THE REPENTANCE PROJECT / AN AMERICAN LENT
When God Said 'Yes'
We gathered to seek God’s will. We gathered to discern.
We were black and white Christians, about 15 of us, from Orlando, Washington, Richmond, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, from churches and non-profits and foundations and the government. We met at a small farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, at Corhaven, a property set apart as a place to meet God, and also hallowed as a place where at least 24 black people lie buried who died enslaved.
Together we asked the question: How can white Christians concretely recognize the awful legacy of more than 375 years of racial oppression in the United States, and recognize the ongoing effects in the black community? How can white Christians make statements and take actions that demonstrate that we get it, and are sorry? How can white Christians recognize the ways that we have benefitted from the long and still active history of racial injustice in our country? And how can we express our grief and sorrow, and then repent, make amendments of life, and seek repair?
We gathered to ask these questions together, and hear whether there was anything to do, to hear from each other, and to hear from God. We gathered to discern. We gathered to seek God’s will.
Throughout the morning the prayers were deep, the conversations honest and painful, the laughter easy, the tone sober and humble and full of trust.
After lunch, in bright sun we walked through the pasture and up to the slave cemetery at Corhaven hidden in a far corner of the original plantation. Twelve 8th graders from a school in Baltimore joined us along with their teachers - they, too, a community of black and white followers of Jesus.
I shared the story of the slave cemetery and our efforts over the past few years to recognize the dignity of these dead brothers and sisters, whose dignity was not recognized in their lifetime. I told the story from earlier this year of when a large group from the community cleared it out of overgrowth, underbrush, and fallen trees, how an unexpected and unexplained fire had burst forth from the ground, with a profound and shared sense of something deep and real being released.
Then Max Finberg, our white brother with Jewish blood in his veins, led the 30 people gathered in this slave cemetery in a devotional. We recalled another time God caused something in the ground to burst forth in flame, unexpected. We recalled the Exodus of God’s people, the Jews 3,500 years ago, and their freedom from slavery. This has been remembered each year, every year, at Passover since that time. 3,500 years. They’ve never forgotten.
Max asked us to take off our shoes and socks, right there in the cemetery, for the place we were standing on is holy ground. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and dirty. And it was right, absolutely right, and powerful. Afterwards someone mentioned that certainly the last time a group of people had been barefoot in that place was for a burial.
We circled and joined hands for prayer, and as soon as we did, the skies darkened a bit and the wind began to blow - at first just breezes, but then powerful gusts of wind bending the trees and sending leaves showering upon us.
Then David Bailey, our black brother, led us. He called us to keep silence for some moments, and as soon as we did, rain drops began to fall - a few at first, but full. And when he started praying out loud, the rain came and the wind blew and there we all were, many of us already in tears, standing barefoot in a slave cemetery - our feet just inches from the bodies of our brothers and sisters, and only the dirt between us.
And the rain came strong, and David kept praying, lamenting, crying, calling out for healing; and, the rain kept coming.
My 10 year old daughter tugged at my hand and whispered simply what we all were feeling…”God’s crying.”
Others reflected that it was like a baptism, and that it was like healing water coming down, Living Water, and that it was like there was a washing away of something dark.
David prayed for about 10 minutes in that pouring rain, nobody moved a step. And literally when we all said “Amen,” the rain stopped. When he started praying the first drops fell and winds came, and when we stopped so did they. We walked back across the pasture in sunlight, soaking wet and barefoot and quiet.
It was like being in a Bible story. Throughout the whole Scriptures, there are stories of how God used nature to say something – on Mount Sinai, to Elijah, on the Sea of Galilee, at the Cross, at Pentecost. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Really, it was like being in a real live Bible story. And just as the characters in those stories no doubt said, “What was that about?” and “What does this mean?” - those were exactly the questions our group picked up together after we dried off and resumed our conversation.
Then we put the question very starkly to the black community gathered: Should we move forward on this “repentance project”?
There was not much silence before one brother said clearly and bluntly, “God already told us. He said ‘Yes.’”
And we all agreed. Before we even put the question down on the table for clear discernment, God had already answered it.
Though more than simply a clear “Yes,” there was a deeper message that God had given us as we stood barefoot on holy ground in the rain and in tears and prayer as the wind blew. We all agreed that God had said to us, “I am with you.” “I am with you.”
And so we’ll keep moving forward on “The Repentance Project.”
The Rev. Bill Haley
September 3, 2015