africa itself was de-stabilized and destroyed by this huge loss of people and communities, the corrosive effects of the corruption and violence of it all, and the effects of ongoing exploitative colonialism, all of which set up the conditions for chaos which endure to this day.
Dr Nunn said “The African countries that are the poorest today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken. Slavery … may be seen as one source of precolonial origins for modern corruption.” He says “the consequence of internal conflict was increased political instability and in many cases the collapse of pre-existing forms of government” (op. cit.).
In addition to being forced to come to the Americas in chains, on boat rides that many didn’t survive because the conditions were so terrible, the prisoners were susceptible to rape and torture, they were separated arbitrarily from their own spouses and children, they lost their freedom, and given no choice of where or how they lived; they lost their own heritage and any record of who they were; they were not allowed to speak their native languages, and they were prohibited by law from learning how to read or improve their lot in life. Slaves were also obliged to adopt new names and the religion of the people who felt entitled to enslave them, along with their white churches and their very white Jesus.
Despite the foreign and restrictive aspects of the new religion, it unintentionally gave the Africans a new lease on life, as they embraced the theology of the oppressed, identified with the struggles of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt or in exile, and developed a deep sense of hope in a God who cares about the poor and offers hope beyond the confines of this life.
They developed a faith and a love of God that put the colonists to shame, inspiring in its depth, its enthusiasm, its joy, its hope, its sense of the greatness and glory of God, and in its sense of trust in the redemption and liberation that God offers the faithful. It occurs to me that when African Americans sang “We shall overcome!” it was out of a depth of suffering and perseverance in faith that puts our gloominess and negativity to shame, and makes most of our church problems and complaints seem very trite.
Their faith was reflected in their music, which we reflect at least to some degree in the music we sing this morning. The music itself helped create a distinctive identity for people who had theirs taken away.
There was also a subversive and defiant aspect to their music– Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is thought to reference the Underground Railroad; Wade in the Water offered guidance to escaping slaves on how to elude pursuers and their dogs.
They developed many songs and chants that were rooted in an African style and also embraced and modified hymns from the European tradition. One hymn that became a favourite in the African American community was written by a slave trader who had a sudden change of heart. “Amazing Grace” tells the story of John Newton’s moment of conversion from a foul-mouthed, abusive, hateful slave trader, into a man of God – in fact, Newton spent the last 43 years of his life as an Anglican priest. He actively opposed the slave trade and contributed to Britain ending its involvement. Ironically, the hymn was also popular in the white evangelical churches of the American south.
Also ironic is the fact that the hymn was rejected by the Church of England, perhaps because of its connection with the slave trade, and also because it was considered too pietistic and individualistic – but from my point of view the hymn is valuable partly because it does point so powerful in the direction of the living God, and also because it reminds us how a single decision, and an individual life, can change the course of history.
In their faith and in their music, the slaves expressed the hope of seeing the face of Jesus, and I wonder what colour they thought that face would be?
St Francis of Assisi, in his famous prayer, said “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” African Americans, without musical instruments, by the grace of God became instruments of God’s music and rhythm.
You could say “I’m not black or African – how does this apply to me?” Well, the fact is, many people in our churches are. In fact, there are now more “people of colour” in the Anglican communion than white.
There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are in the UK, the birthplace of Anglicanism; there are more Anglicans in the West Indies than there are in Canada; there are four times as many Anglicans in the little country of Uganda than there are in the United States – and in each case they are far more active and committed.
For most people in the world, the familiar face of Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of South Africa, is the image most often associated with the Anglican Communion.
The Charter for Racial Justice of the Anglican Church of Canada says: “As members of the Anglican Church of Canada, we strive continuously to be faithful to our life in Jesus Christ that we embraced at our baptism. We are learning that one of our strengths as a church lies in our diversity and in our commitment to eliminate systemic and individual racism, whether intended or not. We are called to be a church where people will have the assurance that they will be treated with dignity and respect, and where they will find a community that is determined to be free of racism.”
Part of the way we can address racism in the life of the Church is to celebrate our diversity, in whatever form it takes, and also to celebrate people who have embodied the unique heritage and composition of the Anglican Church.
This past week, the Church celebrated the Rev. Absalom Jones (fd Feb 13) who was the first black priest of the Episcopal Church of the United States.
Founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas 1746-1818
He was born into slavery in Delaware on November 6, 1746. He became one of the important church and community leaders during the post-revolutionary period in the U.S.
