[Episcopal News Service] On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, the dioceses of Province II will begin the season of Lent by debuting a liturgical lament and repentance for the transatlantic slave trade modeled on the Way of the Cross.
“The slave trade was an act of refusing and failing to love God – the God who the Bible says is love – and to love our neighbor,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a video introduction. “To lament and to repent is to take that sin seriously – not to beat up on ourselves, but to learn from the past and then to turn and join hands with each other to build a new society and a new world based on the value of love and justice and compassion and goodness.”
In 2017, Curry led a reconciliation pilgrimage to Ghana for bishops and Episcopal Relief & Development’s friends and supporters. The pilgrims visited cities and sites critical to understanding the transatlantic slave trade.
The new repentance and lament is modeled on the Way of the Cross, or Stations of the Cross, in The Book of Occasional Services. Each of the 14 stations will include video reflections, laments and prayers written by members of each of the province’s dioceses: Albany, Central New York, the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, Cuba, Haiti, Long Island, Newark, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, Rochester, the Virgin Islands, and the Episcopal Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.
The legacy of slavery continues to this day, Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe, the Province II president, told Episcopal News Service, in persistent racial injustice, the disproportionate number of Black men in prisons and jails, and in human trafficking for labor and sex. The church needs to acknowledge both the history of slavery and its present-day manifestations, she said. “I don’t think we have words for how horrific chattel slavery was, and it’s easy to distance ourselves from the suffering of others.”
The series of laments and prayers will be available on Feb. 14 beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern on the province’s website. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when Christians prepare for Easter by acts of special devotion, prayers, fasting and repentance. Stations of the Cross is a spiritual practice offered by many Episcopal churches especially during Lent. It is based on the practice of pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem to walk Jesus’ path to the cross. Today it ceremonially marks some of his actions along that path, including picking up his cross, meeting his mother and being stripped of his garments.
The idea for this Lenten offering, Duncan-Probe said, came shortly after she became president of the province and realized that geographically it encompassed “a rather large swath of what has been called the slave trade triangle.” In that transatlantic triangle, manufactured goods from Europe were transported for sale or trade in Africa, and Africans were kidnapped and sent to the Americas, where they were sold into slavery to work on plantations that produced sugar, cotton and other raw materials that were then sold back to Europe.
From the 1500s to the 1800s, 12.5 million Africans were sent as cargo across the Atlantic Ocean, and almost two million of them died in route. More than 4 million of them were sent to Brazil, most of the others went to the Caribbean, and the remaining 400,000 were brought to what today is the United States. By 1860, nearly 4 million men, women and children were enslaved in the United States.
Province II is particularly suited to offer these reflections because it is “multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual,” the Rev. Yamily Bass-Choate, who chaired the task force that helped produce the series, told ENS. It “brings a rich flavor of diversity,” including the five languages that are spoken in the province. Bass-Choate serves as the liaison for global mission for the Diocese of New York.
The first step in dealing with this legacy of pain and suffering is repentance, Duncan-Probe said, and for people of faith, change begins through prayer and liturgy. Using the form of the Way of the Cross will allow participants to “be part of the ongoing journey of Jesus both to the cross and then through resurrection,” she said.
But, she acknowledged, “there are profound, incomprehensible wounds that can never be healed through a liturgy.” This Lenten offering isn’t sufficient for that, she said, “but we have to start somewhere, with a faithful step, and continue.”
Duncan-Probe said she hopes that using these prayers and lamentations to seek God’s forgiveness for “our continued participation in an inhuman system” will be useful to others, too. Neva Rae Fox, provincial coordinator, told ENS that the service can serve “as a Lenten resource for private reflection and congregational discussion and as a teaching tool” for people across The Episcopal Church.
Technological assistance for the series was provided by Rachel Ravellette, communications director of the Diocese of Central New York, and Steve Welch, canon for communications of the Diocese of New Jersey. All but one set of reflections will be pre-recorded, and after Lent, all of them will be combined into one video for future use.
–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.