Aimee's reflections from Ghana
One more thing before I head for the plane. Last week I was blessed to be at the mission conference in the Presbytery of the Cascades. I met a third-year seminarian from San Francisco Theological Seminary named Aimee Moiso. She shared a powerful reflection on her experience at the gathering in Ghana of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. She has given me permission to share it with all of you. Sometimes when I copy large blocks of material into the blog, it messes up the punctuation. I apologize in advance if that happens this time.
Cascades Presbytery Mission Conference
April 29-May 2, 2005
It’s a warm day. No, make that a hot day. And humid.
There’s a breeze coming off the gulf, and that helps a little. But it’s not exactly comfortable. Your sticky shirt clings to your damp back. You can hear birds squawking overhead and down on the beach below, and it smells like fish and sand and salt. You know the sea is there, and boats, and fishers with their nets and catch of the day. But you can’t see them.
All you see at first are the buildings painted a blinding white – the slave castles, they call them – and the officials wandering around herding people into various rooms. The central plaza area is surrounded by white walls on all sides. On the sea side, a row of cannons point out threateningly at any oncoming invaders. The whole open area slants slightly down to the left, toward the ocean. There’s a narrow walkway there that leads toward a big wooden door with metal hinges. The door of no return, they call it. Those who go through that door…well, the boats take them away. And they don’t come back.
You’re hustled into the first dark room. It’s crowded, even though the ceilings are high, and the walls are brown, and they smell dirty and sour. Near the ceiling there are three small windows, or rather three small square holes that let in shafts of daylight, much too far up to reach. On rainy days, someone says, water pours into the crowded room through the tunnels, soaking everything.
It’s a relief to be out of the hot sun, but the room is stagnant and musty and damp, and after a minute you’d think you might prefer the heat of the sun to the claustrophobia of this dark dungeon.
But for now, here you are in the shadows. The walls are rough hewn stone, and the floor is bumpy and uneven. You squint in the darkness, trying to make out the details. You glance at the faces of the others here with you, wondering what they’re thinking and how it feels to them to be standing in this hole. It’s hard to read their stunned faces.
You can still hear the birds outside, calling each other.
The slave trade is an ugly, painful part of human history. Our history. Over brutal centuries, 15 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, and millions more were captured, but died. On this trade in humans as commodities, wealth in Europe was built. Through their labor, sweat, suffering, intelligence and creativity, the wealth of the Americas was developed.
I lived in Maryland for four years, and during that time I visited some of the sites, like in Annapolis, where slave ships were unloaded and the human cargo was auctioned off. Perhaps some of you have seen those places yourselves.
But last summer, at the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, I stood in the dungeons in Ghana, West Africa, where the slaves were imprisoned before being loaded onto the ships.
What was most shocking wasn’t the rough-hewn walls or the dark chambers or even the plaque marking the “door of no return.”
The most shocking reality of the slave castles on the Ghanaian coast is that the traders and officers – many of whom were our Reformed ancestors – had built chapels literally directly above the dungeons where the slaves were held in darkness and squalor. Christians worshipped God, while below their feet those being sold into slavery languished in chains, and in horror.
It seems unthinkable. Utterly unthinkable.
But there we were, the delegates and guests from all over the world who had come to the General Council, seeing the truth with our own eyes.
But think of this.
I imagine that for the traders and merchants and the slaves themselves, the sight of these groups of Reformed Christians from Asia and Africa and Europe and the Americas touring together through the castles might seem equally unthinkable.
That these centuries later, Christians would come together from around the world to remember these horrors and to say never again.
That blacks and whites and Asians and Spaniards and Dutch and Cubans and everyone else would live together, and pray together, and worship together and try seek God’s will together.
The horror of slavery is truly unthinkable, and its ramifications continue to affect us in this country and around the world as we deal with the racism and inequality and poverty and prejudice that permeate our world.
But there is something truly moving about the fact that our Reformed family went together to the castles – to remember, to lament, and to recommit themselves to life together as brothers and sisters in one family.
This conference is about mission and what mission looks like in the 21st century. Our obsolete understanding of mission as charity has, fortunately, begun to give way to images of mission as partnership, as community, as learning and growth, as family.
Sadly, our global family continues to be separated by wealth and poverty, by life in fullness and life of tremendous want. We are still divided between those who worship in comfortable contentment, and those enslaved by the world’s economic injustice who still suffer and die. So hear now these words from your Reformed family.
As those who have met on your behalf in Accra, Ghana, we declare to you that the integrity of our Christian faith is now at stake, just as it was for those worshipping in the [slave] castle[s]. Confessing our faith and giving our lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ requires our opposition to all that denies the fullness of life to all in our world so loved by God.
In Accra, we recognized that living according to what we say we believe changes our understanding of mission today. God’s spirit called forth the church as a new community bearing witness to a new global reality and opposing the false claims of earthly gods.
God’s mission today involves your congregation and each of ours in fresh and challenging ways. This much we discovered for certain in Accra: more than ever, faithful mission requires our connection between one another as churches. The challenges we now face in proclaiming the good news will simply overwhelm us if we confront them as individual churches alone.
Our prayer is…that God may reveal in [all of us] in fresh ways how our faith is deeply connected to all of life. May none of us ever live our faith insensitive to brutal suffering and indifferent to cries from our world. May all of us know the power of God at work in our Lord Jesus Christ to overcome evil and offer to all the world life in the fullness intended by God.
Global issues of poverty, hunger, injustice, oppression, violence, ecological destruction and war are incredibly daunting topics for churches. They are overwhelming, debilitating if we face them alone.
But we do not engage in mission on our own. We are part of a global church. We are not alone.
And in the face of the horrors of slavery, I stood in a dungeon where slaves had died and heard stories of those who were sent away and never came back. But I stood with members of the Reformed family from Ghana, from Jamaica, from Germany, from China, from Australia, from Ireland, from Brazil.
And by standing together we bore witness to God’s power in our world, power to overcome evil and offer to all the world life in fullness. And we walked out together into the sun.