Seeing one another as part of the same story

Black Heritage

Jer 29:4-7, 11; Acts 8:26-39; Luke 10:25-29

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister


Good morning! It is an honor to be with you today for this beautiful celebration. My family are not good at celebrations, so it was good for me that the first parish I served as a priest was in Alabama. Whatever you may have heard about the American South, people in Alabama know how to celebrate! If you go to someone’s home, they put out the good china. If you have a church supper, there are flowers on every table and more platters of delicious food than you’ve seen in your life. That community taught me that celebration is intrinsic to love: we celebrate people (or God) to show them that we love them — that they matter to us so much that we are willing to buy the flowers, bake the cake, make the party, turn our lives upside down to let them know they matter to us. That’s why, in case you’re wondering, someone who looks like I do is preaching today. The planning committee were clear: you don’t make your own birthday party. Celebrations happen when someone else wants to celebrate you.

I am humbled by the trust of the planning committee in inviting me to speak with you. It’s also intimidating; I don’t feel adequate to take on this role, and figuring out what to say has not been easy. It’s forced me to wrestle with fundamental questions: Who am I to be standing here? Am I a representative of the white people of this Diocese? Am I here as an ally, a member of the anti-racism task force? Am I an immigrant among immigrants?  A fellow Christian, part of a community I’m proud to call my own? Who’s my “we” in this room?

It’s a bit like trying to stand on quicksand, and I suspect those questions aren’t difficult only for me. In fact, I think we might share them. It’s not obvious how anyone who looks like me should relate to the heritage of Black Canadians, or Black Anglicans. It’s not even obvious how Black Anglicans ought to relate to one another. It’s not obvious, for example, how an engineer who came here from Haiti or Rwanda to build a better life, perhaps after waiting years for permission to come, might participate in the heritage of a person who shared their skin color, but who was brought here in chains. Finding a “we” is complicated in Quebec, and “we” doesn’t always come down to “yes.”

Whatever we look like, we who gather here today are debtors to our Black forebears in faith. We have inherited the work of their minds, hearts, hands, and lives. I’m not sure the Church sees that clearly enough. The way theology and church history are taught in seminary makes it sound as if Christianity spread eastward from Jerusalem to Rome, and then to Europe, and then, in the last few centuries, to Africa and to the Islands via European missionaries. But that’s just not true. Christianity spread to Africa at about the same time St. Paul was traveling through the Middle East; both formed the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross, was from Libya. The foundations of our theology were laid by Paul and by Augustine of Hippo, a Berber from what is now Algeria; even today, whether you agree with Augustine or disagree with him, he is the theologian you cannot simply ignore. And early monasticism began both in Palestine and in Egypt; it then spread to the British Isles around the 3rd century, where it gave Celtic Christianity the understanding of holiness which still forms us as Anglicans. So when we honor Black Heritage, we’re not just honoring people who were converted by British missionaries a couple centuries ago (honorable though they are). We’re honoring people who built the spiritual home in which we live.

And we’re honoring the people who built our earthly home as well.  I mean, can you imagine Canada without railways? Montreal without jazz? Without Oscar Peterson? Without Carifiesta? (Oh, sorry: we no longer have to imagine that one, do we?) Can you imagine the pandemic without the doctors and nurses from around the world who were tending the sick and caring for the elderly, without the so-called essential workers who were required to risk their own health for the good of the community? Black presence on these lands goes all the way back to the founding of Quebec: Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter, Matthieu de Costa, was a man of African descent. We would not be here in Quebec — none of us — would not be the people we are, without the contributions of the Black community — any more than we’d be Christian without the foundation for our faith laid by our African forebears. That’s why we focus on Black Heritage today: not because it is something foreign to Anglicanism or to Quebec, but because it’s been woven into the tapestry of our lives all along, if only we had eyes to see.

We need eyes to see. If some of us do not know these stories, it’s because we have not been good at telling them. The stories we tell are shaped by the questions we ask, and one question we’ve not been good at asking is fundamental to our faith: Who is our neighbor? Not in the exalted spiritual terms of “who am I called be bring Jesus to today?, but in the everyday sense of human curiosity.  Hey, neighbor, I’d love to know you better. What is your story?  What do you fear and dream and love? Those questions teach us not only how to be neighbors, but how to become friends.