Young people today take the ability to read for granted. In an era in which blacks were severely punished simply for being in possession of of a single book, Jones was daring in seeking that out for himself. He was fortunate that his owner was sympathetic, taking him to Philadelphia and getting him work as a clerk in a retail store. That may not sound like much today, but it was a huge break-through in that era. Jones continued to learn writing and Mathematics, thanks to a sympathetic group of Quakers.
He gained his freedom from slavery in 1784, at the age of 38. In 1787, he and a friend organized the Free African Society as a social, political and humanitarian organization helping widows and orphans and assisting in sick relief and burial expenses. He became a lay preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
In 1792, “The African Church” affiliated with the Episcopal Church, becoming The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained by Bishop William White as the first African American Episcopal Priest. He lived until 1818, long enough to see the Slave Trade outlawed in the British Empire (although it was not officially abolished in the U.S. until nearly 50 years later).
He was noted for caring for the sick and the poor and for advocating for the rights of African Americans with the government. His February 13th Feast Day was added to the Episcopal Church Calendar in 1973
This coming week the Anglican Communion remembers the life of Archbishop Janani Luwum. He was born in Northern Uganda, ordained priest in 1955, and consecrated Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969. In 1974 he became the Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga Zaire (now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo). He became a leading voice in criticising the excesses of the Idi Amin regime that assumed power in 1971. In 1976 he stood up against dictator-president Idi Amin’s abuse of human rights and freedom of speech, drafting a letter of protest to him and demanding to see him in person. In 1977, Archbishop Luwum protested Amin’s policies of arbitrary killings and unexplained disappearances. Shortly afterwards the archbishop and other leading clergy were accused of treason.
On 16 February 1977, just three years after he was consecrated as Archbishop, Luwum was arrested together with two government cabinet ministers, Erinayo Wilson Oryema and Charles Oboth Ofumbi. Amin had them condemned in a kangaroo court, and then they were driven out into the countryside, where they were shot. Amin proclaimed that they were killed in a car accident, which didn’t explain why the Archbishop’s body was riddled with bullets (Time magazine went so far as to suggest that Idi Amin himself had shot them).
The Most Rev Dr John Sentamu, Britain’s first black archbishop, now serving as Archbishop of York said: “Archbishop Janani Luwum was a major influence on my call to the ministry.”
Archbishop Luwum’s murder left behind his wife and nine children. He is recognised as a martyr by the Church of England and the Anglican Communion and his death is commemorated on 17 February as a Lesser Festival. His statue is among the Twentieth Century Martyrs on the front of Westminster Abbey in London.
Since the British abolition of the slave trade, it has taken another 200 years for the world to come to its senses, and in many ways it still hasn’t, because there is still a flourishing slave trade in the world, only now it mostly involves young women and children.
It took 200 years of being oppressed and denigrated (I use the word advisedly) before African Americans could stand up with pride and declare “Black is beautiful.”
2000 years ago St Paul articulated the Christian approach to racial equality when he said that “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.13); he also said “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). Yet the fight for equal rights is far from over. Racial profiling continues to affect every aspect of society.
The world today puts a lot of focus on “outward appearances” – and the way we look has become an obsession in many societies of the world. Our faith, on the other hand, tells us that God looks at the heart – that it is what is within a person that is most important.
In Christ, there is no “other;” your neighbour is you.
Many did not get that; many still don’t. But as St Paul said “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace, represents that moment when he saw the light; it represents his moment of repentance, and his liberation from the racist, colonial, oppressive attitudes that enslaved him as much as it did the people whom he was transporting to America and the West Indies. “I once was blind, but now I see.” Newton believed that God opened his eyes and delivered him from the spiritual blindness that made him unable to see the worth, dignity and rights of other people.
The Transfiguration represents the moment when the disciples woke up to the fullness of who and what Jesus was – when they saw him as he is in the eyes of God — when they saw the glory that was in him. It is one of those moments which remind us that it is the essence of the person that is important, that we must strive to see the glory of God within each person and not get too caught up in the appearances.
As St Paul said, “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
It may be Black History month, but why celebrate that in church? We do so not just because the majority of the Anglican Communion is more black than white, but because it reminds us about the true nature of the God we worship, and of the way Christians are supposed to be in the world.
Can I hear an “Amen!”?
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Readings for Transfiguration Sunday:
2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Mark 9:2-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.