This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.
The first reading is an excerpt from a poem by Senegalese poet Birago Diop:
Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the thickening shadow.
The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the tree that rustles,
they are in the wood that groans;
Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the breast of the woman,
they are in the child that is wailing
and in the firebrand that flames.
The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the forest,
they are in the house.
The dead are not dead.
[English translation from Jacob K. Olupona, African Spirituality, p. 54]
The second reading this morning is from Varieties of African American Religious Experience, by Anthony Pinn:
“I suggest an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity) and culture by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.”
SERMON — “African Ancestors”
Who are our ancestors? How do we receive the wisdom of our ancestors? In our culture, we rarely revere our ancestors; it’s fine to take up the hobby of genealogy, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. We don’t even revere our elders much any more; our culture values the freshness of youth over the wisdom of age. There is even a part of our culture that consists in dismissing the great human wisdom of the past, telling us that only things which are new can be good.
In short, our culture whispers to us that we don’t need the wisdom of our ancestors, or of our elders: “Move on to something new; leave the past behind.” And you know, much of the time we follow that whispered advice to good effect. America has prospered precisely because we are willing to try new things, we are willing to innovate, to invent. this urge for the new is even a part of our religious heritage. A hundred years ago, Unitarians used to say they believed in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” There’s something in us that still believes that progress will keep going onwards and upwards forever.
One of the curious side effects of believing in progress onwards and upwards forever was that parts of the past could no longer be seen clearly; parts of the past get obscured, blurred, knocked out of focus. You can find examples of this everywhere in the American self-perception; but perhaps it is nowhere more evident than in African American history. The history of people of African descent in America has too often been knocked out of focus; it’s hard to see the African ancestors that we know must be there. So maybe we have to find a different way of looking for them.
For example, you have probably heard the stereotype that African Americans all became Christians pretty early on, until by the 20th century there was no evidence of any other religious tradition amongst African Americans. The second reading this morning was written by Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist theologian. As a humanist, that is, as someone who does not believe in God, Anthony Pinn was curious to know if the conventional wisdom is true: he wanted to know if African American religion exists solely in Christian churches. He found that Christian churches do not represent the only religion of African Americans, and in his field work he has found a rich diversity of African American religious traditions beyond Christianity, including Voodou, Santeria, Islam, and (of course) humanism.
Let me focus on this last African American religious tradition, humanism, for a moment — because African American humanism has a special importance for us Unitarian Universalists. In his field work and historical research, Anthony Pinn found that one major institutional home for African American humanists was, in fact, our own Unitarian Universalist Association. Pinn writes that “black humanism,” as it was called in Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s, took “into account the ‘unique’ demands and existential context of African Americans; the value of their ‘blackness’ was brought into human-centered thought and action.” Pinn has traced African American humanism well back into the 19th century; and in the second half of the 20th century, black humanism found an institutional home within Unitarian Universalism.
Not that Unitarian Universalism has necessarily been an entirely comfortable home for African American humanists, or any African American for that matter. Back in 1984, Mark Morrison-Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is African American, wrote: “Unitarian Universalism’s only significant penetration into the black community has been limited to a dozen inner city churches…. In 1968 when black involvement in the denomination was at a high point, blacks numbered 1,500 of the denomination’s members, less than one percent.” Yet having said that, it seems as if some things are changing. Bill Sinkford, the current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is an African American. A couple of those inner city churches that Mark Morrison-Reed mentions have been growing by leaps and bounds; in fact, I’ll be going to visit one of them, All Souls in Washington, D.C., when I’m away next week. So there has been a new feeling of hope that increasing numbers of African Americans will find a welcoming religious home in Unitarian Universalist churches.
I believe part of the process of welcoming more African Americans into Unitarian Universalism will be recognizing that not all African Americans go to Christian churches. I believe we have to bring the past into better focus, we have to better understand the ancestors. And this brings us back to Anthony Pinn, who has what he calls “an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity)… by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.” Pinn has a name for this alternative way; he calls it “theological archaeology”; and Pinn believes that “attention to archaeological method can mean a richer understanding of African American life extending beyond a select and distorted representation….” Pinn wants to show us that African American religious experience is far richer and far more diverse than it is commonly portrayed; but what I’d say he is really doing, is he is showing us how to listen to our religious ancestors.
I believe we should all learn how to engage in this “theological anthropology.” I don’t mean to imply that white folks like me should be the ones who are investigating African American religious experience; but I do think if we all start exploring our religious histories together, we can support each other in our various explorations. And for myself, I have found that I can learn from the African, and African American ancestors; those ancestors have helped me to learn how to listen to my own ancestors. Which brings us back to the first reading this morning.
