Gathered last Thursday on the Ghana coast at a former slave castle, global Baptists struck yet again at the manacles that have chained together for centuries whites and blacks in the tortured heritage of slavery, segregation and separation.
The world’s largest umbrella organization for Baptists with some 110 million members, the Baptist World Alliance, held a memorial and reconciliation service at Cape Coast Castle, located some two-and-half hours west of Accra, the nation’s capital.
Baptists prayed and pledged to fight racism at one of the existing depots where Europeans first purchased slaves in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over 11 million Africans were shipped from the coastal forts in West Africa to the Americas, according to The Door of No Return, a newly published book on the history of Cape Coast Castle.
Before the service on an overcast day, BWA participants toured the white-painted castle, including the dark, damp separate cells for male and female slaves. Some descendants of slaves shed tears; some descendants of slaveholders or those never at risk to slavery expressed discomfort. Others toured in disbelief.
Participants walked from slave cells through large, double-doors onto the gateway to the beach, where fishing canoes now sit, but where canoes once transported Africans in chains to the ships awaiting human cargo for the Americas.
“Let the word go forth that Baptists repent and ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation with one another for freedom and justice,” said Denton Lotz, BWA’s retired general secretary, after the service.
During the service, over 400 registrants read from previous BWA statements against racism. From the 1993 Harare Declaration, registrants again pledged to “expose and challenge the sin of racism.”
From the 1999 Atlanta Covenant, global Baptists read in the liturgy: “Ethnocentrism and racism are a sign of … sin and alienation. The power of sin expresses itself in many ways. When one nation or race thinks it is better than the other it is living in sin. Indeed racism is sin.”
They read in unison: “We affirm that racism and ethnic conflict are contrary to God’s Word.”
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” said Neville Callam, a descendant of slaves, who was elected unanimously as BWA’s general secretary the next day by the general council.
He becomes the BWA’s first non-white general secretary in the organization’s 102-year history.
The prepared liturgy referred to the word sin or one of its derivatives some 15 times.
“I … was blind, but now I see,” sang participants from the popular Christian hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by a converted British slave-ship captain.
Founded by the Portuguese, the British captured the so-called castle in 1664 and made it the center of its transatlantic slave trade until 1807, when slavery was abolished in the British colonies. Slavery, however, did not end with that act of the British parliament.
The castle was more of a warehouse, where slaves were temporarily stored, than a military fortress. Smaller forts, which dotted the coastline, were called “factories.”
Based on historical reports, The Door of No Return said slaves were chained and driven twice daily to the ocean beach to be washed.
“I hope I’m driven to stand where oppression exists now, not just to the oppression of the past, to work against oppression in the future,” said Rob Nash, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s coordinator for global missions, reflecting on the meaning of the worship service.
“That would be evidence that my apology comes from the heart,” he said.
Steven Asante, president of the Ghana Baptist Convention, said the service symbolized that “we, Baptists, representing so many cultures, are repenting.”
Asante noted that slavery “was a collaborative activity.”
The pastor of Asokwa Baptist Church in Kumasi said: “The issue should not be left to the white man. Before there was the transatlantic slave trade there was the trans-Saharan slave trade.”
William Epps, pastor of Second Baptist Church, Los Angeles, said the service was “very emotional for African-Americans or Africans” since we “come from a line of people treated like this.”
The editor of the National Voice, the magazine of the National Baptist Convention, Epps said, “We don’t like to visit the fact that religion can become evil,” warning that Baptists, like the Jews, need to be conscious of the power of sin.
“We run the risk of perpetuating the very thing from which we have asked God to forgive us,” he said, referencing the service at the Cape Coast Castle.
Expressing hope that Callam’s election was “more than window dressing,” Epps said, the “general council has taken a good faith step. We all know that the leadership of the few can’t determine the followship of the many.”
He said, “With North America being the major [financial] supporter of the BWA, it will be interesting to see if the support level is sustained and grows.”
John Upton, the executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said Callam’s election made him proud to be part of the BWA. The BGAV provides the largest amount of funding to the BWA of any member body.
“Those who once had no voice now have a leadership voice,” he said. “This is a moment for the rest of us to lend our full support.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and serves on the BWA’s Freedom and Justice Commission. He attended the general council meeting in Accra.
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