I graduated from Western Christian High School exactly 50 years ago this month. One of my closest friends in high school was Phil Smith. Our senior pics are on the right, scanned from our yearbook. After graduating, I headed to Oregon to attend Northwest Christian College and the University of Oregon. Phil went to Pennsylvania to attend Messiah College, which was founded by his great grandfather.
Fast-forward 40+ years, and Phil and I reconnected, we think our first re-connection was via Facebook, then 8 years ago in person for the first time when I was speaking at a college near where he lived in Lancaster, PA (after living and working in the U.K., Rwanda, and elsewhere around the world).
Last August, I received an email from Phil connecting me with his nephew, Steve, who serves as Senior Minister at First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. I’d been to Old Lyme many years ago to locate the grave of my 8x great grandfather, Edward DeWolf. Phil introduced us because of the social and racial justice work we’re both committed to. FCCOL is committed to learning about, and acknowledging, the role its early leaders, and all of Old Lyme, played in participating in, and perpetuating, slavery. They are part of a powerful effort, The Witness Stones Project. From their website: “Between 1670 and 1820 more than 200 enslaved African Americans and indigenous people labored in the historic town of Lyme. Today, Witness Stones honor the humanity and the contributions of vital members of our community. The bronze plaques that mark sites of enslavement on Lyme Street restore forgotten history and serve as memorials to those once held here in bondage.”
Turns out Steve is the son of Phil’s older sister, Pat, who was Phil’s and my math teacher in high school, and Gary Jungkeit, who was choir director during our senior year. Over the succeeding months, Steve, Phil and I stayed in touch and pondered what we could do together. It resulted in the FCCOL flying me to Connecticut to lead a workshop on Saturday afternoon, June 11, and preaching the sermon in Church on Sunday morning, June 12. Though I graduated from Northwest Christian College in 1978, I never entered the ministry. Forty-four years after receiving my diploma in Biblical Studies, I’d be delivering my first-ever sermon from a pulpit.
We expected maybe a dozen folks for the workshop, but more than double that number showed up so more chairs were added to the circle. Participants were deeply engaged as I introduced the Coming to the Table Approach to racial healing, including the use of the Circle Process (with values and touchstone discussions), Restorative Justice and Trauma Awareness & Resilience principles.
The biggest treat of the weekend was being able to spend more time with Phil than we’ve ever had since high school, AND to be with his wife Becca and their son Iranzi, Steve, his wife Rachel, and their children Sabina, Elsa and Augie, as well as Pat and Gary (Sabina, Elsa, Pat & Gary would perform with bells at the beginning of the church service on Sunday).
One weekend earlier, my cousins Dain and Constance Perry were in Old Lyme to present the film of our family journey, Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, to the community. During their visit the Witness Stones project places a stone to honor Mingo, a man owned by DeWolf. I had known of Edward’s involvement in King Phillip’s War, helping to murder upwards of 1,000 indigenous men, women, children and elders in the freezing winter of 1675. I didn’t know until Dain called me that he had also owned enslaved Africans. This was more than six decades prior to the family becoming the most successful slave-trading dynasty in North America over three generations (50 years). I sat on a circular stone bench nearby, thinking about all the harm caused by my ancestors, and the resilience of the people they owned and the people they traded, all to support their greed and power. It is projects such as Witness Stones that will help us acknowledge the truth of the past and show us a path toward healing, equality, justice, transformation, and liberation.
There were more than 100 people in church on Sunday morning. I was uncertain how my message would be received. I shared why I left the church back in the 1970’s, how church people, including ministers, were complicit in perpetuating slavery, how the systems of racism and white supremacy that were at the foundation of the creation of the United States are still operating very effectively today, resulting in widespread advantages for people like me (people of European descent, especially men) and equally widespread disadvantages for people of color and other marginalized communities. The service was recorded and you can CLICK HERE to watch it online. The whole service, from the choice of hymns to the choice of scripture, was built around this theme of the past being present, of the sins of the fathers still impacting all of us today. To watch just the sermon, you can fast forward to about the 32-minute mark. Apparently the words I shared connected with many in the congregation, as they offered a standing ovation as I concluded. I trust the ovation was evidence of the congregation’s commitment to continued healing work.
Two days went by very quickly. Fortunately, there were times for a long walk with Phil, and another with Steve, and meals with the whole, extended family. We’re already talking about “what’s next” on this healing journey. As I look back at Phil’s and my graduation 50 years ago this month, and the wildly circuitous route that eventually brought us back together for this weekend focused on learning and repair, I marvel at how God works.