My monastery weekend was about American slavery. I attended the Coming to the Table national gathering at Richmond Hill, a monastery and ecumenical retreat focused on prayer, healing and reconciliation. All of us in attendance were connected through slavery–descendants of slaves and slave owners. Descendants of America’s founders, including Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were fully present.
The idea of a gathering and monastery presented two opposing concepts to my mind. We were there to talk and be silent about a heavy topic–the legacy and aftermath of slavery. We did talk a lot. But we also had many moments of silence. The sound of bells rang out five times a day signaling everyone to stop and meditate. It became joyfully refreshing to take breaks for daily meditation. No reading, talking, working. We were encouraged to take meditative walks, sit in the garden, chapel. Phones, mobile devices were rarely seen!
There is something to say about place, time and ancestral spirits. This was my first trip to Richmond, known as the seat of the American Confederacy. There were huge monuments everywhere. I thought that I could feel the devil and angels there. I experienced a similar sensation while attending a Cherokee New Moon ceremony in upstate New york. The wind blew wildly, birds screeched and flew crazily and then everything stopped. No wind. No sound. Nothing.
I didn’t expect my own tears at the healing ceremony by the river. The river looked rather plain and unforboding. We held hands in a huge circle. Each of us took turns to call out our ancestor’s names, pour libation and chant ‘Ashe!’ Four of us were moved to the circle’s center because we had a descendent who was lynched or had been a lyncher. I was among this group. I called out my uncle’s name and the names of other family members touched by slavery. A Rhode Island participant, whose family made a fortune from slavery, fervently called out her ancestors by name. “I know what you did. If you have a soul, I call you out!” Tears flowed throughout the afternoon as we chanted ‘Ashe!’ for each other. It was an amazing and powerful experience to be standing with 70 very diverse people who all long to heal our nation’s ‘hidden’ wounds.
We could visualize slaves ‘sold down the river.’ Our host told us that this was the place where that phrase ‘sold down the river’ was derived. He showed us the place where the largest slave trading post existed outside of New Orleans. He also pointed to a ‘slave jail’ building used for unsold slaves. As we walked the cobblestone streets, we passed St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech:“Give me liberty or give me death!” We also passed a school building that was the site of Adam-Van Lew House, a Unionist underground site where two women, one White, the other Black, who performed some amazing espionage work that won the war, according to legend.
It was an amazing weekend of friendship, dialogue, hugs, laughter, tears, walks, shared meals, prayer, healing and meditation. Hearing a heart-felt apology for slavery from a participant brought tears to many. On our last night together, we had a talent show. I got to play a 7-year-old-girl in a play called ‘Southern Girls,’ by Sheri Bailey and Dura Temple.