In the novel “Africville” by Jeffrey Colvin, we meet a young Black family in what was a thriving Black neighbourhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the 19th Century. The residents of Africville were made up primarily of freed enslaved people from the Caribbean, US, and Eastern Canada. The protagonist is Kat Ella, a Black teenage girl and we follow her story as she graduates from school and trains to become a teacher in Montreal. However being smart and capable isn’t enough for Black women to get by in the world today, let alone the end of the 19th Century. Kat Ella’s best friend Kiendra has a penchant for mischief, including playing a prank on a white family whose infant daughter they babysit. Kiendra sneaks into the house and places a doll in the baby’s crib that is certain to scare the mother. Both girls are blamed and jeopardizes Kat Ella’s chances to keep her scholarship for becoming a teacher. Later her friend throws a rock to break a window in a new apartment building built by white developers, encroaching upon housing for Black residents in Africville. A pursuit with police pursues. An officer shoots Kiendra and after a lengthy stay in hospital she dies.
In many ways the novel “Africville” describes conditions for people of African descent that become a forerunner to the Black Lives Matter movement we know today. It tells a more personal story about the plight of Black folks shortly after Confederation in Canada. While technically Black people were free in Canada after 1834, when the British declared an end to slavery in the UK and British colonies, realities on the ground were slow to change.
“I am the bread of life”
In our gospel reading we hear the first of many bread readings this summer. However today, August 1, is the first time Canada is official honouring Emancipation Day. We receive a juxtaposition of Jesus’ liberating declaration, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” together with remembering in the Emancipation of Black and Indigenous enslaved people.
From the Canadian Heritage pages of Canada.ca: “In his book Canada's Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, the Quebec historian Marcel Trudel estimated that there were approximately 4,200 enslaved people in the area of Canada known as Nouvelle France, and later in Upper and Lower Canada, between 1671 and 1831. Initially, approximately two-thirds of these enslaved people were Indigenous and one-third were of African descent.” (https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/emancipation-day.html)
Later as the British increased colonization of the area, the ratio flipped and there became more enslaved people of African descent than Indigenous people. And while we honour our history of a destination of freedom of enslaved people using the Underground Railroad finding refuge in Canada, prior to 1834, Black enslaved people often fled Canada to Northern US states where greater protections existed in what is now Ohio, Michigan, and New York State, than Canada.
Even after 1834, not all enslaved people were fully set free. Full freedom was granted only to those age six and under. Those over six years old were often required to fulfill another five to seven years of unpaid apprenticeship under their slave masters, as a means of delaying their freedom.
Set against this troubling history we think about Jesus as the bread of life. Often enslaved people of African descent and also Indigenous folks were forbidden from practising their religions. Many folks found ways to interweave religious traditions within the Christian tradition forced upon them by slave owners and missionaries. Stories of liberation emerged thinking about the Israelites whom God frees from slavery under Pharaoh.
Today’s gospel reading references the manna from heaven the Israelites received from God on their journey of forty years in the wilderness. These stories of perseverance and God’s grace served as inspiration for some of the spirituals that promised freedom and entering the promised land, just as the Israelites trusted in God’s promises.
One of the tricky parts for us as a predominantly white church today reading scripture in light of the Emancipation Proclamation is how we situate ourselves in the text. Generally we tend to want to imagine ourselves as the Israelites God is setting free, not Pharaoh and his army trying to keep them enslaved. Perhaps many of us are closer to everyday people in Egypt going about our everyday lives and not wanting to get too much involved. We’re happy to let the authorities settle these controversies.
Bread of life: grace to let whiteness go
One way to imagine ways in which we receive Jesus’ bread of life, is thinking about grace. We are given grace by God to receive bread that sustains us, while letting go of sin. As we honour Emancipation Day, God is calling us to let go of the sin of white supremacy. Those of us who are white can begin to recognize the privileges we continue to receive at the expense of racialized people. It would be short-sighted to think the battle for liberation was won in 1834 and now over.
