By Julie Pennington-Russell
On a frigid Saturday morning in February, some fifty women, men and children from First Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C., where I serve as pastor, and from Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Darryl Roberts—two congregations with more than 200 years of shared history in our nation’s capital, much of it marked by racial injustice and separation—came together at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This was not the first time our two churches had gathered together on the National Mall. On August 12, 2018, the one-year anniversary of the white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, First Baptist and Nineteenth Street, with the help and support of the New Baptist Covenant, took a first step together in the long work of repentance, repair and restoration through a shared prayer walk and communion service at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial. Now, six months later, we were gathering again.
This was my first visit to the NMAAHC. Even before entering the distinctive, bronze edifice designed to resemble a tiered Yoruban crown, I could feel tears beginning to form. Like the United States Holocaust Museum just blocks away, the African American museum is a repository of stories, many of them horrific. Our host, guide and lecturer that morning was the Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton, Director of the Museum’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and the Supervisory Curator of Religion. Dr. Braxton gave our group the considerable gift of entering a full two hours before the museum opened to the public.
We formed a large circle in the spacious lobby. Addressing the group from the center of the circle, Dr. Braxton gave a brief orientation before inviting us to descend to the historical galleries below. “Let the museum have its way with you,” he said. “Let it affect you not just cognitively, but also emotionally and spiritually.” The tour began in The Contemplative Court, a hallowed place within the museum. A cylindrical fountain rains into a pool in the center of the room, coming from a skylight above. "Pay attention to the water," Dr. Braxton said as we entered. It seemed to me as though the room itself was weeping. Some sat quietly and prayed as the water poured down. Others sang softly. Some, myself included, wept openly.
As I slowly made my way through the historical gallery called “Slavery and Freedom,” I thought of that stark declaration at the end of Norman McLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. It echoed again and again in my mind and heart: “I am haunted by waters.”
“I am haunted by the waters in which “Christian” enslavers baptized Africans before transporting them to the Americas.
“I’m haunted by the waters along the west coast of Africa in which enslaved men and women drowned themselves rather than board the slave ships, and by the marshy waters of Georgia in which still more enslaved Africans drowned themselves upon arriving in America.
“I am haunted by the dark waters of the Atlantic through which nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas along the infamous “Middle Passage.”
I am haunted by these appalling realities. And yet, mere feelings of hauntedness change nothing. When faced with the great evil of white supremacy embedded in the story of America, traditionally-white congregations can become stuck in feelings of shame and/or devastation at the scope of the sin. The gift that New Baptist Covenant has brought to our congregation, a gift for which I am deeply grateful, is an invitation to become unstuck. An invitation to refuse to remain merely haunted and, instead, to lean into actions that make for repair and restoration.
To experience the transformative power of vulnerable, redemptive relationships and forward-looking partnerships with brothers and sisters who have faced (and continue to face) injustice and oppression in the daily structures of American life. Thanks to the profound work of New Baptist Covenant, though I remain haunted, I also am hopeful.