Shipping into our Future
(delivered by Rev. Jane Courtright)
March 29, 2023
The story of the 53 Mendi captives who rose up against their oppressors –
The Amistad story, is about the soul of our United Church of Christ!
This is because, as the Prophet Micah believed so passionately,
freedom from slavery is a fundamental interest of God.
The God of the Exodus loves and liberates slaves.
In the gospel of Luke is Jesus’ Mission Statement:
“to proclaim release to the captives…
and to set at liberty those who are oppressed!”
Though the Church of Peace United Church of Christ
has Evangelical Reformed roots,
we merged with the Congregationalist Christians to form
the United Church of Christ in 1956 (which also happens to be my birth year!)
An abolitionist heart beat in the breasts of early Congregationalists,
as it did in many!
It was because of profound Christian convictions that they raised money,
raised their voices in legislatures and courts of law,
raised consciousness through sermons and pamphlets,
& raised up prayers to participate in the Underground Railroad & to free slaves.
Let those who proclaim that ‘church and politics should stay separate,
take careful note: the politics of abolition, like that of the civil rights movement
(and indeed, the politics of all movements of human liberation,
is a profoundly churchly business!
We are encouraged to remember the story of La Amistad
and the role our church played in that dramatic history.
Our denomination has produced many educational materials, books
and even some excellent videos about the Amistad incident.
I have placed some of them & others on the table in the narthex –
I invite you to borrow them!
You may have heard about Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘La Amistad.’
How many of you have seen this compelling movie?
If you missed the movie, or are not familiar with the story,
or if it’s been awhile since you heard the story, let me recap it for you briefly:
After being brutally captured from their village in Africa,
held in putrid conditions in a slave fort on the coast,
their monetary value calculated and paid to the slave trader
who had brought them in.
Then, the captives would be shipped across the long middle passage to Cuba. Some, including a number who would later sail on La Amistad,
were members of the Mendi tribe.
Chained to the deck under four foot ceilings,
forced to lie side by side in filth and breathe fetid air for months on end,
fed a slop of rice and water and disciplined with the whip,
only the strong and the lucky (if you call that lucky) survived the voyage.
Once in Cuba, they were sold again, this time at auction;
53 of the Mendi were bought by Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montaz
for work on their Cuban plantation.
But the cruelty and horrors of the slave fort, and the middle passage
and the slave auction had not killed the Mendi’s spirit or appetite for freedom.
Imagine a warm, breezy night on the Caribbean Sea in the year 1839.
The beautiful, two-masted Spanish schooner La Amistad,
speeds from Havana under a silver moon.
The captain is at the wheel,
the only sounds are those of the bow knifing through the waves;
the hiss of foam running under the ship’s counter;
the creak of the wheel, the wind in the rigging, & the clanking of the chains securing the ship’s precious cargo: 53 black Africans.
Three days out of Havana, spurred on by rumors
that their captors were going to slit their throats, cut them up,
salt and serve them as meat to be eaten, the Mendi decide to act!
Their leader, know as Cinque, pleads with the others,
“If we do nothing, we will be killed. We may as well die trying to be free!”
Cinque leads the revolt.
The captain and all but two of the Spaniards are killed in the struggle.
The Mendis take over control of the Amistad.
Cinque orders the Spaniards to steer the ship towards the morning sun,
to the east, back to Africa.
By day, the Amistad sails east, but at the night the Spaniards trick the Mendi, sailing by the stars toward the northwest.
For two months, the ship slowly zig-zags northward, until on August 26th,
the U.S. Coast Guard captures the Amistad.
Cinque and the other Mendis are arrested for mutiny
and once again placed in chains,
marooned in a land where they don’t even know the language!
There will, it seems, be no justice for the Mendi, who simply want their freedom.
Then U.S. President Martin Van Buren had no definite view
on the issue of slavery, but 1840 was an election year.
He didn’t want this trouble! He didn’t want to stir up feeling in the South.
He simply wanted to be re-elected.
So, Van Buren sent his Secretary of State to
help formulate the administration’s policy.
Forsythe, the Secretary, was a Georgian Congressman and Governor,
and also a Minister to Spain. He owned three slaves himself,
so he arranged for a ship to take the slaves immediately to Cuba
following a short trial…trying to sidestep any attempts at appeal.
It is at this point in the story that three American abolitionists
take up the cause of the Mendi people –
all three of them members of the Congregational Church.
