Throughout my life experiences, I have learned to recognize the sacredness of humanity and human life. In my opinion, to diminish the value or experience of any group in history is to undermine their relevance to the human story. Thus, it is with deep conviction and reflection that I share my story of pain, pride, victory, spiritual awakening, healing, and critical analysis as it relates to my engagement in the BJC Fellows Program. Quite honestly, I only imagined the logical and practical outcomes of learning more about the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. I never imagined that my experience would cause me to wrestle with who I am spiritually; and, as a woman of color who still seeks to tell her story unapologetically in a society that seldom listens.
There is so much that I could reflect on about Day One. Should I talk about the rage, pain, and frustration that I felt reading Michael Meyerson’s book Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America? How I should fully process that the same brilliant framers of the Constitution, who meticulously worded this historic document to ensure religious freedom for all, were well-practicing people of faith and unreformed slaveholders? Even when I reflected on the words by James Madison, who spoke against the local jailing of Baptist ministers by saying “…this vexes me worst of anything whatever” led me to question his humanity. Whereas, he was identified in history as a “humane slaveholder,” this phrase clearly reflects the contradictory practices of Christianity. As I see it, there is nothing humane about the institution of slavery.
Well…maybe, I should speak about the internal struggle to engage the idea of touring Colonial Williamsburg as a critically thinking adult versus adolescent. In elementary school, we were taught stories about the great settlers who founded America; but, as an adult I knew better. I wondered, “Who will tell the story of my ancestors? Or, will the truth about their stories be told?” Therefore, I admit that going on the historic tour took a lot of courage, self-control, and trust that the BJC Fellows team would recognize the significance of everyone’s story being told. Whereas the tour guide was quite informative and witty, my soul was still searching for that voice. You know…The voice that could speak to my heritage, person, and spirit to validate an African-American’s perspective in this historic living museum. I anxiously awaited my breakthrough…And then, there was a mention of Gowan Pamphlet. Who or what was a “Gowan Pamphlet”? I recall asking another BJC Fellow if it was a brochure or a person. They also, had no knowledge. But, to my surprise Gowan Pamphlet would be that divinely inspired voice that would speaking hope and healing to my wounded spirit. Never, in my Black Baptist seminary experience of being exposed to liberation theology was his name mentioned. Yet, he was a Black voice in the 18th century spiritual awakening movement for enslaved people who would influence my 21st century experience as BJC Fellow. Not to mention, there was a deeper connection because of our Virginia Union University roots.
As I sat there embracing the words, movements, voice inflections and tone of James Ingram as Gowan Pamphlet, I recall the moment that he spoke of the powerful implication of “The Right Hand of Fellowship.” That was the pivotal moment in my day. When he extended his hand to [BJC Fellow] Alyssa Aldape and asked if we identified that action, I immediately responded with the correct answer. As a matter of fact, I immediately thought of all my experiences in any church (Pentecostal, Baptist, or Scientology) that welcomed me as a new member. However, the gesture took on greater meaning when he said, “The Right Hand of Fellowship was significant for the Africans, Irish, and Indians because they were finally recognized as humans; they now had a community to be a part of…and one that had to accept them as humans.” In reflecting on those words, I experienced a transformative moment of soul freedom and liberation.
Wow! The Right Hand of Fellowship was no longer just a simple gesture of welcome; but, a full acknowledgement of our humanity. When you consider the gospel message that was beaten into enslaved people for the sake of obedience and salvation with fear of God without acknowledgement of their humanity is now the same gospel message that affirms them as humans, it is quite sobering. It was important to have this story told by Gowan Pamphlet, a relatively unknown significant person in history who was a former slave turned preacher and freeman. His story yielded my heart to experience the antithesis to the painful history of Colonial Williamsburg. For me, learning about the Anglicans’ responsibility to fully identify these marginalized people as humans profoundly spoke to their religious convictions in light of their inhumane and immoral practices of slavery. In short, our time with Gowan Pamphlet not only provided healing for my soul – it removed any emotional barriers that would prohibit me from engaging the fullness of the BJC Fellows experience. For that, I am extremely grateful because I can honestly say that I heard my ancestors’ story and projected my voice in the conversations that mattered most to me.
So, how do I take all of the information from my experience to promote religious liberty in practical ways? Well, like most people of oral traditions, I will tell my story. I will share my BJC Fellows Program experience with others which will encourage meaningful dialogue about religious liberty. Additionally, I will create space in my ministry context of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond to invite the Baptist Joint Committee to speak about the relevance of the topic to our interfaith community. Mostly importantly, I will listen to the conversations of others to inquire about opportunities for partnership with this progressive, essential, and faithful organization. It is through co-sponsored events or programs that I intend to bring greater awareness to others about what matters to many Americans—that is, protection of their First Amendment rights. Lastly, I cannot forget about the power of networking. Word of mouth will forever be the best form of advertising; thus, I will use it wisely.
For me, the BJC Fellows Seminar was a lived experience which allowed me to define my truth, inhale my hopes, and exhale my anxieties while feeling each moment. Thus, I would affirm that my cry for humanity was heard in my comments, reflections, conversations, and inquisition about the unspoken and painful history of slavery during the time of this religious freedom movement. My engagement with staff, lecturers, and other Fellows afforded me the opportunity to become aware of my own strengths, challenges, and areas for growth. As a person who has a deep sense of spirituality and faith without the need to self-identify as a Christian, I recognized that I am even more unapologetically Sabrina and Black (this part was an Aha! moment for me). As a Black woman who stands tall on the shoulders of many strong sisters in history like Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Jarena Lee, I am reminded of my moral, spiritual, and social responsibility to be a voice and an advocate in furthering my pursuits to building interfaith relations among others with the Black community. When and where I enter as an authentic voice addressing the harsh realities of our difficult past with Spirit guiding me, I open a door of greater awareness for my love towards humanity. So, thank you for letting me tell my story.
I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the Baptist Joint Committee for carrying the mantle of protecting the religious liberties for all people. Additionally, I wholeheartedly appreciate the sacred and private space that was provided in our accommodations. It allowed me to reflect and debrief from the overflow of information. Yet, I highly valued the communal meals and fellowship opportunities to learn more about my amazing cohort members. I truly look forward to continuing this marriage of kindred passion in the fight for religious liberty with my new friends and BJC family. Ashe.