“Oh no, we have a white guy in the car with us.”Those are words I had never heard until my last day in Lagos, Nigeria. One of my hosts said it after we took a wrong turn and approached a pop-up checkpoint for proper car registration. The simple fact that I was a white person, and an American one at that, was cause for concern because I represented an opportunity for bribery and abuse of power. I rarely have to think about how where I am from, and what I look like impact my everyday life experiences, even though that is not the case for most other people around the world. While that final day in Nigeria forced me to consider what I have otherwise been able to ignore most of my life, the entire trip proved to be profoundly, though uncomfortably, life-changing.
Perhaps the most jarring and transformative experience I had was on the first full day when we traveled to one of the first slave ports from the early 1400’s in Badagary, Nigeria. After a long day of travel from Europe to Nigeria, full of sensory overload from the airport to the hotel, we woke up early for what would prove to be another eventful trip through unfinished highways and endless images of poverty and brokenness. Our driver expertly navigated the roads and our hosts went to great lengths to make sure we were well cared for, but we still arrived at Badagary tired and unprepared for what lay ahead. I now recognize that my exhaustion left me more vulnerable to be shaped by the vividly honest encounter I would have with the horrific atrocities my ancestors propagated against fellow image bearers of God.
I walked the same path as countless numbers of people who were stolen from their families and sold for the consumption of all sorts of goods–from weapons used to fight against fellow African people, to a bottle of whiskey, or an umbrella to protect against the fierce sun that beat down on the ancestors of the very people with whom I now walked. Our guide intentionally and strategically used the term ‘human beings’, when describing how much particular items cost. He held up an umbrella and said, “40 human beings”, and pointed to a cannon and said “150 human beings”.
What was going through my head as I walked alongside fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, my gracious hosts, and fellow ministers of the gospel? Deep sadness, discomfort, shame, guilt, and interest in the reality of such present-history right under my feet. I was constantly tempted to keep it at a safe distance, more like a museum full of relics from the distant past, remembering evils carried out by other people who had no real relationship to me. But my conscious kept prodding me to remain present and fight the urge to distance myself from what I was experiencing, in order to recognize where such evil continues to persist all around me today, some of which I likely even participate in myself.
The trans-Atlantic Slave Trade happened 1,400 years after Jesus declared, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). He then died on a cross to end the hopeless reign of sin’s tyranny and rose from the dead to usher in a new era of eternal Hope. But here in this very place, less than two hundred years ago, Christian men like Philip Livingston, head of theology at Princeton University, and an original signer of the Declaration of Independence, brought about the kingdom of horror rather than the Kingdom of heaven.
I am writing these things with a keen sense of urgency because I fear I will forget. I fear the Christian congregation I am honored to lead, primarily full of other white, middle-class, Americans, will take the path of least resistance, failing to remember the broken heritage we have inherited and knowingly or unknowingly continuing to participate in systems of evil and oppression. I fear we will continue to ignore present-day opportunities to learn, grieve, pray, and pursue the kingdom of heaven alongside our brothers and sisters of color.
Today is just a few days before Juneteenth; a celebration of the emancipation of slavery, first celebrated in Texas on June 19, 1865. African American men and women gathered to remember the gradual spreading of this good news to the western portion of the United States of America. Then, like now, people of privilege were less inclined to engage in the difficult work of spreading hope and demanding the end of other’s oppression when it might come at some level of personal cost. We all know about Paul Revere’s famous ride, but few of us know about how the news of emancipation from slavery made its way throughout the country. This message came much less quickly or cleanly because the majority culture didn’t think they (we) would benefit from it. Still today, Juneteenth is often overlooked by the majority culture and unrecognized as an official holiday throughout much of the country.
While I am tempted to continue ignoring the uncomfortable realities that are discretionary for me, but are all too real for others, I cannot sit idly by. Members of my community, especially my brothers and sisters of color, love me too much to let me sit on the destructive sidelines of complacency. So by God’s grace and the long-suffering patience of my friends and community,
I will continue on the life-long journey of learning, grieving, praying, proclaiming, and pursuing the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.