As many of you know, I grew up not too far from a Slave Fort in my native Ghana. The fort was such an imposing structure and was one of the biggest buildings in the area. However, I didn’t know much about the history of the fort. All I knew, and what most people knew, was that it was a lighthouse.
In my late teens, my mother - who loved to read - brought home a book, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. After reading the book, my mother passed it on to my brother and me, and highly encouraged us to read it. We took turns to do so, but I must admit that the wrenching stories and struggles that Booker Washington endured didn’t have as much impact on me at the time. Much as I was fascinated by his improbable story, which was the story of millions of African Americans, it was all totally foreign to me.
It wasn’t until I relocated to Atlanta, experienced some of the struggles of African Americans myself, heard about Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights activists, read books, and saw movies that the African American story began to resonate and make sense to me.
Some of the stories that I heard were so atrocious and dehumanizing that I always wondered why one human being felt compelled to treat another in the way millions of African Americans were treated, and are still being treated.
It is interesting that all these experiences led the African American to look beyond their present lives for the comfort that none can offer but God. They interpreted their present life in its most temporal and impermanent form, for that was the surest way of looking toward the permanent life, that one life which was beyond the control of their ‘masters.’ The African American saw death not as the end of the human story but as a moment of refreshment in God, a moment of being at peace, a moment of no unpaid labor, no whipping, no beatings, no discrimination, no work, no rationing of food, no struggle... just peace at home. The peace which surpasses human understanding, which only God can offer.
It is for this reason that African Americans were able to build within themselves such strength of conviction and faith, not only in the God of his/her oppressor but in the God that loved equally, the God who loved both the oppressor and the oppressed and always yearned for a relationship with both. Remember this - it is through God’s transformative relationship in love that human hearts are turned towards one another and not to self.
As a kid, I remember singing:
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home.
As an adult, I heard and sang for the first time:
Steal away, steal away,
Steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home!
I ain’t got long to stay here.
These two Negro Spirituals tell of the deep longing of the Slave whose precarious situation was such that death was a preferred option. With nothing but faith in God, these spirituals capture what life on the other side meant for the African American - a home. God’s home.
Here’s a story for you: a sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room, and said, “Doctor, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.”
Very quietly, the doctor said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You, a Christian man, do not know what is on the other side?”
The doctor was holding the handle of the door; on the other side came a sound of scratching and whining, and as he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room with his tail wagging and an eager show of gladness.
Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you notice my dog? He’s never been in this room before. He didn’t know what was inside… He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened, he sprang in without fear. I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Master is there and that is enough.”
Ever wonder why faith was such a crucial part of the African American tapestry? That, in spite of all that they endured they still had faith in God. They believed that the Master was with them, and that was enough. They believed in the Master, and that was more than enough. Do you also believe in that same Master who is Lord of this life and the other side of life? Do you believe in the Master’s transformative love as being more than enough?
We may not know what the other side of life is about, but in all our trials, may we also know that the Master not only awaits us but is with us. And that to me, is more than enough.
You can read more about the history behind Steal Away to Jesus here.