Sermon for Black History Month on Sunday, 10 October 2021
By Revd Hannah Akibo-Betts
Good morning to us here and those watching on line. As Christ the Cornerstone gathers today to celebrate Black History Month, I thank Ernesto and Glynne for inviting me to be your guest speaker. It is a daunting and unenviable task, but a welcomed privilege.
Unenviable and daunting because our contemporary history cannot be told without referencing the western institutional forces at play over that course of history that included the creation of ‘whiteness’ to mark its superiority over all others and in particular ‘blackness’. This creation became the basis of much of what we describe as racism, discrimination, injustices and inequalities.
But before going through our theme I would like us to reflect on the following three questions:
- For those of us who are products of dysfunctional families; how have our experiences informed and shaped our lives?
- For those of us who wear glasses, what differences do new prescriptions make to our vision?
- Thirdly, within or outside our individual faith families, who were the encouragers and motivators in our life’s journeys?
Let us pray.
Thanks to our black trailblazers like Betty Campbell that pioneered Black History Month, today is the one day in the year that we can selectively tell our story. But is this how it should be when there is so much need to tear down the structures that continue to make life difficult for most black people?
My hope for us today is that after hearing snippets of our story, our white brothers and sisters may begin to recognise and own our story as theirs too. I prayerfully hope that, with this recognition, you will understand that today is not about accusation or guilt tripping but rather a call for all of us to listen and reflect on how black people’s plight can be better understood and helped. Today is therefore about equipping, enlightening and raising our awareness as God’s family. It is about defending God’s Gospel of love by working together where possible in ways that can influence that which is fair, fruitful and acceptable to God as one race irrespective of our physical differences. It is also about celebrating our heroes, starting with our parents and all those who have contributed to our struggles, growth and journeys to this juncture.
Black History’s focus this year is on ‘Family and To be’, topics that I also found challenging as I could not find a biblical family that is not dysfunctional. However, I am encouraged by this as it may help us to embrace the mistakes of our ancestors and our own humanity. Usually, it is from these dysfunctional places that we find and understand God’s word, grace, love, purposes and directions for our lives.
An overview of our passages tells of three sets of families: the Old Testament reading shares our creation in God’s likeness; and the life of an individual family inviting us to identify each of our own transforming oil within both our individual and church families for positive changes in our lives; while the New Testament reading tells of how an individual and local church families responded to the indignities of slavery. I feel both passages are helpful to us as they tell of our humanity and family struggles and how they were, and can be, overcome. [The passages are included at the end of this document.]
This morning guided by our theme let me share snippets of black people’s history partly through the prism of my own experiences.
I was born and raised in Freetown, a cosmopolitan city similar to Ephesus and Colossae. I am a descendant of freed slaves who were returned to their native lands under colonisation, which was another form of slavery. Like Betty Campbell, the first black head-teacher in Wales, and my black counterparts here and around the world, we were also born free, or so we thought. But our ancestors were not, for over four hundred years. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, two sets of people formed a partnership in slave trade. Some of our own indigenous chiefs through coercion betrayed and sold their own people to white western explorers as slaves for pittance. During those centuries about a third of Britain’s wealth was from the slave trade, while some of our disloyal ancestors died of the tobaccos they exchanged as payments. Slavery was brutal. From the minute people were caught and sold their identity changed to how their owners perceived them. They were treated worse than wild animals and not regarded, seen or respected as humans. This perspective became the fundamental framework of how black people were, and have been, perceived and treated since. The seeds of superiority having been sown, left black people with a slavery identity that continues as overt and covert racism, discrimination and inequalities today. It is despite these boundaries and struggles that black icons rose in careers such as literary, sciences and as church leaders, to serve as encouragers and motivators for us today. Black History Month has become a time to celebrate, draw strength and motivation from the heroes that transcended the institutional structures that were contrived to keep us down. Today, we continue to experience these boundaries at school, college, universities; work, in the shops, in our neighbourhoods and in all strata of society, including the church. Betty was told she would not achieve her ambition of being an educator. Our children and we still remain the Bettys of today. What seems painful about our experiences is that it could not, and cannot, be easily discussed for meaningful changes. One felt and feels helpless, suffered and suffers in silence as we watch our children undergoing similar experiences to their parents’.
However, from what I have relayed of our history I perceive a shared history with our white folks.
You may ask how so?
