A sermon delivered by guest preacher Ebony Adedayo at St. John the Evangelist’s Racial Reconciliation and Healing service in honor of Richard Allen.
Readings for this service: Psalm 136:1, 2, 10-16 and Ex. 6:1-11.
What does it mean to fight for freedom? What does it mean to struggle against oppression? For Black people, descendants of Africans who were enslaved, that struggle for freedom has often coincided with our faith in something bigger than ourselves, our faith in the Divine creator of the universe. Against all odds, we have relied on the power of the Divine to help pull us through no matter how bleak the situation we were in may have been. This isn’t a faith that was given to us, but one that we nurtured and deepened on the soil of our ancestral homes, and a faith that we carried with us as we were forcibly removed from those homes to be rendered enslaved beings, stripped of our names, stripped of our humanity, and denied the opportunity to serve God in the way that we had always done.
We hid our faith behind forms that were acceptable to the west and those who enslaved us, never putting away the forms of worship that our ancestors practiced but hiding them so we wouldn’t be further marginalized and killed. For the sake of expediency, and self preservation, we put away conjuring, divination, ancestral veneration, root work, denying the spiritual traditions of our ancestors, and took up the Bible, in many respects becoming more righteous and devout than those who used the Bible against us to justify slavery.
You see, we were smarter than those who enslaved us in the respect that we insisted on finding examples in the text that resonated with our experience as a means to find us out of that experience. We did not accept the narrative that had been placed upon us as destined to slavery because of the curse of Ham, nor did we adhere to texts that insisted we obey those who were oppressing us. Instead, a fierce spirit of resistance characterized our faith, with a heavy reliance on the example of the Israelities who we are told escaped slavery in Egypt by the hand and mercy of God.
It is that kind of faith, of deliverance from oppression, that undergirded the resistance of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other faithful Black congregants in 1787. These faithful few were deep in prayer at a predominately white congregation, when they were pulled off of their knees and told to go to the back of the church because they were a nuisance. Not only did they insist on finishing their prayer time, but then, they walked out of that church, refusing to be a part of a community that promoted segregation and restrictive worship any longer. Instead, that same year, they went on to form America’s first Black mutual aid society and then built the first Black independent church in this nation, which was called Bethel AME Church. In 1816, Allen brought leaders from other Black Methodist congregations to officially incorporate the Connectional African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination that is still going strong over 200 years later with connections not just in the United States, but Canada, India, and all over Africa. The reach and endurance of the denomination, inspired by Richard Allen’s legacy – a legacy that started in the midst of slavery – serves as a reminder that resistance is very much part and parcel to our faith experience, that we are called by God to resist oppression, resist racism, resist sexism, resist homophobia, and every other thing that denies we are made in the image and likeness of God. It’s that legacy, that fierceness, that undergirds the work of the AME today, that continues to march forward in spite of the violence that many congregations have endured since its inception. How else can a people continue to withstand in the face of terroristic attacks, such as the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME in 2015? The old spiritual continues to ring true,
“We’ve come this far by faith. Leaning on the Lord. Trusting in His Holy Word. He’s never failed me yet. Oh, oh, oh, can’t turn around. We’ve come this far, by faith.”
And then I consider the texts found in our scripture passages today from Psalms and Exodus, I am reminded of the narrative that undergirds liberation theology in the Black church, a narrative which draws on the story of the Israelities being freed from slavery in Egypt after 400 years of brutal servitude. We embody this story, likening it to our own because in it we see ourselves. We hope that as God remembered Israel after 400 years of oppression, that God would remember us in the same way. We have prayed and labored for it, with such vigor and intensity because we understand that without God’s intervention that we would suffer and die under the yoke of oppression.
