Surrounded by the ashen grey fortress walls, I could feel in my bones the endless pain of my ancestors. The room, with virtually impenetrable meter-thick masonry and an arched roof with only a tiny window near the top, was the male slave dungeon in Cape Coast Castle, the largest trading fort for human chattel on the coast of West Africa. It is almost certain that some of my own ancestors – my very flesh and blood – passed through that room just a few centuries ago, never to see their homes or families again.
Immediately above that dungeon sat another small room – the Anglican chapel. Used by the staff and families of the fort, it housed an Anglican priest, daily prayer and weekly Eucharist. Historians tell us that the imprisoned men below could hear the English hymns of the worshippers above, and the worshippers could hear the desperate horrifying cries of the tortured captives below. And there I stood, the descendant of African slaves and a seventh-generation Episcopalian (whose Anglican heritage goes back to the plantations of South Carolina before the Civil War) dedicating himself to a life of ministry in this Church.
Daily in this Christian life, we are confronted with the stark realities, images and reports of the extreme violence and suffering caused by our own human sin. So frequently in our country, our church and even our diocese, we have grappled with these issues of reconciliation. So often it is around ever-changing events but incessantly stagnant lines of division.
How does our love of Christ compel us to repent of our sins, forgive, seek forgiveness and share Christ’s love with one another? How do we live with the sins of those who came before us, and the past injustices that we cannot erase? How do we carry on a tradition in which we have sometimes found ourselves inattentive or even contributing to the suffering of others? How are we to atone and oppose the degradation not only in the past but also in the very world in which we live?
For the last several months, I have had the great honor to serve as a missionary at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre in Rome, Italy. As the morass over Islamic refugees exploded onto the global scene, I have had the pleasure to work with some of those same Middle-Eastern migrants every single day. I continue to hear their stories of perilously fleeing heinous atrocities to seek survival and a better life. Having been in both Paris and Istanbul shortly before brutal attacks recently rocked those two great cities, I have witnessed the often-disheartening reactions of the public as fears of terrorism have raised anxieties and provoked hateful rhetoric across the globe. I have looked into the eyes of hundreds of peace-loving Muslim refugees, wondering why so many in the West confuse them for the same radical terrorists from whom they are fleeing.
And as our Anglican Communion faces its ongoing struggles with unity and reconciliation, I followed the recent developments from the Anglican Centre in Rome – a world-renowned meeting place for interfaith, ecumenical and inter-Anglican dialogue. There and elsewhere, I have had the honor of speaking recently with more than a half-dozen primates about their hopes for our global fellowship, praying with them for the grace to walk together in the love of Christ.
If these experiences have taught me anything, it is that reconciliation cannot take place at a distance. It requires us to pick up and go there – to look our fellow children of God in the eye. It requires us to grapple doggedly with the complex crevices and tangled layers of our identities, and to overturn the weighty dust-covered stones that hide our past transgressions. It requires us to venture to uncomfortable places within ourselves and one-another, resisting the urge to protect ourselves with the feeble armor of defensiveness. This is not an easy task, but it is one that the Gospel constantly implores us to undertake.
Reconciliation cannot take place at a distance. It requires us to pick up and go there – to look our fellow children of God in the eye
Recently I was blessed to take part in the annual Papal service of Prayer for Christian Unity. For the first time in recent memory, before my eyes, Pope Francis not only invited ecumenical clergy to be present, but he even had two ecumenical guests – including Anglican Archbishop David Moxon – stand side-by-side with him to bless the congregation together.
While there remain so many divisions that continue ceaselessly to separate us from one another, these critical gestures are where the seeds of reconciliation are nurtured. Here is where the centuries-old wounds of hatred and even violence begin to be healed. In motions large and small, from the heights of power to the average parishioner in a small local chapel, we are all called to the work of reconciliation. Yet our chapels can be of no use unless we begin by showing up – and standing together in the dungeon of our transgressions.
Charles Graves IV is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Southern Ohio and currently serves as a mission worker with the Young Adult Service Corps in Italy. He regularly blogs about his experiences at http://charlesgravesiv.blogspot.com/.