The word of the Lord.
Ever since Reverend Edwards asked me, about a month ago, to deliver a Chapel talk early in the school year, I have been pondering the topic.
A part of me wished to share a topic that might be considered typical for the opening of the school year—I could craft words of inspiration encouraging each of you to be your best selves this school year, or to lean on each other for support and guidance, for example; or I could accentuate the multitude of talents that we possess among our impressive student body.
There would be nothing wrong with such a path, and I may have been wise to stick to it.
But, despite some effort and focus, I could not write that Chapel talk. I tried to write it, but it did not come to me.
What came, instead, is what I have been thinking about, off and on, for the past four weeks, since Reverend Edwards asked me to speak to you today.
Today I am going to share with you what is on my heart at this moment. I do not wish to preach or to judge; I am simply offering thoughts for you to consider and with them, my hopes for the 2019-2020 school year and the kind of beloved community I want us to be.
Less than two weeks ago, on August 25, the Commonwealth of Virginia, with leadership from the National Park Service and political and religious leaders from across the state, marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slavery to the shores of Virginia.
In August of 1619, the location was known as Port Comfort; today it is a decommissioned military installation known as Fort Monroe, located in the city of Hampton, Virginia.
We could get in our cars right now and be at Fort Monroe in an hour and a half—it’s that close. There we would find a historical marker noting the arrival, in late August of 1619, of 20-some Africans, believed to have been stolen from their homeland in Angola and destined for enslavement in the Caribbean or in South America, within a Spanish colony in which slavery already existed.
In 1619, just 12 years into England’s first permanent colony in North America, slavery had not yet been established in this New World. But when an English privateer ship, the White Lion, captured the cargo of a Portuguese slave ship carrying the 20-some stolen Africans, the English sailors desperately needed food and supplies to sustain them on their return voyage home.
Not wanting to be burdened with the enslaved Africans, the English decided to sell them to prominent Virginia colonists for food for their return voyage, thus marking the beginning of 246 years of legal enslavement of Africans in what would become the United States of America.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. Many scholars, however, do not commence the true liberation of African descendants in this country until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting and ensuring the democratic rights of all Americans, as protected by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868 and 1870, respectively.
So, whether one starts the clock with the abolition of slavery 154 years ago or more recently with the passage of the Voting Rights Act just over 50 years ago, there has been far more time in this state and in this nation without equal rights and protections for all citizens than there has been with equal rights and protections for all citizens.
As a very-related tangent, the right for women to vote and to participate in this country’s democracy was not achieved until one century ago, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Again, a short time period relative to the much longer history of women in this nation.
This paradox, the great contradiction of America’s founding democracy, has arguably, perhaps inarguably, been the source of our country’s deepest pain and division.
At a commemoration service of the 400-year mark of slavery in America in Hampton less than two weeks ago, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia noted that the “dualism [of] high-minded principle and indescribable cruelty has defined us.”
Further, he said, “The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most cruel atrocities. And yet how fortunate we are as a country that the descendants of that cruel institution are part of our country.”
And so another paradox—out of the cruelty and horror of slavery, in part, was born the great melting pot of America, the notion that all can come here, people from all creeds, races, religions, and backgrounds, and meld together to form a sum, the American people, far stronger than the individual parts we represent.
I believe in that sentiment—the melting pot, the coming together of people of varied genders, races, geographies, creeds, and lifestyles, to form a stronger whole—and hope you do, as well. I believe it is a fitting sentiment—an American, Christian, and Episcopalian sentiment—and I want St. Christopher’s to model that noble ideal of unity through variety, of wholeness through our disparate parts.
Here I want to pause and acknowledge that I am focusing my remarks this morning on the story of American slavery and specifically on the 400-year anniversary of the first arrival of slaves to American shores, to Virginian shores. In many ways, the struggle and progress of African descendants from such wicked beginnings is the American story for justice, liberty, and progress.
