A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 3, March 11, 2001, dedicated to the memory of the ten million men, women, and children who died on slave ships during the slave trade and for the millions who survived the journey and suffered the oppression and always to the glory of God!
Part 3 of 7 in the series:
"Diversity in Christ: Weaving the Tapestry of God's Love"
I invite you once again to pick-up copies of sermons one and two in this series. We have placed them at the 9th St. Door information rack on this level and by the Broad St. entrance as well.
Listen for the word of God that comes from Psalm 40:1-4 -
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard me cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will fear and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
It was September 15, 1963, Youth Sunday at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The new Church School year was going to start with a great celebration for the children. The pastor had prepared a sermon especially for the children. The youth choir was all set to lead the congregation in music and the children were ready to serve as ushers. For the young people of this congregation, many of whom had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and faced the overpowering water hoses and vicious dogs of Police Commissioner Bull Conner, this Special Sunday celebration was yet another momentous event in the memorable year of 1963. Remember, it was earlier this year, in April, 1963, Dr. King had penned his letter from the Birmingham Jail. And it was the children of Birmingham who had helped make bring civil rights to the south. But before this day was over, people across the world would be mourning this Youth Sunday.
Minutes before worship was to begin, Addie Mae Collins, 14 and Denise McNair, 11, were getting ready for choir. Carole Robertson, (who was not a member, but was visiting for Youth Sunday from the Methodist church) and Cynthia Wesley, both 14, were serving as ushers. At 10:22 am, a dynamite bomb, which had been planted eight hours before, exploded right beside the ladies' lounge where the girls were straightening their beautiful white dresses for Sunday worship. The four girls were killed instantly. 20 others were rushed to the hospital with injuries. Addie Mae's sister was blinded in one eye.
Other buildings, homes, stores, and hotels in Birmingham had been bombed and burned - but there had been nothing so evil as dynamiting children in Sunday School. People of all races and political allegiances were outraged as the news spread. This happened just eighteen days after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have Dream" speech at the largest civil rights march in the history of our nation. Speaking to 8,000 mourners at the girl's funeral, Dr. King said, "God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring light to this dark city . . . Indeed, this tragic event may cause the whole white South to come to terms with its conscience." (Quoted in Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died for the Struggle, pp. 58-59).
No one was charged in the murders of the four girls, even though an eye witness saw four men plant the bomb. Then 14 years later the case was reopened and one man was found guilty. Speaking in Birmingham a few weeks after the bombing, a white attorney named Charles Morgan said, "Who did this? We all did it . . . every person in this community who has in any way contributed . . . to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty . . . as the demented fool who planted the bomb." (Quoted in Free At Last, p. 59).
Charles Morgan's question "who did it?" and his answer "we all did it" are paradoxically words of judgement and hope. They are words of judgement because since the early 1700's and the beginning of the slave trade, this nation has been involved actively and tacitly in racial injustice. They are words of hope because once we are able to confess our active or passive role in the continuance of racial pain in America, then we are also able to receive God's forgiveness and grace and stand up and be counted among those playing an active role in the healing of racial pain in American and ultimately in the healing of God's humanity.
But, to heal the pain, we have to identify how deep and long this pain is. The history of racial pain in America begins well before 1776. Before the Revolutionary War, slaves were in America. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence - including the author, Thomas Jefferson - were slave owners. As the words of the declaration were being crafted, the 450,000 slaves in America were not to be counted as "free men." The cost of slavery was buried deeper than the almost half a million souls oppressed by slavery, because it was believed that 80% or 4 of 5 men, women, and children brought from Africa died in the transport ships - bringing to over 10 million the deaths of 150 years of slave importation.
Not long ago, while diving off the coast of Africa, some scuba divers discovered a slave ship buried in its watery grave. Not many of these ships have been found because the motivation for finding them is low. They carried no gold. Their treasures were human cargo. And they often traveled like pirate ships with no logs. In this watery grave, the divers discovered many things - including tiny little bracelet-like shackles - no more than 1" across. Historians now have evidence of that which they thought to be true - the babies and infants were brought from Africa to the Americas in shackles.
By 1831, Black slaves accounted for almost one third of America's population. Blacks outnumbered whites in several southern states by the time the war broke out between the states in 1861 and the hope that they would rise up against their southern owners was the major motivation for Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
Writing in his important 1994 classic Race Matters, Black intellectual, scholar, and theologian, Cornel West attempts to give a long view of the challenges of race in America. He writes:
The basic divide in this country has been, since its inception, the racial divide between black and white peoples. From 1776-1964 - 188 years of our 218 year history - this racial divide would serve as a basic presupposition for the expansive functioning of American democracy, even as the concentration remained in the hands of a few well-to-do white men (Race Matters, 1994, p. 157).
