From Carolina to Igboland, healing the wounds of slavery

Each human person, made in God’s image and called to his family, is given an ineffable dignity which calls for and merits respect. This dignity is neither given nor can it be taken away by any human authority. Based upon this essential identity, the person has certain “inalienable rights” which must be seen and considered in the public forum and by all people.

Historically, slavery was a “peculiar institution,” and it is still posed as a difficult institution to hear about and discuss. While it is clear, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, that “it is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights,” (2414) it must also be noted that it was a harsh reality in the Western Hemisphere until 1888 and the United States and South Carolina until 1865.

Although numbers are debated, historians generally agree, that between the years 1650-1900, approximately 12 million slaves were taken across the infamous Middle Passage of the Atlantic Ocean, about 500,000 charted for British North America and the United States; over two-thirds were from West Africa and some 14 percent were from the Blight of Biafra. Within this Biafra is Igboland, in modern-day Nigeria, the home of the Igbo people.

The Igbo were the Biafra people who came to the southeastern United States, where their story lives on.  St. Simon’s Island in northeastern Georgia has an area known as Ebo Landing, with the telling story of a group of Igbo who committed mass suicide rather than be enslaved. The locals on the island still speak of a transcendental “ghostly” presence of the Igbo to this day. In the Lowcountry, one can hear the Gullah tongue, known as the “slave language,” containing vocabulary and linguistic association with the Igbo language. This and other cultural traits, particularly the arts, are both an enduring inheritance in the southeast of a noble and proud people that chose, in their forced yet new home, to bring good from evil, and also as a constant signpost and reminder of this historical violence to human dignity and its perpetual scar.

Slavery stands as a tragic element in the history of the United States and of South Carolina. The present bishop of South Carolina, using his apostolic ministry, has called attention to this history and to its spiritual wounds and residual resentment, guilt, shame and anger, which often breed racism and produce intolerance in the hearts and minds of people. Bishop Robert J. Baker has asked for forgiveness from God and offered a formal apology to the African-American people of South Carolina for the sin of slavery by the members (and ministers) of the Catholic Church.

The Office of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Charleston has organized various functions and displays to foster awareness of this story and promote appreciation for the rich and hard-earned presence and tradition of black Catholics in the diocese. At the Black Catholic Heritage Festival last June, Archbishop Anthony Obinna, a member of the Igbo people and archbishop of Owerri in Igboland, was the main speaker. Held on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, the archbishop used eucharistic imagery and called on everyone to respect the dignity of each human person and to see in the crucified Christ the one who restored (and restores) their value and worth as children of God, as a “sign and pledge of their victory over their own suffering and misery.”

Recently, I visited Archbishop Obinna and the distinctive people of Igboland. During Christmas break in the seminary, I spent about a week in Nigeria. I saw the hospital, nursing and mid-wifery school, the parishes, schools and seminary of Owerri. I spent time in the villages and talked with an academic professor, a federal minister, the family of a tribal chieftan, and the priests and people of the archdiocese.

On Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the archbishop asked me to read the second reading at Mass in the Assumpta Cathedral. Though nervous, since most of the Mass was   in the Igbo language, I approached the ambo and was surprised and emotionally moved to have Galatians 4:4-7 as the proclaimed text. The cathedral was full of ornately decorated, colorfully dressed and beautiful Igbo people listening to me with my American-accented English read this lesson.

There I stood, the son of a country and state, so far from that place, which once enslaved this Igbo people, a people with whom I now worshiped, announcing to myself and to them, to my own spiritual healing and their encouragement, to the establishment of peace in all hearts, the saving truth of the Gospel, taught by St. Paul: “As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying out ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.”

It was a statement to all people of the Cross-earned emancipation from every sin, our own and our ancestor’s, from unjust laws and oppressive governments. It was a declaration not for the building up of a utopia but for the recapitulation of all things in Jesus Christ; a relational claim by God based on love and freedom to all humanity.

The reading was followed by the Alleluia acclamation of Hebrews 1:1, which spoke of “our fathers” and of “his son” and further emphasized the universal salvation offered to each person and the desired unity of all people, what the archbishop would call the “in-Christment” of mankind.

I bid farewell to Nigeria on the Epiphany, itself symbolic of God’s invitation and summons to humanity to accept his incarnated love. The archbishop, in saying good-bye, told me that, on account of these experiences, I was departing from Nigeria “more Catholic than when I came.” Culturally he was right, socially he was right, but his comment cut to my very marrow because spiritually he was right.

There in West Africa, I came to a greater awareness of my own sonship in Christ and of the necessary catholicity of that call in my own heart and actions. The church became no longer an abstract idea, but a lived reality, not only a parish in South Carolina or a basilica in Rome, but also a village church in Nigeria, a shining star and enduring sign to all of the Crucified and Risen One, who came to bring back an estate which was confused, to restore a dignity which was lost and to heal an image which had been wounded. There I learned again that Christ came to show us the Father, to re-collect his scattered and broken family, to show us ourselves and our vocation in God and to make each of us a brother and sister to one another.

Although I left Nigeria, I pray that the land and the lessons it gave will never leave me.

Jeff Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.