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Commemorating 1619: On Naming Slavery in Worship

The act of worshipping together as a community—of being not just in physical proximity, but spiritual proximity—sometimes feels like a miracle. As a pastor responsible for planning and leading worship, I have a deep appreciation for the perils and pitfalls that come with asking a group of people to pray together, sing together, worship together. If I write a prayer for worship, it can’t just be my prayer; it has to be a prayer for the whole community.

The logo for 400 Years of Inequality, a coalition committed to education and observance and urging communities to organize against racism for justice.

These challenges become especially acute when worship leaders ask their communities to engage with a topic that is painful or divisive. But we can’t shy away from hard subjects. We can’t restrict our worshipping life to shallow platitudes and feel-good theology lest we water down the gospel to the point of being meaningless. Faith communities need to dig deep into the places where our faith, our scripture, and our God intersect with the hard stuff: injustice, suffering, cruelty, sin. The sacredness of worship provides a powerful connection-point to the very subjects that are hardest to confront.

These reflections took concrete form for me recently as I pondered how my congregation should mark the quadricentennial of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia (though enslaved people were brought to the Americas prior to 1619)[1]. Four hundred years later, organizations both secular and religious are using 2019 to reflect on our history and to see how it connects to our present.

I’m a white woman, and I pastor a predominantly white congregation. Bringing up race or racism  among white people tends to evoke anxiety, guilt, and defensiveness—in short, our white fragility is quick to rear its head. We would rather leave slavery in the distant past. We would rather ignore the continuing racial injustice in our society. We would rather not consider our own complicity in this injustice. So I was faced with a complex challenge: how to mark this 400th anniversary in worship in a way that is truthful and authentic, without prompting so much defensiveness among my white congregants that they would be unable to engage.

Of course, what is truthful and authentic in my context won’t fit in every context. Particularly in communities made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, marking the quad-centennial will look very different. For those, like me, in mostly-white congregations, I hope these resources will be helpful.

I developed some liturgical resources with a lot of help from my colleague and fellow young clergywoman, the Rev. Jessica Harren. Part of developing these resources was paying another colleague, Jessica Davis, M.A. who is African-American, to do a sensitivity reading. If you are white and writing something about race, it is wise to seek input from a person of color; but don’t take advantage of their expertise and emotional labor! The liturgical resources we wrote can be found here: https://www.socalsynod.org/2019/08/16/resources-for-commemorating-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-arrival-of-the-first-enslaved-africans-to-north-america/

Another young clergywoman colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, wrote liturgical resources of her own, which can be found here: https://www.disruptworshipproject.com/litanies-confessions-prayers-for-justice/confession-and-repentance-on-the-400th-anniversary-of-slavery-in-the-united-states

Bringing up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and racial injustice in worship may seem daunting. For those of us who are white, it is certainly easier to say nothing, to let this anniversary slip by. We have the privilege of ignoring slavery’s legacy. Our siblings of African descent don’t have that privilege. If you are hesitant to rock the boat by asking your congregation to name racism as sin, I encourage and challenge you to be bold. Our Savior didn’t come to placate the privileged and neither should we.

Worshipping together in community seems like a miracle sometimes. It is a miracle that we can come together—- all with different stories, different hopes, different wounds—- and find a sacred unity. It might seem miraculous that a mostly-white, suburban, politically mixed congregation could join their voices in condemning slavery; could publicly repent for denying the divine image in all people; could pray together for descendants of enslaved Africans. And they didn’t even lash out at their pastor afterwards!

Although marking the quadricentennial in worship felt like a risk, the truth is that it was a small first step. The things we do in worship—the stories we tell, the prayers we raise up, the history we remember—form us as individual Christians and as Christian community. The true miracle is that the Holy Spirit works in and among us, uniting us as the body of Christ. The work of worship leaders and planners is important, but it is the miraculous work of the Spirit that transforms us, bringing us ever closer to God’s sacred intention.

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To learn more about the complexity of the translatlantic slave trade beyond 1619, visit https://bit.ly/2kLqc5M