Dr. West, (one of my former professors at Yale) goes on to say that the gains of the civil rights struggle and the war on poverty were measurable. Within two years, legal barriers against black access to civil and voting rights were erased. With eight years, half of America's poor people were lifted out of poverty. And within a decade the number of poor older Americans was more than cut in half (p. 157). However, he continues:
As the economy slumped in the 1970's, black rage increased and white backlash set in. And for nearly two decades, we witnessed the decline in real income for most Americans, a new racial divide in the minds and the streets of fellow citizens, a massive transfer of wealth from working people to the well-to-do, and increase in drugs and guns (along with fear and violence) in American life . . . We now find ourselves hungry for quick solutions and thirsty for overnight cures for deep economic, cultural and political problems that have been allowed to fester for decades. And most sadly, we seem to lack the patience, courage and hope necessary to reconstruct our public life - which is the very lifeblood of America" (p.158).
Poverty has increased. Nationwide the infant mortality rate for Black Americans ranks 26th in the world among nations considered to be economically developed. 86% of American Whites live in neighborhoods where only 1% of American Blacks are present. Our neighborhoods in 2001 are actually more segregated than they were in 1960. While it is true in Franklin County that there are more white households in poverty than black households. It is also true that only 27% of those who are white in poverty live in poor neighborhoods, while 77% of those who are black live in poor neighborhoods. Therefore, if you are black and poor in Franklin County, you are 3 times more likely to live in a place where public services, schools, and basic needs are blighted. This is one of the main reasons we have to bring equity in housing and in our neighborhoods! (Source: Rev. John Aeschbury from BREAD reading to me the Franklin County Consolidated Plan).
Racial pain, racial injustice, and racial oppression have been rooted in over 300 years of the American Experience. Is it any wonder that Charles Morgan's haunting rhetorical question and answer to the people of Birmingham and America still prevails in our conscience - "Who did this?...We all did..." The German philosopher Hegel writing in the first part of the 19th Century on slavery said:
If you enslave another person, what are doing is depersonalizing not only that other person, but also yourself. Because you have cut off the possibility of genuine human interaction, you have devalued the response that you might get from the slave and your own humanity cannot be affirmed. (Found in Speaking the truth in Love, Phillip Wogaman, 1998, pp.113-114).
The way through the racial pain to racial hope is a course that requires honest and genuine human interaction. It is based on building relationships in which race does not define the future hope, but does give clarity to the past pain.
As I read Psalm 40, I feel as though we, like the Psalmist are caught in the miry bog of our past sins. Caught in a swamp, we cannot extricate ourselves. We're in quicksand, and the more we try to get out, the deeper we go in. Like in the life of faith, the more we try to save ourselves, the more difficult it proves to be. Why is this? Because the more I try to save myself, the more preoccupied I am with myself and the more self-centered I become. Our cry to God needs to echo the Psalmists words: "Please God, set our feet upon the rock and make our steps secure. Put a new song in our mouths and let our song of praise be unto you."
Please don't believe for a second that the work of coming out of the miry bog of racism is complete in our times. In a letter from to his parents from the European Basketball League in which he plays professionally, Shaun Stonerook, a charter member of our Westerville Community Church and a former Buckeye and then Ohio University Bobcat Basketball fame tells of the 5,000 skinheads who showed up in Bosnia to harass him as a Black man playing basketball. They pelted him from the stands with objects during the game. He had to sit on a bench encased in plexiglass and exist the arena with guards. This is the 21st Century and racism and its evil guise of hatred is alive and breeding. Shaun says in the letter, I miss you all and I am learning a lot about the world. Please pray for me. We will.
"Set our feet upon the rock. Make our steps secure. Put a new song in our mouths. Let us voices proclaim your praise, O God." In the power of God, we must begin to sing a new song. In the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12:25-26, "Let there be no discord in the body (of Christ). On the contrary, let the members make each other's welfare their common care. Thus, when one member suffers, all suffer with it; when one member has honor bestowed upon it, all members share its joy." In the words of an African friend of mine who died this last year, "God has made us one single family. God is color blind. We are one blood with many types - just one single human family in God's love." How will sing the Lord's song in this land, in this world?
