400th anniversary special report: Don't miss Adelle Banks' must-read RNS series on slavery and religion

I’ve been in Southern California for nearly a week, mixing a bit a reporting with time on the beach. Tonight, my son Keaton and I plan to join a minister friend for a game at Dodger Stadium.

Relaxing in the sand Saturday as the tide washed in and out, I listened to classic country music and avoided checking my social media feeds every few minutes as I typically do.

That meant that I didn’t find out later until the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Of course, by the time I woke up for church Sunday morning, there had been another mass shooting — this one in Dayton, Ohio.

The preacher at the congregation I visited took time to lament the carnage in Texas and Ohio. The minister also mentioned another mass shooting that happened the previous Sunday in Gilroy, Calif., not far from here.

I have not tweeted or posted on Facebook about this weekend’s shootings. I don’t feel like I have anything to add to those on the left who immediately want to make it about guns and those on the right who immediately want to make it not about guns and those in the middle who immediately want to lecture those on the left and the right not to make it about guns or not about guns. As a journalist, I have covered so many mass shootings and other kinds of terrorist attacks over the years that I feel like I have lost the ability to devote much emotional energy at all to the latest round of headlines.

Anyway, we try at GetReligion to offer timely comment and analysis of the faith angle in major news developments. Granted, as I mentioned earlier, I haven’t been glued to the news as I ordinarily would since I am on semi-vacation. But in my quick Googling, I didn’t find a whole lot of directly faith-related angles to the shootings. In many cases, there would be a lot “Sunday after” the shooting coverage on which to comment. But both these tragedies happened so close to Sunday that journalists are still focused on the initial reporting of who, what, when, when, how and the crucial why.

So, after that extremely long-winded explanation of why I’m not going to write about shooting coverage, let me instead urge you to read a compelling series by Religion News Service’s Adelle M. Banks. The series, as RNS notes, focuses on slavery and religion “as Americans commemorate the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia.”

Banks’ datelines in this special project include:

Jamestown, Va.: Angela, a First African, tells her story in Jamestown, but her faith is a mystery

JAMESTOWN, Va. (RNS) — Wearing a yellow headwrap, gray skirt and soiled apron, a woman who says she is “called by the name of Angela” stood by the James River and told her story, one of faith and courage, darkness and hope.

“Every day, I rise,” said interpreter Valarie Holmes in late March on her first day portraying an enslaved woman forcibly brought to Virginia 400 years ago. “And then I ask: ‘Great Spirit, speak to me and give order to my thoughts, my words, my hands, my feet this day.’”

A group of dozens of visitors to Historic Jamestowne, the preserved site of the first permanent English settlement in the U.S., listened on the windswept banks of the river as Holmes spoke, including snippets of faith in her story.

The presentation is just one of many ways Americans are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “taken people,” as Holmes calls the first documented Africans who arrived against their will in Virginia.

About 12.5 million Africans were transported and sold during the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries. More than 300,000 were shipped to the U.S., historians estimate. The 1860 U.S. Census recorded a U.S. slave population of close to 4 million. The Emancipation Proclamation officially freed some Southern slaves in 1863 but many blacks remained enslaved until 1865.

Montgomery, Ala.: Montgomery, Ala., churches part of city’s 200-year history of slavery, civil rights

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (RNS) — Connections between Christianity, Confederacy and civil rights — and the history of slavery — are in plain sight here in Alabama’s capital.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is known for its most famous pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but one of its early locations was once a slave pen.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Confederacy President Jefferson Davis worshipped, is across the street from the building where Rosa Parks was tried after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

And just beyond downtown, Old Ship African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a congregation that dates to before the end of slavery, sits across the street from the memorial that opened in 2018 to remember more than 4,400 lynching victims.

As the nation marks the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of Africans in Virginia — and Alabama has its bicentennial — a walk through Montgomery’s streets reveals the legacy of slavery in America.

New York City: From New York to Alabama, blacks worshipped in own spaces before slavery’s end

NEW YORK (RNS) — On a narrow street in Harlem sits the oldest black church in New York state, one of many black congregations that developed in the decades before slavery ended nationwide and that worked for its abolition.

“Mother AME Zion Church is without question, insofar as New York City is concerned,” says its new pastor, the Rev. Malcolm Byrd, “the grand depot of the Underground Railroad.”

As the nation marks the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of Africans in Virginia — and New York notes the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance — this “Freedom Church” joins others that have represented the enduring faith of slaves, free blacks and their descendants. Historians say the total number is hard to determine but there were likely more than 100 black churches in existence before the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery.

A who’s who of black history figures worshipped and spoke at Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church — including abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth — when it was at earlier locations after its founding in 1796 or at its current neo-Gothic site on 137th Street in Harlem.

As usual with Banks’ exceptional journalism, there’s not much to say except: Read it. Each story in the series is informative and compelling. Both the idea and the execution for the project deserve kudos.

Read it all.

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