But, I also acknowledge that there are myriad other groups—other racial minorities, women, individuals of different sexuality, religious beliefs, immigrants, and other minority groups—who have struggled, and prevailed, and struggled again as part of their American story.
Let me also transition here and ask a question you may be pondering—What does the founding of American slavery, its 400th anniversary, have to do with life at St. Christopher’s and the opening of school? An excellent and fair question, and let me try to answer it now and in so doing, to offer concluding thoughts.
The issue that I speak of today—the seeds of racism, division, and pain in American history—is an issue that haunts this nation and carries a legacy that, I fear, will be your generation’s to continue to untangle. While we all can point to signs of great progress in furthering our country’s ideals of equal treatment and opportunity, there remain many stubborn examples of obstacles to said equal treatment and opportunity.
The divisiveness around issues that can separate Americans appears to have gained greater potency, even greater volume, in recent years. It is easy, through customized news feeds, curated social-media channels, intense partisanship, and even segregated schooling and residential patterns, to isolate ourselves from people who look, think, or act differently than we do.
But though it may be easy, it is not the hard right, and my hope and prayer for St. Christopher’s in this new year is that we can be and become an exception, an exceptional community marked by our cohesion and unity. That would be a beloved community, to use a phrase made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
How might we do this? How might we take our diverse St. Christopher’s amalgamation of individuals from varied backgrounds and form a cohesive unit stronger than our component parts? I do not have all the answers, and I want to lean on our student and faculty leaders for support in this important area, but let me offer two concrete forms of action.
First, let us acknowledge the real and painful history of separateness and inequality that is part of our country’s history. Not only our country’s history, but the history of our own state and city. There is racism and bigotry in our world today, spawned from generations of injustice to many, and we need to acknowledge its presence before we can address it and hope to rectify it.
Second, let us strive to demonstrate, through intentional words and actions, that this community can rise above that history, can lean into a future of togetherness and compassion, of brotherhood and acknowledgment, of true community and inclusion. Many in the church and social-justice worlds call this future of togetherness a “reconciliation.”
We will do that, reconcile, through honest and compassionate conversation and through genuine listening, above all. We represent beautifully diverse perspectives and family histories in this room. We do not, and should not, agree with each other on every topic of the day, but we must respect each other and treat each member of our community with the dignity that we would seek for ourselves and, moreover, the dignity that is granted to us through the grace of God, just as we heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians in our scripture reading.
I remember well Chapel talks by your peers less than two years ago, from Justin Jasper, Jens Ames, and Will Forrest. Each of them spoke passionately and candidly about their life experiences, their views on race and division and inclusion and how their views had shifted over their St. Christopher’s careers. I have never been more proud of student leaders than I was on that day.
Not just those three superb leaders, but each of you can, through honest and respectful conversation and through true empathy, be better and more unified tomorrow than we have been in the past.
I believe in the students and faculty of St. Christopher’s School, and I count myself as immeasurably lucky to be in a teaching and learning community committed to modeling the best of our inner angels, for the glory of God and of humankind.
Let us close with words of prayer offered by Susan Goff, the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Virginia. Let us pray.
“Dear God, you were with our ancestors, men and women of diverse races and cultures, through triumph and adversity, through hope and fear. In the same way that you were with your people then, be with us now as we remember the relationships and legacies that have shaped us as Americans today. Forgive us the ways that we have hurt and exploited one another. Give us the courage to do the hard work of real reconciliation. And bless our continued efforts for justice, freedom and peace for everyone in this land—everyone, without exception. For you are a God who does wonders, and in your name we see wonders. May it be so. And may we be partners with you in making it so. Amen.”
Letter from Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff to the Episcopal Church of Virginia—August 21, 2019
Schneider, G.S. (2019, August 24). Virginia Marks the Dawn of American Slavery in 1619. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
Hanna-Jones, N. (2019, August 14). Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals... New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com