On a cold day in late February, a group of 10 pilgrims from the Diocese of Atlanta embarked on a 10-day trip to the west coast of Africa — a journey intended to foster new relationships and reflection.
Here, we highlight some of the impressions that the co-leaders of the group were kind enough
to share with us. These excerpts express their thoughts before, during, and after their physical
and spiritual journeys.
Canon for Ministry
REFLECTIONS FROM A NATIVE SON OF AFRICA: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE MOTHERLAND
There is an Akan (African) phrase: Sankofa, which translated means to “go back and get.” When Bishop Wright asked me to co-lead a group of pilgrims from the Diocese of Atlanta to my native Ghana, I was reminded of this word: Sankofa.
I must confess that I am filled with so many emotions, I can’t begin to name them. At 55, I have spent most of my adult life in the U.S., having left Ghana some 35 years ago. In continuation of the work of racial justice and reconciliation, our pilgrimage will be focused on building bridges between the Diocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Cape Coast, where the castle that once held slaves is located.
As part of this spiritual journey, we will be walking in places where Africans in shackles and chains were once shipped off across the Atlantic to the Americas and Europe. We will be standing in spaces that were once used as holding cells for human cargo.
As a native Ghanaian, I am keenly aware of the role my ancestors played in selling off Africans to the Europeans who coordinated the transatlantic slave trade. I know that African chiefs were complicit in this dreadful historical event that has been etched in our consciences, and that troubles me greatly.
I am filled with mixed emotions because having this knowledge of the role the Africans played in perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade, and now being asked by my bishop to co-lead this pilgrimage of racial reconciliation — with my friend and colleague, The Rev. Dr. Sharon Hiers, a native South Carolinian, whose ancestors were equal partners in this scourge on humanity — is proving to be a bit overwhelming.
I have returned to Ghana on several occasions to visit with family and friends, but this pilgrimage is different. Among the bishop’s entourage will be African-Americans and Anglo Americans who are seeking to build the bridge of reconciliation by walking the paths that were once trodden by the shackled men, women, and children of Africa being led to a strange and foreign land.
I am not sure what we are all “going back to get.” But I trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in building bridges of reconciliation.
EXCERPTS FROM THE TRAVEL JOURNAL OF THE REV. DR. SHARON HIERS
Senior Associate Rector at Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta and Chair of the Advisory Board for the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing
MORNING OF DEPARTURE
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26
ON MY COMFORTABLE COUCH, DECATUR, GA I’m feeling unprepared. And deeply aware that there is nothing to prepare one for this pilgrimage. In some 12 hours, we will board a plane and travel 30,000-plus feet above the watery graves of hundreds of thousands of Africans who lost their lives in the Middle Passage. It would be so easy to miss the significance of what seems like an overnight flight but instead is just the beginning of a dark, dark story.
I feel unprepared, yes. But as ready as ever to embrace this story as my own. My place in this country living freely as a Southern white woman of privilege is partly because of this dark story. My story. It’s time.
...I have copies of letters and transcripts in a book of genealogy about the Hiers family noting the buying and selling of slaves. Of people. Of human beings. I cannot erase this history, but I can own it, and I can travel back with my eyes and heart wide open and stand on the shore that millions should never have left because I often stand on the shore where millions should never have arrived...not in the way they did. I believe through deep repentance we can find some form of reconciliation — reconciliation that changes us forever.
Professionally, racial reconciliation and my call to the priesthood are deeply intertwined in ways that I am still understanding and embracing. I believe this trip will have a deep impact on my call as a priest, as a Southern white privileged priest...I have visited many plantations and heard the “white-washed” sweet stories of the good ole days. It’s time to hear the rest of this history, to walk on new ground, to beg forgiveness, to find hope.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28
We hit the ground running on our first day. We toured the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity. And that is where the highlight of this day came for me. My colleague and my friend, Chief John Thompson-Quartey, delighted in telling us of hearing his call to ministry in that place...
I couldn’t help but notice the stained glass window, and, maybe in my naïveté, queried John about the Anglo imagery. Not a person of color in any of the glass — all white men. John noted the bringing of Anglicanism and establishment of the Cathedral in 1898 by the English, and that the first Ghanaian bishop was in the 1960s. And, in fact, he noted how native Ghanaians defend what I call “white Jesus” to each other. My eyes and heart continue to open...
FRIDAY, MARCH 3
CAPE COAST RIDGE ROYAL HOTEL
This morning, I went to get a cup of coffee and was startled by the birds of paradise in the lobby. This place is luxurious. The grounds are lush and green and meticulously maintained. It spoils me a bit...and is very “American standards” — particularly after driving through such poverty. I am deeply torn.
SEMINARY AT ST. NICHOLAS
What. Joy. And what praise! We could hear the music coming from the chapel before we even entered the building... an electric organ, tambourines, drums, and voices. The sun was streaming in, the room was warm, but that didn’t stop the energy. And this was the first place we entered on the trip that had a black Jesus on the cross — which I was glad about.