Or have we? Are stories like these found in Exodus simply texts that we connect to inside of the biblical text to find inspiration in our time of need? Or does our God consciousness go deeper than what is written on these pages? I would assert that our God consciousness includes the text but is far more expansive than what it contains. I believe that Richard Allen had to know this, what would otherwise give him the tenacity to resist slavery and oppression? His consciousness had to run deeper than the Exodus narrative because the narrative forced him to dissociate from himself in order to find freedom. It had to run deeper than the Apostle’s Paul injunction in Ephesians 2 where he says that in Christ, there is no distinction between Greek or Jew, no slave or free, without ever challenging slavery and its power dynamics. Allen’s consciousness had to be far more expansive than the creation story which drew sharp distinctions between men and women, when women were not only critical to the establishment and governance of the AME church, but also held entire communities and families together in the midst of brutality of slavery.
So where did Richard Allen’s God consciousness come from? Again, I draw your attention to the myriad of ways that our ancestors engaged with the Divine presence prior to enslavement. I contend that we never lost that, even if the way that we engaged was not visible or conscious. I believe that the call, and responsibility for us today, is to find our way back to it. To name it. To embrace it. To realize that our legacy of resistance and overcoming oppression through centering our faith did not start on this soil when our ancestors professed belief in Jesus, but stretches all the way back to the birth of civilization in Africa as people began to name and call on the name of the Lord. That legacy is ours, it belongs to us. We don’t have to dissociate from it in order to be called holy and used by the Lord.
As we close, I end with these words, which I hope can serve as an inspiration for us to find our way back to the Divine and deepen the consciousness inside of us so that we too may struggle, persist for our liberation in the same way that Richard Allen did:
… you just got to find your way back
Big, big world, but you got it, baby
Find your way back, don’t let this life drive you crazy
Find your way back, come back home ‘fore the street lights on
Find your way back, find your way back
Ebony Adedayo is the founder of the Aya Collective, a space that centers the expertise and experience of Black women. In this work, she has gathered Black women around writing, education and training, and spiritual practice. In 2020, Ebony launched the Aya Collective’s first online writing cohort, Fragmented and Whole, as well as hosted a summer teach-in series, Talking Back which featured four Black women scholars and thinkers sharing their work as it pertains to identity, politics, culture, and spirituality. In 2021, Ebony hosted the Aya Collective’s #BlackWomenWriting series featuring 6 Black women authors with recently published work.
Ebony is also a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota in Curriculum and Instruction, with minors in Culture and Teaching and African American and African Studies. She holds a Master of Arts in Global and Contextual Studies from Bethel Seminary and a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral
Studies from North Central University. She is the author of the recently published books, The Gospel According to a Black Woman and Incomplete Stories: On Loss, Love, and Hope. Both books can be purchased at ayamediapublishingllc.com.
Richard Allen was born into slavery in 1760 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Allen, his parents, and his siblings were eventually sold to owner Stokely Sturgis, whose plantation was in Delaware. The Methodists were already active in Delaware, and Sturgis allowed Allen to attend church. At the age of 17, Richard underwent a classic conversion experience:
“I cried to the Lord both day and night,” Allen said. “All of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried.”
Allen brought members of the Methodist Church into his master’s home, where Sturgis heard a sermon by the great Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson. Sturgis was himself converted, and he allowed Allen to hire himself out and purchase his freedom; five years later, Richard Allen was a free man.
In 1786, Allen became a preacher at St. George’s United Methodist Church, but he was restricted to preaching at early morning services. Eventually, as black membership increased, the vestry decided to build a segregated section for black worshippers. Allen, along with his friend Absalom Jones, resented the segregation of his fellow black Christians, and in 1787, Allen and Jones led black worshippers out of St. George’s in protest. While Jones and many of those associated with him joined the Episcopal Church, Allen wanted to continue in his Methodist religion. He had been cooperating with Bishop Francis Asbury to spread Methodism among African Americans, and in 1794 he founded Bethel Church in Philadelphia. When the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church declared its independence, Allen became its first Bishop.
Throughout his life, Richard Allen remained an advocate of freedom for all people, even operating a station on the underground railroad for escaped slaves. His ardent belief in the brotherhood of all who belonged to Christ is best expressed in one of the many hymns he wrote:
Why do they then appear so mean
And why so much despised?
Because of their rich robes unseen
The world is not appriz’d.