Sermon – May 19, 2019 – Fifth Week in Eastertide
The Rev. Laurel Hart

From tracesofthetrade.org

Scripture: Acts 11:1-18

Let them praise the Name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 

I really enjoy once again hearing the stories from the Acts of the Apostles very year during these Sundays of Easter.  I’m always amazed at what a small group of people were able to accomplished beginning over two thousand years ago.  

The story which Peter told is of a dream when God tells him all creatures created by God are good.  When Peter shared this vision and the results as (which was the conversions of a group of Gentiles) with the community back in Jerusalem; the telling of this story lead to a change in the hearts and minds of those individuals.  They realized it was God’s will they accept Gentiles as new Christians without hesitation or barriers.  God showed them through Peter – all creatures God has made are good.  

Hearing this story reminded me of times in my life I’ve had my heart and mind opened to new awareness’s and understanding of our nation’s ongoing struggle with racism. In 2013, I attended a Triennial Deacon Assembly in Williamsburg, VA.  There was a presentation at that conclave of a documentary titled “Traces of the Trade”.  This film was produced by Katrina Brown a direct decent of James DeWolf who was the most successful and wealthy slave trader in the colonies. 

From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed their ships from Bristol, Rhode Island to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Captives were taken to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol. Over the generations, the family transported more than ten thousand enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. They amassed an enormous fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf  had been a U.S. Senator and was reportedly the second richest man in the United States.

The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family. It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The trade drove the economy of many port cities and Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution.  The film follows ten DeWolf descendants as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting the DeWolf  hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, slave forts on the coast of Ghana, and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba. Back home, the family confronts the thorny topic of what to do now. In the context of growing calls for reparations for slavery, family members struggle with the question of how to think about and contribute to “repair.” Meanwhile, Browne and her family come closer to the core: their love/hate relationship with their own Yankee culture and privileges; the healing and transformation needed not only “out there,” but inside themselves.  What I gained from this presentation was a greater awareness around the continuing issues in our country which are the remnants of the practice of slavery.  Sadly, the current political climate in our country is making many people increasing fearful of people who might be different from them and uneasy for their personal safety and the future of our country.  

Why am I talking about this with all of you today? I’m sharing because it’s my ministry and more importantly the charge of my ordination as a deacon to bring the cares and concerns of the world outside those red doors to the attention of this parish to which I have been assigned.  As I reflected on this reading from “Acts” in preparation for this homily, I was reminded of a topic which has been on my mind for some time.  Two years ago I spend 3 months in chaplaincy training at Emmanuel Hospital in Portland.  The final topic we covered in our training was the topic of “white privilege”.  I’ll be honest – a person doesn’t get much whiter than fair skinned, freckled little ole me.   This awakening came over me when my cohort was given a paper to read as part of our curriculum; the reading forced me to look outside the bubble of my safe living space and begin to see a world very different than the one I lived in.  In unpacking the contents of this topic, I came to understand the conditions of my daily experience, which I once took for granted, as neutral, normal, and universally available weren’t the same if one’s skin was brown or black.   The author of this paper, Peggy McIntosh listed 54 various thoughts and experiences of “white privilege” coming from her life as a white woman.  Now I’m not going to share the entire list but I want to read a few to illustrate why I was startled by this material: 

  • I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. 
  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me. 
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives. 
  • I did not have to educate my sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection 
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.   

These occurrences and many similar ones are daily issues and real in their negative effect on the lives of many people of color.

I want to share a story with you.  Last September, Jim and I spent a week in London.  We were able to visit on three occasions with Nick who is my stepson, Patrick, best friend from his high school years.  (Both Nick and Pat are now in their early fifties.)  Nick and his wife Vivian moved to London when their graduated from Harvard with their MBA’s.  They have been living in London over 20 years.  Nick owns a couple of businesses and Vivian is the managing director in the UK of a worldwide business consulting firm.  Vivian was knighted two years ago for her contributions in the world of business in the UK.  Her title is now Dame Vivian.  The live in an upscale area of London and are well known patrons of the arts – especially the theater.  They have two teenage boys who are athletes and excellent students.  So I ask Nick, over some beverages in his club, is life was any better for his family as black people in the UK.  He said not really.  He told us that he constantly tells his sons, when they are walking around in hoodies – no one knows who their parents are.  No one knows that they live in an upscale neighborhood and attend a prestigious private school.  No one knows that their mother is a “Dame”.  They look like black boy in a hoody and they must be very careful.  I wanted to cry for the injustice of this world.  

Can I change the color of my skin? The answer is rather obvious – no.  Do I want to? Honestly – no, I’ve lived in this body a long time and I’m pretty comfortable with it.  However, I need to continue to try to expand my heart and my thinking to understand to challenges other people must live with because of the color of their skin – something they can’t change either.  Isn’t that the message in our gospel reading today?  Jesus is nearing the end of his work on earth.  Jesus wanted to keep it simple; he addressed us as little children when giving us the new commandment –we should love one another just as he loved us -with open hearts and minds willing to learn.  So I leave with this final thought.  This commandment is not about what we believe; it is about how we live.  Amen.