There are 60 students in the seminary, and 59 of them are men. The name of the one woman is Rosemary. One of the limitations for female students is the lack of rooms for them to live in... This piques my interest deeply... how to help...
CAPE COAST SLAVE CASTLE
There is a large dark doorway that leads underground to the male dungeon. Above the doorway are two windows from the chapel just above. It was so eerie to think about the praise going on in those open windows, and the agony happening just a few feet below... the darkness, the stench, the air of death and pain in that space.
[After spending time in the dungeon], I almost broke into a run trying to get back out as our group made our way into the daylight. We walked a few stairs, and there was the beautiful ocean shining in the sun, with the waves crashing against the castle. Here, Canon/Chief John leaned over and said: “Can you imagine what the [slaves] thought was making this noise? Can you imagine having been dragged from the interior of the country to the coast, never really seeing the ocean but hearing the sound of the waves over and over and over? Day and night with no understanding?” By the time we reached the door of no return, it felt like a relief. The outside. Out of the castle. Away from the dungeons. The horror. The darkness.
SATURDAY, MARCH 4
KAKUM NATIONAL PARK
Today, we played and challenged our bodies physically. We rode from Cape Coast to Kakum National Park, where we took a hike up to a canopy walk on swinging bridges... it was a little bit of a down day in the afternoon, which was sorely needed. It feels like our community bonded over something other than the deep intensity of this pilgrimage, which is helpful as we process.
MONDAY, MARCH 6
Cousin Vivian invited us all into her home on our last day, and we sat around the TV and watched Ghana’s Independence Day celebration and played with her young granddaughter. We had peanut soup, and she taught the black women on the trip how to tie their hair up in a scarf, and her smile is forever in my heart... Will I leave anything behind? A piece of my heart and more gratitude than I can express... The Bishop of Cape Coast, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Victor Atta-Baffoe, and his wife, Dorcas, have been on my mind and in my heart in a way I never expected. The hospitality they extended to us was as if we were long lost family members returning home again.
AN INTERVIEW SIX MONTHS AFTER THE PILGRIMAGE
In mid-August, The Rev. John Thompson-Quartey (JTQ) and The Rev. Dr. Sharon Hiers (SH) came together at Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta, Georgia, to share some of their impressions of the journey.
ON RECONCILING YOUR UPBRINGING IN THE CONTEXT OF RACIAL HEALING AND SPIRITUAL FORMATION
SH The Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in 2015 was a tipping point for me. To watch those events unfolding [in my hometown], to see this young white kid go in and murder people based on the color of their skin. And then to realize that I was taught to think much more like [the shooter] than the people whom he killed. Trying to push back on that just feels like the thing that I have to do. I don’t have an option... I can remember now being very, very young and being taught to fear people who were of darker color than I was.
ON THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF THE PILGRIMAGE
JTQ For me, the lowest point was when we went to the “last bath.” There is a place where the captured slaves — captured people, they were not slaves then — were walked to, over [the course of] eight weeks, sometimes not with food in their belly. At the creek, they had their “last bath” before they went to the castle. Well, it wasn’t a bath; for me, it was like a baptism but reversed.
In the church, when you baptize somebody, they take on a new identity. You die to your old self, and you become Christ-like. Well, these people were given their “bath” — they were being bathed in this creek — and then as soon as they came out they were branded, hot iron, with their owner’s insignia, so they know whose property that person is. So what happened to the child of God who gets baptized? Because right now, you’ve been stripped of your dignity and been branded as somebody else’s property.
ON SANKOFA AND WHAT FATHER JOHN BELIEVES HE CAME BACK WITH FROM GHANA
JTQ For me, this pilgrimage is about that — Sankofa — going back to get. I didn’t know what I was going back to get until I got there, and I realized that what I got was part of the true story of what actually happened.
It wasn’t the weak men “who could not fight,” who were captured [as I was told growing up], but they were actually going there and capturing whole villages, including women and children, and selling them... they were capturing whole families.
So for me, what I brought back was a lot of remorse and shame and hurt. I felt ashamed that the African chiefs participated in this. They actually willingly captured them for the Europeans and sold them for rum and tobacco.
I thought I was fairly educated, but it turns out part of my education was lacking, if you will, because some of the facts [I learned growing up] are simply not true. And some of the things we have been taught by society [and the influence of Colonialism] are not something that today, I find to be true. We all grew up thinking a white person is better than us, smarter than us. And now, all of these things we are experiencing in the United States [like institutional racism] were also the reality for African children — thinking that Europeans were better, smarter, and that we don’t compare.
ON HOW PEOPLE OF MIDDLE AND NORTH GEORGIA CAN CHALLENGE THEMSELVES AROUND THE TOPIC OF RACE
SH Challenge your assumptions... I think a big piece of this for me around going to Ghana is to learn what my own history is and to realize I just don’t get to say, well, “I didn’t do it.” That is what I need to start questioning: Where am I getting a leg up [because I am white]?
JTQ You have to try to understand where other people are to be understood [yourself]. Where do we go from here? I think you invite people into an honest, brave conversation with no preconceived ideas. Know that, “I might change my mind.” And keep the conversation going. I think that is where we can start.