For all that solidarity is a fundamental value in Quebec, this land has been inhabited by solitudes too many to number. The tangled history between setters and First Nations, or between those whose first or only language is English and those whose first or only language is French (or something else entirely) has historically made it feel a bit unsafe to enter into relationships with those around us.  Indeed, the focus on language has sometimes made it hard even to see one another — not as members of our “team” or a different one, but as people — people made in the image of God, each with their own individuality, their own culture, their own heritage.

That kind of historical and cultural complexity forms the matrix for the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch — which shows us a better way. It’s worth noticing, to begin with, that the Ethiopian isn’t even named in the text. If he were, he’d have to have been acknowledged as the first Gentile convert to Christianity, appearing two full chapters before Cornelius. The fact that his name isn’t recorded suggests the extreme ambivalence around his identity even in Biblical times. I don’t have the right to christen him, but also I don’t want to have to call him “the eunuch” or “the Ethiopian” over and over again — as if he could be reduced to his nationality or his body — , so just for today, I’m going to call him Alimayu, an Ethiopian name meaning “in honor of God.”

It’s hard for us, looking back over two thousand years, to see how unlikely this encounter was! Philip was a poor man,  a Jewish disciple of Jesus. As a Jew, he was not supposed to be talking to Gentiles, and particularly not to eunuchs, who were considered to be cut off from the people of God.  “Alimayu” was a wealthy and powerful man, treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia, a man who, in earthly terms, had it almost all, but who was seeking faith. He was returning from the Temple in Jerusalem, where he had gone to pray, which means he had just suffered a great rejection. Gentiles were not permitted to enter the Temple; even with his exalted rank,  “Alimayu” would have found himself, after a journey of 3,000 km, standing in the outer court, praying toward a stone wall, while a man such a Philip could just have sauntered in.

And yet, when these two men meet, the Spirit of God opens a path and they are able to see one another as part of the same story: God’s story. They greeted one another not with fear, but with curiosity and open hearts. When Philip comes upon “Alimayu,” the Ethiopian man is reading from the prophet Isaiah.  A few verses before the words we hear,  “Alimayu” would have read, “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…and we held him of no account.”(Is 53:3) At the Temple, he would have been treated as a man of no account.  And as an eunuch, he had endured a surgery which would have crippled his beautiful body as he aged, deforming his bones and causing him tremendous pain. When the Ethiopian asks, “Of whom does the prophet speak?”, it may well be that he has seen in those words a picture of himself. And when Philip presented him with Jesus, “Alimayu” might have seen a Savior who was like him — someone who knew what it was to live in his skin. And so, when water miraculously appears in the desert, he cries out, “Look! There is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What was to prevent it?  Torah, Jewish law, and two thousand years of tradition — that’s what! And yet, without hesitation, Philip takes all that heavy burden of division and chucks it out of the chariot. Where tradition and religious law taught him to see a foreigner, someone different and ritually unclean, Philip chose to see a neighbor, a fellow-seeker, a person made in the image of God. Each of these two men took a stranger and claimed him as a brother.

Alimayu and Philip chose — not to look past difference, as if it didn’t matter — because it is there, and it does matter — but to look through it to the truth of our essential unity in Christ.  Our deep and unshakeable belovedness, which makes space for all the other beloved people. What would Montreal look like, what would this Diocese look like, if we could do the same? If we could throw off the straitjacket of history and build a community in which each of us could come to the table bringing all that we are, offering our heritage and our faith and our languages and the work of our hands and lives as divine gifts that are worthy to be seen and named and received?

Creating that Welcome Table, piling it high with poudding chomeur and paté chinois and creole chicken and curried goat and rice and bread, might open a whole world of possibilities. It might allow new conversations to happen — conversations in which solidarity could become real.  It might open space to wonder about one another, to ask and to learn about one another’s lives and faith and hopes. We might be able to worry a bit less about whose churches might make it, and dream a bit more about what we could become if we saw ourselves as all being in this together. We might be able to ask what it means to be a Jesus-shaped diocese: to take control of our future and decide together which communities and places need our presence, whatever it might take for us to be there. We might discover within ourselves, as Philip and “Alimayu” did, the courage and the generosity to step beyond our parallel communities and into the Pentecost joy of the Kingdom of God.

And so I ask you today, as I think God asks each of us everyday,

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

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