Sankofa Experience: Part 2

What kind of person would I have been during the early 1800s? I would like to think I would have been enlightened enough through my deep walk with the Lord to be ashamed and horrified at the reality of slavery, of one person owning another. I would like to think I would have been like Jacob Burke who operated the Memphis Stockyards as a cover for his providing a safe haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Burke came from Germany and settled in Memphis. He built his home with a cellar that doubled for a hideaway for slaves on the move. He also built a secret trap door in his back room where slaves could quickly exit through the crawl space to the outside. I would like to think I would have been trusted with his secret and in some way joined his efforts.

On our recent trip to the south on the Sankofa Journey to visit important, historical sites of the Civil Rights Movement I was hit harder with these thoughts. In the past I comforted myself with old tin type photos from my great grandmother’s home that showed our family as fighting on “the correct side” of history during the civil war. Didn’t that prove where I would have most likely stood on the issue?  And on the other side of my family, well, they came over as Mennonites who were fleeing persecution and ended up on farms in Kansas in the 1800s. I somehow thought this gave me some sort of free pass on the race issue.

I began to realize toward the end of the trip I was asking the wrong question. Wondering who I would have been back then is not helpful or productive. Who I am now, and what I stand for is the only thing relevant for me today. Can I step out of my reality to look at others’ reality through different eyes? The answer is usually no. But what I started learning 29 years ago when Andy and I moved into the inner-city with our kids was that my friends, who were outside of my culture, could help me see things differently. Back then, as well as on the Sankofa trip, I was reminded that who I have as friends will help me the most in my journey to learn and understand more. Friends of different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences are some of my biggest treasures. They have accepted me, and my ignorance at times, with grace and truth. I cannot change the past or find valid ways of making sense of it all. I cannot on my own in my own culture ever hope to understand the road that others have had to walk and continue to walk. 

The Sankofa trip was not earth shattering to me, nor did it cause a great awakening. But I did grow in my appreciation for those who have helped nudge me along in my understanding of race, inequality and privilege. The past sins of our country cannot be erased or minimized. The reality is that those past sins still permeate our society in many different forms and that causes a deep sadness in me. Only Christ Jesus and His unified church can heal such deep wounds and patterns of fear, hate and ignorance. I am forever grateful for my friends of different ethnicities and cultures who have loved me and have been patient with me in my journey to understand.