A World Made Remade
Elijah R. Zehyoue –
This semester I took a course in the Divinity School at Howard University that changed my life. When I first registered for this class, History of the Black Church, I was expecting it to be more of a refresher course. I was already a Divinity School graduate, a practicing minister, and a lay church historian so I simply wanted this class to fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t quite remember. I assumed, if the class would have any impact on me, it would be to introduce me to more information—more books, more theories, more scholars of black religion that I should know. I completely went in expecting that the class would add to what I knew, confirm what I believed, and concretized what I mostly understood. I never thought it would fundamentally affect my life and crystallize my calling. But that is exactly what happened.
When I walked into class on that first Thursday at 4:10 pm the words, “Who are you and why are you here?” were written on the board. Spirituals were playing in the background. And images of enslaved Africans flashed across the screen. Dr. Harrison walked around the lectern and said, “You cannot understand the history of the black church, if you do not understand the people who comprised the black church. And you cannot understand them if you do not know where they come and what they believed”. She continued and said, “as young historians you must ask, who were these people and who did they call on in the midnight hour of their enslavement?” Then she closed her remarks by saying, “I contend to you that the history of the black church, the history of black people in America, and more importantly your history, is woefully insufficient if you do not have a thorough understanding of the robust and pluralistic identities of your ancestors. This course is about that— it is about your ancestors and it is about you. It is about who you come from, who you are, and why you are here.”
Those opening words changed the game for me. I wasn’t expecting the questions of history to hit me so personally. I wasn’t expecting her to bring it home in such a specific way. I wasn’t ready for how this information would connect with the deeper questions of vocation I had. I wasn’t quite prepared for how ideas, even ones I already knew, would affect me when they were re-ordered and reframed. I had come to graduate school unsure how my love for history and my passion for ministry would go together. Despite being a year and half in, I was still struggling to fully articulate the oneness of what I was doing and why I was here. So Dr. Harrison’s emphasis on these questions as she taught history brought together what had been previously bifurcated. In the end she helped me to articulate the connection between history and ministry. Below, I have shared just a portion of what I think I learned from her class and what I believe I am called to do in light of what I learned, who I come from, and why I am here. I hope as you read it, you will reflect, think about your own vocation, the mission of our church, and the moral mandate we have to ask questions about who we are as we try to build a world a new.
[continuation from 12/12/19 article]
In the Hebrew scriptures, the beginning of immorality and sin is with Adam, Eve, a snake, and an apple. In the modern world, the beginning of immorality and sin is with the Doctrine of Discovery. The brokenness, the unjust-ness, and the evilness of the international system of buying, selling, trading, cargo-ing, and capturing human beings for the purpose of the building and expanding of the European world must be properly traced to its historical origins. Moreover, that injustice and sin never stayed in once place. The ideas that started the problems moved and evolved as the problems became more sophisticated and pronounced. The Doctrine of Discovery impacted the lives of indigenous African and American peoples. It permitted the development, wealth, ideas, structures, and society that would be the Western world generally, the American world in particular, and their churches, even more specifically. It is reason why, by the time this nation and the denominations and societies responsible for evangelizing and propagating the gospels was founded, none of these core institutions would ultimately ever come to see enslaved people and their descendants as fully human, fully American, or fully Christian. It is also why there are compromises against their rights like that of 1877 and violence done to their bodies, like what was done to Emmett Till and so many others all through our history.
These moments impact me personally because I am African, Christian, a student of history, a human being of compassion, a moral agent, a black liberation theologian, a minister, and activist for human rights and human dignity. As a person who sits at the intersection of global history and theology, and as a product of colonized Africa, the indigenous traditions of the African diaspora, the American Church and the black radical tradition it can be very hard to find my footing in a place that is home. For years, in my search for home, I felt alienated and home-less. I felt that there was no place ultimately for me. I also felt that it was a futile effort to try to make sense of my complicated past and checkered ancestry; instead I told myself that I should just try to contort my life and body to the world as it was. But this endeavor never seemed right to me. And so the more I studied history, particularly the history of the people I come from, the more I realize that the dis-ease I feel is rooted in a historical dis-ease; That my lack of home is because I come from a people whose homes have been disrupted. Their homes were disrupted by the Church, by enslavement, by colonialism, and by the making of the modern world. In an effort then to reclaim what was disrupted, I have been pushed and pulled to studying our people more deeply and realizing that everything was not destroyed or even tampered with. I have been pushed and pulled to see that some aspects of our identities and cultures, that some of our moral systems and worldviews, that some of our theological traditions and intellectual discourses have been preserved in the cultures, lives, bodies, and institutions of the very people who I come from. In short, I have come to see that I make more sense when I study who I come from because I come from a people who were plural in their beliefs, democratic in the government, open minded in their thoughts, moral in their actions, cooperative in their affairs, just in their dealings, and thoughtful about the world they lived in. I have come to see that the American manifestation of their religious imagination is codified in what we as historians call the slave religion. I have also come to believe that slave religion is the true model for how the society should be reconstructed and reorganized. Their lives are a testament to innate and organic brilliance, courage, and humanity. In their tradition, they had and held on to the ideals that both the church and state claim to have and they offer us all a road map forward in light of the world we have now inherited.
This revelation and realization is at the heart of my calling as a historian, minister, theologian, activist, and scholar. My ministry then is to blend these truths and understand our African past as best as I can so that I can work in a like-minded international, multi-cultural, and pluralistic coalition to build a just world. I want to preach sermons, give lectures, write books, teach classes, organize programs, advocate for policy, fight for people, and work for a world where we honor the lives of the people who were dominated by the world that was remade beginning in the 15th century. I want the Christian church as it is to die to its bigoted, intolerant, violent, racist, sexist, homophobic, trans phobic, xenophobic, European hegemonic, and white supremacist ways and perhaps be resurrected as the model for a moral and just society based on the religion of the slave, their friend Jesus, and experience of their total lives, including the suffering that birthed their moral imagination. I want a world remade, but this time in the image of Nat Turner, Lucy, and Charlotte, Harriett, Helen and Virginia, Flora and JoAnn. I want a world remade where Ifa and Akan, Dahomey and Vodun, and Islam share the discursive power and influence the religious imagination of the whole world. I want a world remade where our foremothers and forefathers lives are honored, remembered, sacretized, and venerated. I want a world where Black Theology of Liberation is our guide, Womanism is our norm, and Freedom is our end. I want a world as it should be, as it can be, and as our ancestors imagined it would be, needed it to be, and yet didn’t live to see it become. I want to dedicate my life to struggling for a world a remade. I pray for the courage and fidelity to remain faithful to this call no matter the cost and open to the spirits push no matter where it takes us so that together we can all one day Be Free.