A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, September 28, 2003, Pentecost 16, dedicated to the staff and people of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY, the performers of 2003 The Maafa Suite, to the Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, pastor of St. Paul and Mt. Pishgah for his leadership, to black preachers through the ages and always to the glory of God!
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
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 rock and our salvation. Amen.
There is something very special about St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, where the Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood is the Senior Pastor (you may remember that Dr. Youngblood was our 2003 Gladden Lecturer on April 1st). Having spent four days with him this past week, I am compelled to tell you about the people I met, the preaching and teaching I heard, the community's joy exhibited in praising God, and the transformative vision they have for healing the wounds of racism in our society and for bringing forth justice. All of this - joy, praise, transformation, vision, healing, and justice - are deeply rooted in a contagious and celebratory faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Part of me, wants to dwell in the scripture for today. Most of me is dying to tell you about St. Paul Church! So, I will do both. But, I will begin in St. Paul and Brooklyn. All else grows from there . . .
Dr. Youngblood has pastored at St. Paul since 1975 (since 2001 he had also pastored the 5,000 member Mt. Pishgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn, too). In `75, he came to the Big Apple from the Big Easy. Since then, St. Paul has grown from 150 to over 9,000 members. St. Paul is truly a beacon of light in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Through the efforts of Dr. Youngblood, the St. Paul members, and the church-based community organizing efforts of IAF, over 3000 affordable housing units have been erected as The Nehemiah Project. In addition to Nehemiah, a school for grades K-8 which Dr. Youngblood founded stands on the property, and multitudes of exciting ministries have risen up from this congregation. This dynamic community of faith has brought hope to East New York.
Perhaps no ministry has so captured the church's and the nation's imagination as The Commemoration of the Maafa - which just completed its ninth year this morning on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Far Rockaway, NY with several thousand people in worship at sunrise. During this morning's service, the gathered bid an emotional farewell the spirits of the ancestors and sent them safely home to Africa.
I went to Brooklyn this past week to commemorate the Maafa with St. Paul and honored guests. "The term MAAFA is a Kiswahili term which gives definition to the catastrophic event experienced by millions of African people during the middle passage journey from Africa bound for enslavement in the Americas. The word MAAFA is the concept of Dr. Marimba Ani (African-American Scholar and author) and has been adopted in contemporary scholarship to define the middle passage" (from the 2003 program book). Just as the Jews have taken Hitler's "final solution" and renamed it "the Holocaust" through their own experience, so too have African-Americans claimed MAAFA as the name to discribe the horrors of the middle passage and slavery in the Americas.
During a four-hour presentation filled with singing, dancing, solos and soliloquies, all echoing the painful retelling of the middle passage, a cast of almost 200 people - all members of St. Paul - present the story of the African-American experience. It begins in our own times, returns to a village scene in West Africa in the days before the MAAFA, dramatizes the capture of the innocents, the chained and agonizing voyage on slave ships of free men, women, and children bound for America's ports of entry and the auction blocks there, enslavement, torture, lynching, and death in slavery, and the resurrection of the slaughtered to heaven in "Midnight Cry." The production brings the experience to the present day through Richard Kenyetta's "The Apology" in which cast members voice the variety of Black perspectives on reparations for slavery. The production ends with the entire company singing Roland Carter's arrangement of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
The Maafa Suite: A Healing Journey is written and performed with the belief that "the way out is back through." It is a powerful, emotional, spiritual journey through joy, pain, and the restoration of hope. It is the most poignant stage production I have ever witnessed (and I grew up in the theater)! As gripping as The Maafa Suite is, this performance, which includes both Word and Sacrament, is only part of the commemoration.
While at St. Paul, I participated in a two-day training called "Upending Racism" led by facilitators from the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, New Orleans, LA., I met and learned from Carrie Secret and the Circle of Orators from Oakland, CA., spent time learning from authors and nationally known speakers - Tim Wise and Paul Kivel, and looked at the historical roots of the black church with Dr. David Douglas Daniels III of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. On Wednesday, I was privileged to listen to Dr. Nelson H. Smith, Jr., 43 yr. Senior Pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama who spoke quietly, yet compellingly about the Civil Rights movement and upending racism in Alabama during the 50's and 60's - and up to the present day.
For four days from early morning to late night, I was honored to be in the presence of men, women, and children committed to turning around racism in America and creating a truly just society. During my time at St. Paul, each member and friend of this inspirational community of faith, welcomed me as a beloved brother in Christ and in all ways treated me with dignity, grace, and love. If, as Dr. Youngblood says, "the way out is back through" (which I believe it is . . . ), then there is hope on earth because of the MAAFA Commemoration of St. Paul Community Baptist Church!
Each night I was there, one of the ministry groups of St. Paul performed, "For the Millions," written by The Last Poets. "For the Millions" is a driving poem speaking for the millions of Africans who were and are witnesses of faith, strength, love and power in the face of hatred, persecution and death. The poem (which I have copied and placed in the office for you today), is powerful when read and sung, but the deaf ministry of St. Paul danced and acted out the poem only through the signed, not spoken word. Their presentation was graphic and compelling beyond belief!
Do I sound excited about last week? I wish you could have been there with me!