The answer is that our history suggests that we have worked in partnership from the inception of the slave trade agreements between Western explorers and some African chiefs. Jeremiah 17: 9 states that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked. The deceitfulness, greed and wickedness that brought about slavery were executed by our white ancestors with the approval of some black leaders, hence our shared heritage. However, we are reminded in Genesis that God made intrinsically good people, which is borne out in the efforts of both blacks and whites to end the slavery of black people. Without the support of some white people, the Civil Rights and other activist, including the recent Black Lives Matter movements, would not have gained much traction. Sir Macpherson who identified institutional racism in the case of Stephen Lawrence was white. Both black and white must have worked jointly to secure Betty’s statute in Cardiff; the awarding of Nobel prizes to blacks; and vaccines for malaria and so much more.
So today, our story is not about condemnation or the pointing of fingers. It is about raising awareness in our church families, co-opting you in our continued struggles, in dismantling the structures that divide, discriminate and support racism, injustices and inequalities.
So how can we do this within our individual and Church families’ structures?
This morning I will suggest two ways:
Starting with Paul’s attitude and actions against inequalities; Paul must have done some soul searching on what was ethical in God’s perspective particularly in the context of his own privileged background and his part in the persecution of Christians. Like John Newton a former slave trader; they each found grace in God’s forgiveness and love. Paul’s introspection did not allow him to be a spiritual father to both master and slave. Things had to be different. So he subtly challenged Philemon, the church families and the structures that supported slavery.
As a church, celebrating Black History Month indicates your acknowledgment and appreciation of diversity. However, my plea is that the conversation should be continuous rather than yearly, so that those things that discriminate and divide can be instantly challenged.
Peter tells us that as Christians our actions are motivated by God’s love. Love calls us to be mindful of what we do to and for others. The little widow’s oil changed her household’s fate and history. As Christians we have more than a drop of oil within our individual and church families. We have Christ. Black and non-blacks, our family structures are based on Christ’s teachings and values. We teach our children good values and principles such as respect, kindness, selflessness, forgiveness, hope and so on. Our shared history indicates failures by both black and white. Let love help to change our attitudes and minds. I invite our non-black church family to look inwards with a new pair of glasses to identify any prejudice that maybe within as we all carry unconscious biases. Change will only come from within us then spreading outwards towards others.
Then to my black folks: Let us also ask God for new spectacles through which to see ourselves. Let us continue to take pride in our blackness, including appreciation of our features, hair, dress, music, food, fortitude, and so much more. Let us believe in ourselves and rise above – rejection, hesitation, fear, the negative imageries portrayed by the media; the stereotypes that institutions condition us to live within. Instead, focus on the imagery of the likeness of God who has made us beautifully and wonderfully and called all of us his own. Let us continue to support each other and tell our story to our children. But let us do so with new vocabulary and lenses that are encouraging, aspiring and visionary. To all of us, let us continue to work towards change. Blacks nurture and strengthen your young people by sharing your experiences and how you overcame barriers.
Whites, try to embrace black young people. Pray for them. Ask them how it is for them so that you can understand some of their dis-privileges and inequalities. Encourage your young whites to see their black counterparts as God sees them and not superior.
To Cornerstone family, pool and share the oil you have as individual and church families and see the benefits they will produce together.
Martin Luther said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ How many times has each of us missed opportunities to do what is right by not speaking the truth and challenging wrong situations? Christ did not hesitate to challenge those things that needed to and neither did Paul.
Is the time now right for all of us to examine our hearts, minds, actions and reactions to situations and make conscious decision to change? To change is to grow, and growth is wisdom. Things are and will continue to change. Let us grow together with a renewed understanding of each other’s needs remembering that: salvation heals and not divides and that we are all aliens here. Our true home is in God’s Kingdom.
Old Testament Readings
Genesis 1: 26a, 27–28a & 31a
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, ….’
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; ….’
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
2 Kings 4: 1–7
The widow’s olive oil
1 The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’
2 Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’
‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a small jar of olive oil.’
3 Elisha said, ‘Go round and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. 4 Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’
5 She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. 6 When all the jars were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another one.’
But he replied, ‘There is not a jar left.’ Then the oil stopped flowing.
7 She went and told the man of God, and he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.’
New Testament Reading
Philemon vv. 1–2, 6–18 & 21
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home:
6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 … Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for ever – 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.… 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.