(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on August 25, 2019)
Around the nation today, a most solemn anniversary is being observed. Four hundred years ago, on a late August day in 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in what would later become the United States. This afternoon at 3 pm the National Parks Service has asked that churches and other institutions ring their bells in recognition of this anniversary. This is just one of many initiatives that will take place over the next months as Americans are asked to reflect upon the history of slavery in our nation and its lingering effects to this day.
Here at New Song we don’t have bells like many larger churches do, but we are marking the anniversary in our own way. This morning with our prayers, our songs, and our liturgy, we reflect, we honor, and we repent.
When I was thinking about what to say this morning, I kept coming back to a visit I made a number of years ago to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Its exhibits tell the story of slavery in America and the Underground Railroad movement that helped slaves find their freedom. It’s a place where both the worst and the best of American history are recalled.
The most memorable part of my visit to the museum was the time I spent in a rough-hewn cabin that stands in the center of the building. A sign indicates that the structure had once been a slave-holding pen in rural Kentucky.
When I first entered it, I saw that it was empty and unfurnished, and I was about to leave after just a quick look around. But then a guide entered with a group of people and began to explain the significance of this simple structure.
The African-American man spoke with the cadences of a master storyteller. He began by explaining that when the museum was being planned, its designers struggled with how to depict an institution as complicated and far-reaching as slavery. How do you show human suffering? How do you honor the memory of those who are nameless?
The museum’s founders began to search, he said, for an artifact from the slave trade. After more than a year, they found this cabin. According to local folklore in the part of Kentucky where it was found, the building had once been used to hold slaves waiting to be sold. When a member of the museum staff went to see it in person, he found a name etched on the building’s wall: J.W. Anderson.
Over the course of several years, historians used letters and legal documents to piece together the story of Anderson, a slave dealer who bought captives at auctions in Natchez and New Orleans and held them in this pen in Kentucky until he could re-sell them. Anderson was in one sense an enterprising businessman. In the early 1830s alone, he made almost the equivalent of $1 million in today’s money in dealing in slaves.
The guide then paused in his narrative. And then, very slowly, he recited the names of a few of those who had once been kept in this cabin, names taken from a bill of sale from one of Anderson’s auctions. Addison. Joshua. Phoebe. Mariah. Samuel. Mathilda.
The guide said that slaves were held there for anywhere from a few days to several months, and went on to describe what their lives were like during that time. And then he pointed out to us details that I’d missed seeing before, including iron rings embedded in the walls were people had been chained, and bars on the windows. As he continued his story, there was total silence among those of us who were gathered there.
And for those moments, the cabin was transformed into what I can only describe as a holy place, a place where we honored the memory of those who had suffered there.
The guide finished his presentation with these words. “It is important that we remember what happened here. This is part of our story as Americans. We must remember.”
That statement gets to the heart of what this painful and sorrowful anniversary is about. And Episcopal churches across the country are marking this date with special care, because our own history is intertwined with that of slavery in many ways. Our denomination, after all, included many wealthy people who owned slaves, and so this anniversary has special resonance for us. Too often our church enabled this poisonous institution and provided justifications for it based on scripture. That’s why Michael Curry, our presiding bishop, who is himself a descendant of enslaved people, is asking us to mark this occasion with special care and solemnity.
In his words: “I’m inviting us as The Episcopal Church to join in this commemoration as part of our continued work of racial healing and reconciliation. … we join together with people of other Christian [denominations] and people of all faiths to remember those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty. And so we remember them and pray for a new future for us all.”
The first enslaved Africans who landed in Virginia four hundred years ago came on an English ship called the White Lion. They came ashore on a peninsula known then as Point Comfort and today as Fort Monroe National Monument. They included more than 20 captives who’d been taken from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola. After arrival, each was sold into servitude on farms and plantations in Virginia.
We don’t know their African names, but we do know three of the names they were given once they reached Virginia: Anthony, Isabella, and Angela.
Today we recall their suffering, and the suffering of all those who would follow them into bondage. We also recognize the ways in which slavery haunts our collective memory as Americans and the ways its effects are still present in our culture. This anniversary is meant to illuminate the pain and suffering of the past, but also the resilience of those who were enslaved and of their descendants.
In doing so, we remember that slavery wasn’t unique to the United States. The practice spread its tentacles through many cultures, from ancient Greece and the Ottoman Empire to the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America. My own ancestors, the Vikings, dealt in slaves, taking captives from the lands they raided and selling them in foreign ports. These unlucky souls became thralls, an Old Norse word for slave (the phrase “to be enthralled” contains an echo of this meaning).
The themes of slavery and redemption are also threaded through the entire Jewish and Christian story. In the Hebrew scriptures God commands his people again and again. “You must remember every day of your life, the day you came out of the land of Egypt. Never forget that you were once slaves and that God has led you to freedom.”
This story of a people once kept in slavery is the bedrock of both the Hebrew scriptures and the inspiration for much of Jesus’ message. And for the enslaved peoples of early America, it’s not surprising that the Biblical story of the captivity in Egypt had a deep resonance. In the story of the Hebrews’ flight to freedom, they saw their own story. In the story of Moses, a child of slaves who becomes a prince, then an outlaw, then a powerful leader, they saw evidence of the workings of a God who can transform even the most unlikely of people into the most righteous of leaders.
And all of us who claim the Bible as our guide are given an inescapable charge: we are to help rid the world of slavery and bondage and its long-term poisonous effects wherever we encounter them. This is especially important in this time when racism is once again used as a political tool.
We should also remember that today, an estimated 40 million people around the world continue to live in bondage, which we now call human trafficking. Slaves harvest cocoa in the Ivory Coast, make charcoal in Brazil, and weave carpets in India. And much closer to home, desperate people are being trafficked every day in Iowa, especially along Interstate 80.
So today is a time to ask for forgiveness and to rededicate ourselves to the cause of reconciliation and justice. At 3 pm this afternoon, the bells will ring, one chime for each century since 1619. And here this morning at New Song we remember all those who were enslaved, especially Addison, Joshua, Phoebe, Mariah, Samuel, and Mathilda in Kentucky, and in Virginia, Anthony, Isabella, and Angela. Let us not forget them.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.