Just as we continue hearing the news about residential schools, including new revelations about a school on nearby Kuper Island, now within the territory of the Penelakut Tribe. There will be a march for the children tomorrow, Monday, August 2, at 9 AM in Chemainus. There is information on the church FB page about the event. It was also shared in the Times Colonist. Still today people continue downplaying these histories. An Indigenous woman up island reported being told by a worker in a shop near Duncan they didn’t believe all those bad things happened to Indigenous kids, that the stories have been exaggerated. A Roman Catholic priest in Manitoba recently preached that it wasn’t really the priests and nuns responsible for the sexual assault but rather night watchmen, as though that absolves the church running the schools.
In our own response, let us remember that grace is a free gift. The proper response to gift is faith and thanksgiving. One way we give thanks is by not responding defensively to these histories and realities. Whiteness and histories of white supremacy are literally choking the wider church. Battling with these demons within us is essential to dream about a future, for both racialized people and white folks together. I believe we can rise to the task and together we can work through these issues. Not because of our own abilities, but because Jesus is the bread of life, sustaining us through whatever we’re going through at a particular time.
Receiving grace when we’re tired
I realize many of us are going through a lot. A lot of us are tired after a year and a half of pandemic. Racialized people sometimes say imagine that being your reality 24/7 pandemic or not. Racism and microagressions are sometimes compared to battling a whole other pandemic that never subsides. It’s an opportunity to experience empathy with our neighbours.
With Covid the good news is that a lot of us have already received two doses of a vaccine or soon will receive them. We still need to consider the safety and wellbeing of children and people who are immune compromised, who were advised by their doctor not to receive a vaccine for different reasons. One of our challenges as a church will be how we welcome them into our spaces as we re-open to in-person worship and other activities in the fall.
I’ve heard from seniors in assisted living facilities and care homes who have found it challenging to be separated from loved ones for such long lengths of time. We need to think about ways in which we can remain accessible to people who are homebound. The Board of Care for Communities has strived to remain in touch with people at home. Worship livestreaming has remained an important point of connection. Some people reported parents and other folks being able to participate in worship more frequently after we started livestreaming worship than before. I repeat our pledge to continue livestreaming worship after we return to in-person worship in the fall. More details are forthcoming in Crossroads in coming weeks.
Wherever you find yourself today, know that you are loved and you are enough. The purpose of talking about justice issues isn’t to make people feel bad. It’s about embracing the collective liberation God desires for all of us. It’s about living into the promise of Jesus as the bread of life. Despite people feeling like they’re constantly working to pay bills, to put food on the table, the constant daily chores of doing laundry, grace is a reminder we are sustained by God’s love. God desires us to have our daily bread and all the good things that allow us and children to thrive. It’s about living into love and accepting that gift of grace.
Wrapping up, a story about grace from Pam Buisa, a member of Canada’s Women’s Rugby Team who just finished their performance in Tokyo. Pam lives in Victoria and is also a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement in Victoria that began in spring 2020.
Pam writes in a recent post on Facebook:
“Holaaaay. We came, we saw, and we conquered. As a first generation immigrant, with roots from the Democratic Republic of Congo with a rich ancestry of strong Black and resilient humans. I can proudly say , MAMA IM AN OLYMPIAN I did it for all of us - and I thank God for all of it
It’s heartbreaking that we aren’t coming home with a medal but I can say we will be coming back with insight, with fight, and with pride.
Our team went from dealing with internal investigations to recovering from COVID, to unpacking what it means to represent this nation while learning more about the past and ongoing violence & genocide across these lands to the Indigenous communities, and so much more. Through all of this, we pushed through, trained, and kept our heads down.
But, today I can say confidently that our heads are held high. We will never stop fighting speaking truth to systems that shut us out, we will continue to stand in solidarity with disenfranchised folks, I said what I said a few months ago - we were ready to give up our Olympic dream to change the system. So let’s keep making waves, shaking the system and keep leading with love. - with love , Pamphinette
#ourliberationistied” (posted on Facebook, July 30, 2021)
Together with neighbours of African descent, with Indigenous neighbours, we receive Jesus’ bread of life. Receive God’s grace given to you. Amen.