They do what church people tend to do: They form a committee,
the Amistad Committee, to work for the freedom of the Mendi people.
Eventually, they persuade former U.S. President John Quincy Adams,
also a member of the Congregational Church,
to argue the case of the Mendis before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1841, the Court ruled in favor of the Mendi people,
who were freed to eventually return to their homeland in West Africa,
which is today Sierra Leone.
Five years later,
the Amistad Committee helped form the American Missionary Society,
which went on to found anti-slavery churches
& over 500 schools which include some of the most prominent black colleges
and universities in the South today.
The past UCC Board for Homeland Ministries and UCC Wider Ministries,
now Global Ministries, are successors to the American Missionary Society.
Those of you who saw or will see Spielberg’s movie La Amistad,
know that while it did a magnificent job of bringing attention
to the issue and history of slavery in a graphic manner;
the movie did not do a very good job of describing the role
of the abolitionists or the Congregationalists.
Church people in the movie are portrayed as a serious and sad looking lot.
They stand around and pray with stern looks on their faces
or sing mournfully out of their hymnbooks.
The movie virtually ignores the legal, monetary, educational
and religious contributions of the Congregationalists to the Mendi captives.
And that is really unfortunate!
Because this is the tradition in which we stand.
The United Church of Christ!
The story of our church’s involvement with the Mendi people
shows forth the kind of spirit that characterizes who we are as a church.
If you are ever in Cleveland, Ohio, be sure to stop by and visit
the national headquarters of our UCC.
One of the meeting rooms in the adjacent hotel is the Amistad Room
which has paintings all about the event, including a mantel picture of Cinque.
The beautiful Amistad Chapel is full of artifacts and symbolism
relating the Amistad story.
We are a church unafraid to stand at the cutting edge of significant,
some would say, ‘hot’ issues in our culture.
When people ask about the social stances we take as a denomination
and hopefully as local congregations
– we can say with pride that we come by that calling honestly, and Biblically!
We believe that God calls us to a more inclusive church and society,
and that the God who spoke through prophets & apostles & Jesus & the Bible…
IS STILL SPEAKING!
We believe that God does not mire us in misguided and outdated assumptions which oppress and dehumanize, but instead calls us forward
to a new day of freedom and abundance for all.
The Bible, they said, condones slavery. And yet, the UCC, through its forebears, was the first mainline church to take a stand against slavery.
Congregationalist John Quincy Adams affirmed this stance by taking
the case of the Mendi Captives before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1839.
The Bible, they said, condones a hierarchy of races and segregation.
And yet, in 1785, a Congregational church was the first church to formally ordain to the Christian ministry an African American, the Rev. Lemuel Haynes.
Much later, UCC pastors and leaders were at the forefront
of the Civil Rights movement in this country,
and the UCC was the first denomination to name racism as a sin.
The Bible, they said, reserves higher education to men.
And yet, Oberlin College, founded by the Congregationalists,
was the first college to open its doors to women.
The Bible, they said, reserves ministry to men.
And yet, the Congregational Church was the first tradition to ordain women, ordaining Antoinette Brown in 1853.
The Bible, they said, condemns homosexuals and homosexuality.
And yet, the United Church of Christ was the first denomination
to ordain an openly gay man, ordaining Bill Johnson in 1972,
and an openly lesbian woman, the Rev. Anne Holmes, six years later.
Does this litany mean that we do not believe in the Bible
or the authority of scripture? Of course not!
We take the Bible very seriously!
We, as a denomination, believe that the Bible
is our central, foundational resource for discerning God’s will.
We also believe that God is Still Speaking!
We have come a long way since the Amistad
– but we have a long way still to go!
Will WE follow Jesus in his mission to proclaim release to the captives
and let the oppressed go free? Will WE remember the Amistad?
When we come together as a church,
when we struggle with Biblical texts in the places and times in which we live,
in the questions which raise their heads before us in our time,
the spirit of God moves among us and speaks to us in new ways!
John Thomas, former General Minister
and President of our United Church of Christ,
shared a challenging vision for our denomination:
“…an exciting new voyage for a church whose future is conjured and proposed
by La Amistad and countless stories like it….
Imagine a love for Jesus so profound, so daring, a generosity so amazing,
that our church may sense the wind of the Spirit in its sails,
guiding living schooners toward God’s promised future,
toward God’s promised home!”
GOD IS STILL SPEAKING.
Let everyone who has ears, listen! Amen.