First, we must be honest and aware of our common history and the current pulse of racism close at hand. Although history is the largest part of what I've been listing up all morning, do you know that the KKK has six active clans in Ohio today? Are you aware that Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio have the three largest militias in the United States? Are you aware of the practices for bringing equality into your workplace or into the housing stock of your neighborhood? Have you read Life on the Color Line by Columbus author John Williams, a 1995 release in which he tells the story of being raised biracial - both black and white in America? He was raised as a "white" child in Columbus before moving to Virginia where he was raised as a "black" teenager. Although he was the same person, he was treated completely differently! In a radio interview I heard Williams say, "We must not be afraid to talk about race in America . . . We must all take our part in these times because the old African proverb is true - `It does take a village to raise a child.'" Race matters and learning about racial issues and developing relationships across racial lines matters!
Second, what do we share in common? Again, Dr. Cornel West writing in Race Matters says, "We must admit that our most valuable resource for help, hope, and power consists in ourselves and our common history" (p. 11). How does our common language of faith grant us a framework for tearing down dividing walls and reconnecting to our roots in Christ? Working through the BREAD organization, I have found common ground with many clergy who share my concerns for justice and equality in this city. We cross racial lines. We seek to build coalitions and common visions for the future. Building Habitat houses, working with the Housing Trust Fund to develop equitable housing options for all people, working to establish and then nurture our presence within Columbus Public Schools which need tutors and support for children; to strengthen our involvement and commitments to the Down Town Play School which has in housed right here in our building and which is predominantly African-American staffed and serving some of the poorest families near our church! The possibilities are endless but steps toward such common ground are possible.
Third, from our common ground how do we embody Christ's hope and love in history? I started this sermon with the story of four black children murdered in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Did you know that one of our church's families grew up next door to Cynthia Wesley's family? That's right. Nell Cole and her family were in Birmingham in the years just before 1963. Gertrude and Claude Wesley could not give birth to children. Gertrude, a school teacher, who had a trache- tube, yet taught all her adult life, took Cynthia in like an adopted daughter. Cynthia was a wonderful child Nell tells how she would come by the Cole's home each day to walk Paul to school. After Cynthia's murder, Gertrude told Nell, I've always felt bad because my last words to her were, "Girl, come back here, you're slip is showing!" After Cynthia's death, Claude and Gertrude, quite old at the time, took in Shirley, who also needed a family - just like they had taken in Cynthia before her. And Shirley grew up to become a professor at the University. Nell told me, "I never knew any family that showed more Christian love than the Wesleys" Out of death, new life. Out of despair, hope!
Finally, to move from the miry bog of racial pain to a place of racial hope in the body of Christ, will take a spirit of jazz. I like this image. Jazz, in origin a uniquely African-American Art form, is more than music. Jazz is the ability to be improvise, to be fluid, to be flexible, to be suspicious of "either/or" viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or old liberal/conservative ruts. To be "Jazz" Christians in this day and age is to integrate and galvanize the dissonant tones and voices of the world-weary and to make the overall sound one of creative tension - a tension that actually yields a much higher level of performance as it achieves the aim of the collective vision of the community! To be Jazz Christians means to be unafraid to try new approaches, hit new notes, to speak the truth with a new voice of love. To be Jazz Christians is to be faithful followers of the leader of the band!
Jesus was "jazz" when faced with the racism and hostilities of his context. He told stories, healed people who others had cast out, he taught people that others wouldn't even speak to, he drew in the sand, he entered tombs of dead people and brought them to life. He prayed when others wanted him carry weapons and attack the enemy. He lived in the creative tension of offering all people salvation - the balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul!
As we look at the cross on which he died to save all humanity, and liberate all people from all divisions, I believe that as we truly follow him, his cross will liberate us as well. Through our soul-full, jazz-filled master and savior, we will be pulled form the miry bog of our painful past and set on the rock of salvation. In him, we shall overcome.
But, we must remember - to overcome will take humor, intelligence, courage, imagination, first tolerance and then complete acceptance, respect, love and faith. Our greatest weapon will be the courage God has given us to follow Christ! From common history to common ground; from hate-filled past to hopeful future. We can and we will overcome! So, my jazz-filled friends, are you ready to go into a new place of inclusivity and hope? Are you willing to be taken by God to this place? Across the 38 years, Charles Morgan's haunting question asked out of the ashes of 16th Street Baptist Church "Who did this?" comes back to us today? But this time, out of the hope and desires and power of our racial inclusivity the same answer will cast in the glorious light of God's redemptive love and grace! We will proclaim, "We did it!" But that which we proclaim and live out in the power of God's love will not be shame-filled, but hopeful! This time "We did it!" will mean we overcame. We believed love is greater than hate! God's love overcomes all things! And our "We did it" will be followed by "Thanks be to God! " When our days are ended, may it be said of us, "They did it!" They were people who walked in the light of God! They were jazz-filled Christians! So be it! and Amen!
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