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Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Know your history... because it knows you!

One wouldn't think that a blog dedicated to the arts, culture and religion would be interested in U.S. History, but nothing could be further from the truth. History is the foundation of culture. Everything that we see and do and who we are, has its foundation in the past, whether we know it or not. This is why today's blog entry is entitled, “Know Your History... Because It Knows You”. We are formed by our history.

Now, you may wonder, “What has U.S. History got to do with me?” Especially if your family recently immigrated to this country or if you are unaware of any personal historical connections. Well, it has a lot to do with you. Speaking personally, I wasn't aware of any historical connections between my family and the history of this nation, except for the fact that a portion of my ancestors where slaves in the south. For a long time, I believed that was the only connection. I've recently come to find out that this is not true.

I was born in Chicago, Illinois in the late sixties, to parents who are 0 and 1 generation removed from the south. My mother was born in Chicago, but her mother was born in Columbus, Georgia and my father was born in Talladega, Alabama and moved to Chicago when he was 17. These facts were known to me for most of my life, however, I didn't realize how Chicago, the place of my birth, factored so prominently in my southern ancestry and would alter my future in California. I had to move back to Chicago in order to find the connection.

December 24, 2000, my mother and I started a church called, Agape Love Fellowship International Church in Hyde Park, a community in South Los Angeles. My mother was pastor (and still is) and I was support staff and “Jane of all trades”. We rented from and shared facilities with Hyde Park Congregational Church, a now defunct member of the Congregational Church, a denomination who is deeply rooted in American Abolitionist History and this is where my past and present began to connect.

We shared facilities with Hyde Park Congregational Church from Christmas eve, 2000 to November 2006 when the property was bought by another church. During our tenure there, I was fortunate enough to develop a relationship with its pastor, Pastor Kringle, read some congregational materials and really develop a relationship with the church. Now you might ask, “how does one develop a relationship with a church?”, and I do mean “the church”. My connection with Hyde Park Congregational was deeper than just my fondness for Pastor Kringle or the building. The church became a second home for me. Sometimes more of a home then where I was actually living. I spent many hours there, reading, in communal prayer, on the altar singing praise or alone just talking to God. The church seemed to embrace me at a time when I really needed to feel like I belonged somewhere. I knew as soon as I walked into the sanctuary, that I belonged there. When the building was sold, I was devastated and I missed the altar terribly. We were not able to find another facility to have services and Agape wound up having services at different members homes and the park for over a year; however I left Agape Love Fellowship International Church December 25, 2006, exactly six years after our first service.

December 25, 2006 began a year of exploration and movement for me. On that day, my mother became ill, and I knew it was something more serious than a cold. I knew that I had to step away from Agape, and venture out on my own, for my own benefit as well as for my mother's and that's exactly what I did. The first six months of 2007, I hopscotched from job to job, from Los Angeles to Chicago, from ministry to teaching. But before I left Los Angeles, I met someone whose family history would connect with the history of this nation, with abolitionism, inadvertently with congregationalism and to some degree, with my history and what I would experience in Chicago.

I met Danielle Crothers January or February of 2007. She was the girlfriend of my friend's son. While having a chance conversation with her boyfriend, I discovered that she was the descendent of Abolitionist, John Brown. For those of you who don't know, John Brown led a small band of abolitionists, black and white, who attacked an arsenal at Harper's Ferry in the state of Maryland on October 17, 1859. Brown and his band of men, waged war against the institution of slavery and the attack on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry was just the first of many battles the group planned. One might call it the first unofficial battle of the civil war.

Danielle Crothers,
Descendent of John Brown
John Brown,
Led raid on arsenal at 
Harper's Ferry, 1859

At the time of my meeting with Danielle, I simply thought, “How cool! It must be nice to know that your related to someone who fought and gave his life to a cause that drastically changed this nation.” I didn't immediately make the connection between Brown and congregationalism, but the information stayed in the back of my mind.