Beyond the events of the week, were the people. Brenda, Kim, Emily, Jeffrey, Donna, Deborah, Kathleen, Lorraine, Jaral, Victor, several pastors, including Rev. Darrol Pattillo of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Elders David, Ron, and Leroy. There was lunch each day at Valerie's Sophisticated Soul Food Services. There was singing, talking, laughing, loving, growing together - all in the uplifting power and presence of Jesus Christ. And of course being reunited with Dr. Youngblood, one of America's most gifted and memorable black preachers!
So what then, do we say to all this? Let us listen to the word of God. Let our Lord speak to us! In the book of prophet Hosea, we read: "my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6).
How many of us know, I mean really know, the history of slavery in America? Do we know that almost no men, women, or children who entered our continent and the islands of the Carribean and the east coast of South America came here as slaves? Do we know that they were kidnaped and brought to these shores? Millions of free men and women were driven, stored, shipped, and delivered on our shores from tribes and nations across the Atlantic. Do we possess that knowledge?
Do we know that Christianity took hold in Africa in the first centuries after Christ? Do we know that Christianity entered west Africa through the conversion of the King of Senegambia centuries before slaves encountered Christianity in the Americas? Do we know about Prince Affonso of the Kongo going to war in 1510 with a vision of Christ in the skies, winning that war, then inviting Muslims and Christians to make the case for their religion before his throne and choosing Christianity as the religion for the Kongolese? Do we know about him sending his son Enrique to Portugal to gain two degrees in theology and law and studying as a free man and the returning as a Catholic priest to teach in the Kongo and share the faith of Christ with all the people there? Do know about Bishop Enrique and his influence on West African Christians at least 50-100 years before the slave trade invaded their homeland? Do we know this story?
Do we know about confraternities of African men and women in Lisbon in the early 1500's fighting for economic justice in the marketplaces of Portugal's capital city? Do we remember Father Antonio Viera preaching to the King of Portugal in 1600? Do we know about Pope Benedict who was believed to be African? And do we know about 13th Century Orthodox Pope Abuna - also an African - (in the times when the Orthodox had popes)? Do we know about the network of free Africans in congregations in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Philadelphia, Jamaica, London and Nova Scotia communicating across the Atlantic Ocean in what was called the Sierra Leone Project, setting up systems of liberation and fighting back against the slave trade at the height of the slave trade in the 1780's?
Have we read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano written by himself in 1789? This autobiography chronicles Equiano's life from his birth in Isseke, Nigeria in 1745 to his kidnaping, voyage to Barbados and enslavement in Virginia at the age of 11, all the way through his "interesting" life as a man who buys his own freedom in 1766. These are the stories of religious faith and political action in the face of genocide and hatred which we rarely read about and know so little about. Hosea's words ring true for us today: "my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). We need to know about Christianity in Africa. We need to acknowledge the existence of a faith focusing on God our Creator and the creator of Humanity growing off the coasts and out of the heartland of the African continent long before it experienced the horrible suffering of the Maafa. We need to join our voices with the voices of millions who pull God in Jesus Christ out of the mire of racism and allow God to speak to us through the multitudes and the millions of black men and women through centuries of injustice.
Tomorrow night, as we gather at Corinthian Baptist Church on 5th Avenue (and I hope to see many of you there!), the BREAD organization will continue the cry of Hosea in our times, in our city: "my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." In the area of health care, our city's 130,000+ citizens are crying out for justice. Some will die without it. In the arena of affordable housing, we need to continue to work for the creation of truly affordable housing for those whose low income holds them back from equity in housing. In the public schools, we need to be systemic advocates and individual tutors for children who linger near the edge of illiteracy. We need to save ourselves from destruction through gained knowledge and we need to step out, speak out, and when necessary act out for justice action.
To be allies in the struggle for justice, we need to step up and be counted. In Mark's Gospel lesson today, it is crucial that people calling themselves Christian are counted upon within the faith community (vs. 38). It is not enough to stand near the edges in times of trouble and challenge. We must be involved and committed to the community of faith engaged in the work of justice. We must practice the same hospitality for others as I experienced in the welcome of St. Paul Community Baptist Church this week. The forsaken, the sojourners, the beaten, and the brothers and sisters in search of cold water and rest on the journey - no graciousness goes unnoticed or unrewarded (vs. 41). Like the first church, we must accord new converts special care and consideration (vs. 42), causing them not to stumble but to thrive and grow in Christ. And finally, like the beloved community of our Savior Jesus Christ, we must be morally earnest and ethically upright inasmuch as our behavior today has eternal consequences (vs. 43-50). Nowhere in the Gospel of Christ is the language of Jesus more vivid and emphatic than in today's calls to self-discipline and to nonviolent arms against temptation.
At no time in history, is the need greater for acquiring knowledge of our circumstances and acting in justice and righteous ways than this day. May the words of Hosea serve as inspiration not dire prediction - for we, God's people in this time, will not be destroyed for lack of knowledge."
As Dr. Youngblood said at the service of holy communion, "Our God loves the world so much that he spread out his arms, was nailed to a tree, and there died to save you and me." The way out of racism, hatred and injustice is back through. Let us go together on this journey, knowing that our God who loves us will grant us enough grace to make it across the river to freedom's side. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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