An Open Letter to My Friends in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
My dear AME Zion friends:
Janice & H. E. Lane, foreground (from an article in the
Evanston Round Table, 18 July 2014)
When I was serving a congregation in Evanston, Illinois, I became aware of the amazing work of the Rev. Hardist E. Lane, retired pastor of the Fisher Memorial AME Zion Church, through his H. E. Lane Center for Positive Change. Rev. Lane and his wife Mrs. Janice Lane along with numerous friends and colleagues, eventually including myself, worked with ex-prisoners in order to reconnect them with society following their incarceration. It was with the help of Rev. Lane that I learned to refer to recently released individuals as "ex-prisoners" and not as "ex-offenders," since those who occupy prisons seem often to have been placed there more for the purpose of justifying the prison's existence than because they need to be separated from society because they pose a safety risk to the general public.
Rev. Lane was succeeded as pastor by the Rev. Warren E. Smith, who has taken up work as a pastor as a second career complementing his service as a social worker. It was Rev. Smith who, upon learning that I was about to exit my own Evanston post, insisted unblinkingly that he hoped I would consider entering the AME Zion as a pastor next. And although I had wondered then at his encouragement, despite my own heart for justice and witness, upon reflection of his career(s) and the passion and work of Rev. and Mrs. Lane and what I have just seen today, I can say honestly that I should have taken his words more seriously. This is not to say that I am unhappy in the UCC or unsatisfied with my work now, but that with today I have a greater sense of the impact and vision of the AME Zion and its outreach.
This morning, my family and I attended a cultural festival in Ho, Ghana.
|Panorama of the (Ho) Sacred Heart Senior High School grounds as we gathered for the festival competition|
Such cultural festivals, I have learned, are often the culmination of the academic year, as elementary and high school students from across a locality participate in competition based on culture. Participants dress in their native clothing, singing familiar songs and choruses, drum or dance as groups, pairs, and individuals, and compose, memorize, and present poems and essays. Local winners go on to city or district wide competitions, then to regional competitions, and eventually they compete on a national level. The area schools represented at this local competition included, of course, our hosts' E. P. (Evangelical Presbyterian) schools, and the public, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and AME Zion schools.
Outstanding in every category were the AME Zion competitors. And this turned out for me not to have to do with the content... at least, not at first. All the content of each group presentation was the same, after all - the same dances were danced, the same songs were sung. This was necessary for the group competitions to be on a level playing field. Where the AME Zion children and their directors really stood out was in the pride and expertise with which they presented their pieces and themselves.
Throughout our time in Ghana, I have seen dedicated individuals who are determined to make a sincere and concerted effort to have an impact on their society and country. One cannot doubt the sacred conviction that lies in the hearts of the church leaders - both clergy and lay - whom we met. And the children and teachers we saw and with whom we interacted in a practice competition at the Seeger Memorial E. P. Church and School in Hohoe certainly impressed us with their abilities and talents. There was a moderating sense of caution among them, though. Maybe they just hadn't practiced quite enough to feel thoroughly comfortable and at ease.
Until this moment, however, I do not think I had realized quite the fullness of spirit and purpose that are contained in the AME Zion's motto, "Black Liberation and Evangelism," or how completely this gospel call is meant by the church. But this is what I saw on display, today, in Ho. Your vision encompassed and encompasses the plight of Black people everywhere - those who were enslaved, yes, but those as well who were the subjects of colonial empires. The AME Zion has recognized throughout its history the damage that has been done, rendering Black folk powerless and oppressed, and the critical importance of making a stand by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Only by accepting for oneself the power made available from heaven for one's work on earth can one hope to overcome the vast array of stumbling blocks in one's way.
After the elementary and high school groups had sung their pieces, it was time for the girls' speaking competition. Most of the girls reciting stood front and center and presented pieces that offered unalloyed praise for traditions and practices that have made their culture a reflection of wider Ghana.
Then came the last presenter. I don't know whether the Z in Zion brought the AME Zion school's students to perform last. But this was the final competitor in her category and the most memorable for me. She was a high school student mindful not only of the past but of her future. This I knew because I was fortunate enough to be seated beside a woman who had come to see my hosts Gershon and Pamela. She is Gershon's late father's third wife, who was also the mother of Gershon's youngest sister whom we had met yesterday in Hohoe. As the speaking competition began, "Mama" decided to interpret to me what the girls were saying.
I noticed immediately that, in addition to folded swaths of cloth that formed a belt around the high school student's waist, she also had tucked a cellular phone. It was barely visible, and I haven't been able to locate a photo that reveals it; you'll just have to trust me. But it was curious and almost humorous to me that someone dressed so traditionally should have missed such an anachronism as that, or that her coach should have missed it.
My interpreter told me that the girl was talking about how she had always been taught that the old ways were important and must not be lost. To know who we are, we must first know who we have been. Hence, the fabrics with their traditional prints and patterns. But, the young woman continued, we must not forget that our ancestors were young once, and the voice of youth then has formed our traditions today. Therefore, we must not reject new things like technology and other innovations out of hand (she now took the cell phone from her belt and made a grand, sweeping gesture with it, eventually setting it on a large stone near her). Now, she pointed a finger at the crowd listening and said, we must balance our traditions made by voices that were young once with the developments of young voices today. We must encourage our youth, not only tell them to respect the old ways.
Her confidence and poise, her inflection and carriage, all communicated to those of us listening a sense of prophecy and purpose. I reflected with my interpreter how this was typical of the AME Zion clergy and communities I have come to know in the U.S. I told her that I had not previously known that the AME Zion had established missions and schools in Ghana but that it made sense that they should have. It seemed further to me in keeping with the witness of that church to inspire their youth to say that they must have a voice, and a voice respected, in the growing traditional future of their culture and society.
There was one moment in the speech when she took a long pause. I thought for a moment that she was simply composing herself in the midst of an impassioned address. But then something familiar became obvious, from my own high school recitations - and many since: she'd "gone up." She'd forgotten part of her speech. She paced, trying to remember. Then, I watched as she retraced her steps and what must have been sense memory loaded in, as the location and position of her decorated body, traditional dress, and fascinating belt (with respect to that cell phone) reminded her what came next. I imagine that the judges subtracted points for that, and, though we could not stay to the end of the competition to find out what her outcome was, I doubt she won... but maybe. Maybe the power and encouragement of that message and its messenger were still enough.
I thought you would want to know what I saw, today. And I wanted to say that I know more about you now than I knew when the day began, thanks to a girl and her schoolmates at a cultural competition in Ho. I thought you should know (even though you undoubtedly knew already) about the legacy of witness and purpose you established with your schools and churches in Ghana. You deserve to know of the success being realized with your international outreach funds in Africa. All of these bear a very similar, empowering witness to the one I have experienced here.
"Black Liberation and Evangelism," preach on!
Your friend and admirer,