A tree of remembering

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

It was about 4 a.m. when the Reverend’s phone buzzed with a message from far away. He read it once, twice, three times before he woke his sleeping wife to tell her the news. “I’m a prince,” he whispered as she blinked herself awake. “A prince.”

I first heard about him on the radio, and then read some more in the Washington Post.

Jay Speights from Rockville, MD, 66 years old, had spent much of his life wondering about his forebears, probing public records until the trail went cold. Like many black Americans who are descendants of slaves, Speights could find little written evidence of his family’s history. In April last year, he turned to a DNA test from Ancestry in the hope that something, somewhere might turn up.

He learned that he was the distant cousin of a man named Houanlokonon Deka — a descendant of a royal line in Benin, a small nation, just west of Nigeria, that once housed West Africa’s biggest slave port. Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, Speights is grappling with his newfound identity as the descendant of slaves and the African kings who put them in chains. The king from whom Speights is probably descended was one of several who captured and sold slaves — typically members of rival tribes or captives of war — to European merchants, who then loaded them onto ships bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

Speights said the more he learned, the more questions he had. Eventually he got the phone number of the king of Allada, a state in central Benin and the historical home of the Allada kingdom, and he called. The king didn’t speak English, only French, but the queen did. She asked Speights to see photos of his parents and grandparents. She inquired about his motivations — what did he want from them?

His response was simple: Answers.

“You are a descendant of King Deka, 9th King of Allada who ruled from 1746 to 1765,” she wrote in a message over WhatsApp. “We will be delighted to welcome you to your home, dear Prince.”

Last month, Speights traveled to Benin. The family pictures he had sent to the queen were plastered on big blue posters hung throughout the airport. “Welcome to the kingdom of Allada, land of your ancestors,” the posters said in French. As he stepped outside, Speights said, he saw what looked like a festival, hundreds of people dancing and playing instruments and singing. It took him several minutes to realize it was a welcome party — for him. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” Speights said. “I thought I was going to go, hang out with the family, do some sightseeing. But this was something else.”

He spent the next week in what he calls “prince school,” learning local customs and visiting various sites and dignitaries. He was enthroned by the king, given white lace robes to signal he is a holy man, and several crowns. At night, an armed guard kept watch outside his hotel door. During the day, local journalists followed him around with cameras.

Speights said his relatives in Benin told him members of the royal family would not have sold their own people to slave merchants, but they could not explain how his ancestors wound up aboard a slave ship.

“No matter who did what, we all ended up the same way,” he said. “In chains.”

In Benin, a tree once stood near the city’s historic slave port from which more than a million people were shipped to the Americas. Before they departed, West African men and women would walk around the trunk up to nine times to shed the life they were leaving behind and accept the bondage into which they had been sold. It was called the “tree of forgetting.” Now Speights is walking around the tree in reverse, as it were, piecing together his story, thinking about his father, who died never knowing the truth of his family’s history; thinking about his grandfather, who grew up in the segregated South; thinking about his ancestors, who were chained and beaten, carried to a foreign place and sold as property.

“I thought about how much they survived — and what it means for me to return to this place, to restore our family,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that felt like in my heart. … This was the most beautiful thing I have ever done. I am the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of a family who was involved in the slave trade. And I’m just starting to make sense of that.”

Before he left Benin, Speights said, the king gave him a new name: Videkon Deka.

It means the child who came back.[1]

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab, near Jericho, across the Jordan. There Moses, who would never enter the promised land, recited one last time the commandments of God for them to observe as God’s covenant people.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.[2]

They had been slaves and wilderness wanderers, but soon they would possess the land and settle in it, and the big question was, would they remember who and whose they were? Moses taught them rituals of remembrance, actions to observe and words to recite – he planted a “tree of remembering” for them to walk around, as it were, again and again, in order not to forget.

Three times in the first three verses of today’s reading the word ‘to give’ is heard, like a mantra:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

And then you put down your basket and tell your story, not because the priest needs to hear it, but because you need to remember it:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

It’s a story of hardship and deliverance. The ritual of offering and story is a tree of remembering, so Israel, plump from milk and honey, wheat and barley, oil and wine, wouldn’t forget the faithful Giver who made covenant with them in the wilderness.

The forty days we started counting on Wednesday echo the forty years. We’re invited to join Jesus in the wilderness, on the edge of the settled land, and like him, to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness and beyond, to the city whose architect and builder is God. We’re invited to forty days of intentional wilderness time in the company of Jesus, forty days of slightly unsettled lives, in order to remember that we are still on the way. It is good for us to be in his company, because, unlike us, he doesn’t forget that he is God’s beloved child and, unlike us, he refuses to listen to the voices whispering of other, more convenient, ways and sowing doubt.

The teachings of Moses come with concern for the particular danger of life in the land of milk and honey – “the danger that when the sojourners settle, they will settle for something less than the vision of hope for liberation and justice that sent them forth in the first place,” Heidi Neumark wrote. “It proved to be a valid concern: those who entered the land did eventually settle … as possessors who overlooked the dispossessed and disconnected.”[3]

There’s that moment when the citizens forget that their ancestors were wandering Arameans, aliens in Egypt, sojourners in the wilderness, refugees from political oppression and economic exploitation, from violence and war, driven by hunger for bread and freedom and home. There’s that moment when the new arrivals in the city of refuge start talking about closing the gates.

The forty days are a tree of remembering for us. We are a people on the way, in the company of Jesus, with all who long for liberation and justice and home. The final lines in today’s passage from Deuteronomy speak of a feast:

You shall set [the basket of firstfruits] down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the [landless] Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

We are invited to forty days of wilderness time to remember that we must not settle for less than celebrating the gift of God’s bounty together with all the wanderers and aliens; together with all who’ve been told by their neighbors or even their families that they don’t belong; all who’ve been told they’re too old or not old enough; all who’ve been driven onto slavers’ ships like cattle and those who have captured, sold, and driven them.

We must not settle for less than the whole story, that is, all our broken stories made whole by the loyal love of God. We must not settle for less than the welcome table where Jesus is the host.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/im-a-prince-after-years-of-searching-for-family-history-a-pastor-discovers-royal-ties-to-africa/2019/02/21/47238d0a-316e-11e9-86ab-5d02109aeb01_story.html?utm_term=.7efba443f222

[2] Deuteronomy 8:2

[3] “Aliens Welcome,” The Christian Century 124, no. 3 (February 6, 2007), 17.

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