In the past 3 weeks, I have had the privilege of visiting two museums that deal with African-American history: The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience; I highly recommend them both-not only to African-Americans, but to all people.
Those museums tell a very important story: The struggle of African-Americans in the United States and the difficulty that this great country has had in living up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” The sad reality is that the same government was built on those inspired and inspiring words all too often has said to its African-American citizens, “But we were not talking about you”.
But while I came away from those museums greatly enlightened, saddened and even, a little angered that a government, built on freedom and equality, would systematically allow a portion of its citizens to be enslaved, lynched, its women raped and have government-sanctioned discrimination and denial of the most basic rights, on a level that no other has had to face in the history of this country, African-Americans have survived all of that. There are any number of people groups on this earth who once lived-even thrived, but who now no longer exists. But with the help of God, we are still here-not only surviving, but in a lot of cases, thriving.
God has given African-Americans a powerful story and it needs to be told. I was reminded of that as I visited those two museums. Here are 3 other things I learned:
- Failing to tell our story means that it is likely that younger people and people who are not African-Americans will not know our story. Going to those museums reminded me of how much African-American history I had forgotten or did not know in the first place.
I did not know, for example, that there were times when black people were lynched and it was virtually advertised: There will be a lynching at 2:00 today at Such-and Such place. I saw old newspaper clippings where the Governor of Mississippi said, in essence, Yes, we know there will be a lynching at 2:00 today, but there isn’t anything that we can do to stop it. Really? How long do you think it would have taken the government to step in if black people were lynching a white person? I looked at old newspaper clippings that indicated that there were vendors there who sold refreshments at lynchings, as if it were some sporting event.
I read about people being beaten, jailed and killed just because they were trying to vote or register others to vote. Maybe if those stories were re-told a little more often, there would not be people who-not only do not vote-but who actually boast about not doing so.
- Failing to tell our story means that we can forget how what happened, happened, and why it happened. Going to those museums reminded me of what a horrific crime against humanity slavery was. People were chained together on a ship, for months, with no apparent thought for how they were supposed to take care of what my church school teachers used to say, their “physical needs”, how they would clean themselves, bathe themselves, change their clothes. And yet, people-civilized people, who claimed Christianity-thought that was acceptable for hundreds of years.
Abominations, such as slavery, like that can only occur if, otherwise, decent people allow them to occur; if good people do and say nothing. And that is what happened.
And if we allow ourselves to forget what happened in our past, then we increase the possibility of it happening again. Someone said that those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Maybe African-Americans will never be slaves again (but it is happening in other parts of the world), but man is still capable of-and permitting others to do-great inhumanity towards man. For example, I personally believe it is inhumane to separate families in the name of securing our borders.
I, absolutely, believe that immigration laws must be obeyed and that people need to come to the United States legally. But, one of the major differences between civilized societies and those who are less so, is what civilized societies do to people who are in violation of their laws. A country could, for example, crucify people who murder other people… They could cut off the hands of thieves. They could castrate rapists. That would certainly means that there would be far fewer people doing those things. But, that is not what civilized countries do.
Civilized countries deal, decisively, with lawbreakers-but in a civilized way. That is why there is an amendment in the United States Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Civilized countries say to those who break the law: You are responsible when you are break the law, but we are responsible for how we treat you when you do it.
The current Administration understands that they have a responsibility to secure the borders of our country-and they are correct, that is their responsibility. What they do not seem to grasp as well,` is that civilized countries also have a responsibility to deal with those whom they apprehend attempting to enter their country illegally in civilized manner. And civilized does not mean separating small children-who have not done anything wrong-from their parents. The United States should be better than that.
And its citizens should expect its government to be better than that. When we fail to hold our leaders-and ourselves-to a higher standard, when we allow our leaders to get away with things such as separating families-then, we are back down the road of accepting things that are unacceptable.
- Failing to continue to tell our story also carries the risk that we forget what God has done. When the Jordan River miraculously opened up for the children of Israel and they passed over into the Promised Land, Joshua stopped long enough to have 12 stones collected and he had an altar built. He said in Joshua, Chapter 4, that he was doing that so that when future generations saw those stones and asked their parents “What do those stones mean?”, that the story of what God had done for the children of Israel so that they could cross over into the Promised Land would continually be told. That way, what God had done would never be forgotten-because they kept telling the story.
Just as the children of Israel had a wonderful story of how God delivered them from slavery and oppression, African-Americans have a wonderful story of how God, repeatedly, intervened in our history to deliver us from slavery and oppression. Museums such as The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery do a tremendous job of telling that story. If at all possible, please visit those museums and museums like them.
Adventist African-Americans have a story to tell as well. Our story features the story of Regional Conferences, which have allowed African-Americans-and others-to be reached with the gospel at a level that would have never began to occur without Regional Conferences. Approximately 35% of the church in North America is African-American. Regional Conferences are one of the largest contributors of tithe in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Their tithe last year was nearly $200 million dollars-a figure that is larger than all but two of the world divisions in the Adventist. They operate a retirement program that provides its retirees with benefits that are a model for the rest of the church. They are one of the largest contributors to Oakwood University.
The story of Regional Conferences and African-American Adventism is a story that needs to be told and passed down to the succeeding generations. That is one reason why the Office of Regional Conference Ministry is proposing that the new office that it is proposing be built on the campus of Oakwood University include the first African-American Adventist History Museum.
We shall make that proposal to the appropriate boards when they meet in October. The time has come to be intentional about telling our story.