The first reading this morning is a translation of a poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. As you probably noticed, a slightly different version of the poem was used as the lyrics to the first hymn this morning. That first hymn was written by Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and she is a singer, composer, and scholar who performs with the a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock; and, as it happens, she is also a Unitarian Universalist. I believe that Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song gives us practical instructions on how to do theological anthropology; her song tells us how to find those fragile, vulnerable remnants of our religious histories.
The song starts out telling us to “Listen more often to things than to beings.” This seems odd; why should we listen to things instead of to people? The song tells us why: ” ‘Tis the ancestors’ words”: when we listen to things, we can hear the ancestors’ words directly. You see, if you listen to other people, you’re not listening to the ancestors’ voices directly. If you listen to other people, you’ll find that other people put their own interpretations on the ancestors. That’s what Anthony Pinn tells us: when he listened to other people, they told him that African American humanists didn’t really exist because all African Americans belonged to Christian churches. Pinn went out and did field work; he found things, old books and magazines, old folk tales, old blues songs; and in those books and folk tales and songs, he found the voices of the ancestors. These ancestors told him he was not alone in being an African American humanist; these ancestors told him that African American religious expression is far richer than most people say it is.
Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song goes on to give us more practical advice about doing this “theological anthropology”: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead are not under the earth./ They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods….”
In traditional African religions, the ancestors are literally living in the trees, and in the woods. For traditional African religions, the ancestors are very real. You pour libations for them: clear water, or millet mixed with water, or some palm wine. You ask them to intercede for you: to protect you from evil spirits, or to ask the divinities for assistance. In some African American religious traditions, such as Santeria, you might call on the ancestors in much the same way.
Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song tells us to listen to the rustling trees, to listen to the groaning woods. It was deep in the groaning woods, that enslaved African Americans held their secret hush arbor meetings, places where they could have free expression for their own deep religious feelings, without interference from their white overseers. It was through the rustling trees that they passed, in the dead of night, as they slipped away to freedom, following the Underground Railroad, some of them through New Bedford. There is a fragile meaning in the sound of the rustling trees; there is a fragile meaning in the groaning woods; meanings that you will find in things, not in beings.
The song continues in this way: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead have a pact with the living….” This we must believe: our ancestors have not forsaken us, they are always there to give us guidance, if we will but take the time to hear them. The song tells us where to listen for their voices: “The dead have a pact with the living:/ They are in the woman’s breast, they are in the wailing child,/ They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd.” That is to say, we can hear the voices of the ancestors through our human interactions, we can find the voices of the ancestors in the religious experiences of the living. If we look deeply into ourselves, into the way we interact with others, if we look into our human institutions: then we can find the voice of the ancestors.
Our society today does not want us to listen too hard to our ancestors. Our society today would like us to be, for example, good little consumers. We are not supposed to yearn for greater spiritual richness and meaning in our lives, we are just supposed to spend more in order to keep the economy purring along. When you listen to the ancestors, though, you find a great spiritual richness to the world, you find that you and your world are far more complex than you had thought, you find that there are unplumbed depths in who you are. To listen to the ancestors is a religious act of seeking out identity, seeking out who you are, and what your place might be in this world. It is seeking out the fragile manifestations of who you are, before that fragility is crushed by the social imperative to buy more, to own more, to act just like the characters on the television screen. That fragile manifestaion is your true self.
So it is that we come to this church: to create for ourselves the time and the space to sit together in quietness, to listen, to think. Each among us will have somewhat different journeys we are making. If you’re an African American, you’ll be listening for different things from your ancestors than if you’re a white New England Yankee like me. Or whoever your ancestors were, whatever differences you may find in your journey. We come together knowing that we are each different, knowing that we are united by our search for truth and goodness, and knowing that we haven’t been satisfied with the usual religious platitudes. We are committed to rigorous thinking about religious matters, but rigorous thought alone isn’t enough. For what we seek is fragile; our thought and our actions must assume a delicacy and precision that only comes about through poetry: through listening more carefully to things than to beings.
Learn who you are by listening to who your people once were. When you are at home cooking, listen to the fire’s breath — even if you’re using an electric stove, you can hear the voice of a thousand generations of human beings in the voice of the hearth, the voice of the fire. When you wash your hands, listen to the voice of the waters. We all know that our dead loved ones are truly dead and gone. Yet though they are dead, they live on in us, they live on in the children. We allow the dead to live on when we uphold their highest ideals, when we use the gifts they gave us to better the world.
This we have learned from the African ancestors. This is perhaps the greatest truth of all: as the dead live on in us, so we will live on in the children and in those yet unborn. That is what is meant when we say: listen more often to things than to beings. In the quiet of the rustling grass, we listen to the ancestors that we may hear the truths of the past. In the quiet of the moaning rocks, we can know something of the coming generations so that we might save something of this good earth for them.