Image from project1619.com
On August 20th, 1619, “twenty and odd” men and women of the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, kidnapped by Portuguese traders in Angola, loaded onto a slave ship headed for New Spain and later stolen on the high seas by English Privateers, pirates operating by permission and under license of the British Monarchy, landed in Jamestown, Virginia aboard the ship the White Lion. The pirates aboard the White Lion, who saw those human beings as nothing more than cargo, were hungry, and so they traded the futures of more than twenty people for some food and other provisions. Of those women and men, Angela was the first enslaved person to be listed, by name, in the census. Angela and the “twenty and odd” other people were the first of more than half a million enslaved Africans who would be sold in the American colonies and the United States. By 1860, the number of enslaved people in the United States was counted at 3,953,760 – thirteen percent of the US population. To borrow language from our Gospel lesson this morning, on August 20th, 1619, America became bound by a spirit of evil that has kept us crippled, quite unable to stand up straight, to the fullness of our potential, for more than 400 years.
For the last month and a half, more than two dozen members of Christ Church have been a part of a 40-day prayer journey developed by Simmons College of Kentucky. The Angela Project, named after that first enslaved woman counted in the census, seeks to raise awareness, call for repentance, and pray for the liberation of the descendants of slavery. In our reading and prayers, we heard the stories of more than 40 men, women, and children who risked everything, often having to leave family behind, to escape bondage through the help of the Underground Railroad. We learned about the ways in which the enslavement of black people has evolved, through convict leasing, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration, long after the ratification in 1865 of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States, “except as punishment for a crime.” In our prayers, we were invited to consider the lives of the enslaved. We held in prayer the trauma of being stolen from your home, held in jail, and crammed into the cargo hold of ships for no other reason than being a dark-skinned African. We lamented what it must have been like to watch your neighbors die in those harsh conditions; their bodies simply tossed overboard to restrict the threat of communicable disease. We mourned the practice of slave auctions, the use of physical violence, and the inhumanity of entire systems created to keep black people subjugated even today. We prayed for healing.
In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, two things had to happen in order for the woman bound by a spirit to stand up straight again. First, she had to be seen, and then, she needed to be set free. The deck was stacked against her. Eighteen years is a long time to suffer. If we are honest, it is a long time to maintain compassion as well. In the early days, I’m sure many people looked upon her with pity. I’m certain she received all kinds of offers to help. Maybe her family was able to support her financially at the start. As the months and years went by, however, fewer and fewer people even saw her. Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her. Her family, likely convinced that her condition was the result of something she had done to herself, grew weary of carrying the burden, and eventually, she was all alone, seemingly invisible to the world around her. Luke says that she “appeared” in the synagogue. Not that she hadn’t been there every day for years, but rather that one who had for so long been invisible, suddenly became visible again, and in appearing, she was once again seen, known, loved, and cared for.
Jesus saw her. It’s a thing that Jesus seems to have done better than everyone else in history. He saw people. He knew people. He perceived what people needed. And he cared for people. Jesus was unafraid to see the things and the people that the world would much rather avoid seeing. The bent over woman didn’t seek Jesus out. She didn’t ask to be healed. But she who had been made invisible was seen, known, loved, and healed.
The first step toward healing our national sin is being willing to see it and name it. For 400 years, white Christian America has done everything it can to make slavery invisible. We must do the hard work of seeing our collective complicity in the sin of slavery. On Tuesday, 400 years to the day that Angela and more than twenty other human beings were traded like commodities off a ship, Christ Church, Bowling Green said prayers and rang our bell 24 times in commemoration of the “twenty and odd” people sold 400 years ago. Honoring the request of the National Park Service and our Presiding Bishop, at 3pm today, the bell will ring in remembrance again. In a letter explaining the tolling of the bell, your clergy noted that “ringing bells won’t bring about racial healing. It won’t undo the 400 years of systematic oppression, but it can be another step along the long journey of healing and reconciliation. By simply making noise, we overcome the tendency to remain silent, fearful to say the wrong thing, to admit complicity, or to lose one’s position of power or prestige.” We cannot heal what we cannot name, and we cannot name what we cannot see. The first step toward being healed is being seen.
Once we are able to see what is holding us back, be it an evil spirit or a system of oppression, the next step toward healing is to be set free. In my first year of seminary, I took three quarters of New Testament Greek. I don’t remember much of those studies, just enough to be dangerous, but I do remember how confused we all were when the first verb we learned was luo, to be loosed. Nobody uses the verb “loosed” anymore. Why would that be worth learning? Well, it is because that’s precisely what Jesus came to do. Jesus looses the bonds of oppression and sets people free from the bondage of evil spirits and their enslavement to sin. Having seen the woman who had been bent over for 18 years, Jesus called her over, laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free (luo) from your ailment.” In his debate with a leader of the Synagogue, Jesus argued that if it is lawful to “untie” (luo) and ox or donkey on the Sabbath in order to keep it hydrated, then certainly it was permissible to set the woman free (luo) from her own kind of bondage.
It is God’s desire to set us free from bondage, be it imposed upon us by others and self-inflicted. I am certain that on December 6, 1865, all of heaven rejoiced at the notion that slavery had finally been outlawed in the United States, even as I’m certain there is still mourning in heaven that the 13th amendment came with any kind of caveat. I am also quite sure that 400 years after Angela and the others were sold into slavery, God desires to loose our nation from the ongoing bondage of that particular sin, among many others. The dream of God is that all of humanity might be set free from bondage. The Way of the Jesus is the way of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.
At the end of each day of the 40 days of prayer and at the end of our service of commemoration, we made a declaration called “We are the Voice of One.” In it, we declared our hope that with God’s help, the world might be restored, renewed, set free. It was our prayer for each of those 40 days, and as a likely descendent of slave owners, it continues to be my prayer now and into the future: that with God’s help, we might see our sin, name it, repent, and be set free to the honor and glory of God.
We are the voice of one that cries out in Bowling Green:
“Prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in Bowling Green, a highway for our God
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill shall be brought low.
The crooked places of this nation shall be made straight
And the rough places shall be made smooth
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed in all the world
And all of Bowling Green and all nations shall see it
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”
 Adapted from The Angela Project Liberation Ceremony