Immediately, at the start of our relationship, my husband, who is white, recognized the significance of my African-American family’s tradition of a weekend-long celebration of unity, gathering, and breaking bread together. The commemoration of roots so resilient, that we persevered through enslavement, the Black codes, Jim Crow, and other demoralizing policies and practices is now his and our children’s inheritance.
For eighty years, our extended family has consistently gathered on a Sunday, at a small country church under the August summer sun to commemorate and celebrate our union. The branches and arms of our family tree travel from all over the country and locally to descend upon a small acreage, host to a central place of worship and a church graveyard where many relatives have been laid to rest. After Friday’s meet-and-greet and Saturday’s cookout at the park, Sunday sings to our souls the songs of those who have gone before us.
When I was a child, attending the 11 am Sunday service was like traveling back in time. Two factory fans, one placed at the front of the left aisle and the other situated on the right, attempted to force the heavy, sticky, hot air into a light airy breeze. The giant fans failed. The noisy blades propelling at maximum speed seemed to only provide busy noise. However, the cacophony was no match for the choir who belted out centuries-old spirituals or the preacher professing a two-thousand-year-old gospel. As a child, I didn’t like this church service. The pews were hard, the air was hot, and the preacher preached too long. However, even as a child, I sensed that this time served as a historical monument preserving a particular and significant story about God’s love for us.
After the final “amen,” the double doors opened, and uncles, grandmothers, and cousins poured from the back of the church onto the lawn in the noonday heat. Three-piece suits, floral pastel sundresses, wide-brimmed hats, and brightly colored scarves gave way to shorts and family-reunion-themed T-shirts. Then it was time for the annual picnic. When my grandmother was alive, she cooked for days in preparation for the family picnic. Once the tables were set, one of the family clergy — there are always several — pronounced a blessing over the food, the family, and the gathering.
After we’d feast, we’d walk. We’d hold the hands of our children and guide them a few yards from the picnic ground through the Carolina red dirt to the graveyard. We strolled the rows of tombstones and burial plots reciting their names and telling their stories. Some were slaves of the Methodist pastor of Old Salem. Many were named after their enslavers. A few were mulatto — one was even buried in the white cemetery. They were pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and church planters, teachers, librarians, wagon makers, pullman porters, and blacksmiths. They served on the Colored School Board, in WWI, and in WWII.
Though they were marginalized, their lives, their stories, and existence screamed resilience. Their lives were deemed insignificant by a dominating force of racial injustice. However, when we hear their stories, we hold their stories and glean from them truths about God. Their lives are a witness to how God loves us, sees us, and values us regardless of the marginalizing social, political, and economic stranglehold we live in.
I think about my grandmother, who when she was a girl, was “hired” as a housekeeper in a small, country town ten miles away from her home. When she was told that she would be sleeping on the back porch, she left, walked the ten miles back home, and refused to return. And as an adult, because she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, she was arrested. How many times did she feel like Hagar, unloved and unprotected by society’s caste system? Like Hagar, how difficult was it for her to choose dignity over income or shelter?
While Abraham and Sarah referred to her as “slave,” God met Hagar in a place of desolation and despair and called her by name. God not only knew Hagar’s name but by using it showed her respect. From Hagar’s story, we learn so much about God. Hagar’s story reveals God as El Roi — a God who sees, a God “who looks after me” (Genesis 16:13 ESV). In seeing Hagar, God affirms her dignity and that of marginalized and exploited peoples. In Hagar’s story, I see that though the prevailing custom is one of apathy, God cares!
The names and lives of our family members who have gone before us are not only captured on tombstones but are engraved into God’s palm. Like Hagar, despite her plight of being treated as disposable and inconsequential, God knew my grandmother’s name and respected her. I imagine as she walked away from humiliation and disrespect, God said, “Virginia, I love you, I care for you, and I am looking after you and your family.” I also imagine that God’s seeing her was the source of her and her family’s resilience.
Even if you’ve been marginalized by a dominant force, feel excluded or forgotten, know that El Roi sees you, knows your name, and cares. And when you know you are seen, God’s care can transform distress into a testimony of resilience.Leave a Comment