June 14, 2007, after arriving at work about an hour early, I was sitting in the roof-top garden of the highrise I worked in, and while dreading the thought of going in and crying uncontrollably, I had an epiphany. I didn't have to go in, or stay at that job, or for that matter stay in California. I picked up my cell, called my father and booked a flight and a rental car. By 2:30 that afternoon, I was on a plane to Chicago.

Once I landed in Chicago, it seemed as if the city was happy to see me. I picked up the rental car, and drove all night. I hadn't lived in Chicago since I was twelve, and hadn't visited in twelve years, yet I immediately knew my way around. I stopped at Michael's North, a diner that used to be on the corner of Clark and North Ave., and was greeted by a friendly, quirky wait staff, and a sign posted over the register that read, “I know my thoughts towards you , of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This quote from the book of Jeremiah, really resonated with me. To me, it meant I was on the right path. God confirming that my seemingly impulsive move was in fact me being lead, back to the city of my birth.

My time in Chicago was a real education. I call it Jesus Univ., because it seemed everywhere I went, I learned something about my history, the city's history or Illinois' role in this nation's history, specifically, the Civil War. While preparing reading lessons for my students, I found papers written on the abolitionist movement in Illinois. While attending a classical concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, I stumbled upon a photo of the First Baptist Congregational Church of Chicago, which was formally the First Congregational Church of Chicago, a stop on the Underground Railroad. While doing some personal research at the Chicago History Museum, I stumbled upon The Manual of the First Congregational Church of Chicago which was written in the 1870's. This document included the original statement of faith for the Chicago church and the scriptural foundation for the churches beliefs and structure.  About a year later, while doing some genealogical research at the Newberry Library, I stumbled upon the pastor's sermon at the Quarter Centennial of the First Congregational Church of Chicago which was celebrated May 21st and 22nd, 1876. This document, along with the manual, were absolutely earth shattering for me. Pastor Goodwin's sermon gave me goose bumps as I read it because he was speaking of things and recounting experiences that he had over a 130 years ago but were almost identical to what I had experienced at the Hyde Park Congregational facility in Los Angeles and teaching on the west-side of Chicago, just a few blocks from where the First Congregational building still stands. Pastor Goodwin's sermon recounts how a committee from First Congregational Church of Chicago had been instrumental in counseling President Lincoln before he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. And all of these events took place during the celebration of Lincoln's Bicentennial.

These events and others, coupled with the social changes I began to see in Chicago and had seen in L.A. before I left, caused me to think about the significance of having met Danielle in 2007. Was there a connection between who she was related to, the church I had grown to love and my “accidental” findings in Chicago? Was there any significance in the timing of our meeting, my move to Chicago and Lincoln's Bicentennial, or was it all just coincidence? Personally, I don't think so. The last three years, 2008 through 2010, were some of the most socially, economically and politically volatile in our nation's history. We've had culture wars, military wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economic collapse, the rise of the Tea Party and our first African American President, who just happened to be from the Land of Lincoln, Illinois. We've had the rise of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and a myriad of other opinion Journalist more interested in agitating the masses than educating them by communicating unbiased facts. We've had controversies within the Christian Right and conflict between those who believe and those who don't.

Each of these factions believe their rights are more important that any other, and have stooped to the most base communication and behavior. If ever there was a time for those who have fought the hardest and given the most to speak to from the past, to remind us of their sacrifice, and to warn us of what could be in our future if we don't adjust our course, it's now. As a descendent of former slaves, born in the “Land of Lincoln” and connected by association the Congregational Church, I feel a special responsibility to be aware and diligent in protecting the liberties that were bought and paid for with the blood of those who came before me. Black and white, men and women, young and old, saints and sinners, have given all for the rights I enjoy. So maybe, the chance meeting of two descendents, the seed of the Abolitionist and the seed of the slave, was the universe's way of saying, “Remember where you come from, who you come from and what we were willing to give so that you might exist. Remember what we fought for, and don't let our sacrifice be in vain. Remember the unity and brotherhood we enjoyed and be emissaries of that brotherhood in your time. Know your history, because we knows... and love you.”

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