August 21, 2006

What God Do You Worship?
By Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn

On our trip to Ghana last month, we were able to visit the Elmina Castle. Originally a fort built by the Portuguese for the purpose of protecting their profitable trade routes, eventually it was used for the most lucrative cargo of all—the slave trade. This fort passed into Dutch control, and finally into British hands until Ghana’s independence in 1957.

The Elmina Castle is one of two or three posts on the West coast of Africa through which the bulk of slaves were processed. Of the 60,000,000 slaves who were captured, only 20,000,000 of them made it to their destinations in North and South America and Europe, two thirds dying as a result of the brutal treatment they received.

It was difficult to tour this place of extreme misery. The first thing that hit me was the smell. Although built on the coast, once inside the castle the air is hot and close—any refreshing breeze is completely blocked out by the thick walls and very small window openings. And the smell is very noticeable. Our guide made the point that the filth of human waste in which slaves were left for months at a time, had seeped into the very stones of the building.

The brutality that the slaves endured was described in detail. We were temporarily closed in the “death room,â€? where trouble-making slaves were sent, 30 at a time, to die from dehydration and starvation. We saw the “room of no returnâ€? from which the slaves stepped foot on a boat, never to return to their native land. All of this was very difficult to bear.

I knew a lot of this history before touring the castle. Seeing it, hearing it on site made it all the more vivid. But the thing that hit me like a ton of bricks was the mention, over and over again, of God.

â—? Missionaries and priests lived in the second story of the castle, just above the human suffering below.

â—? One governor is buried in the courtyard. His gravestone emphasizes that he was a good, Christian man.

â—? The Portuguese built the first Catholic Church in West Africa, right off the courtyard. Not having a great need for slaves in Portugal at the start of the slave trade, they did find two uses for them: they trained their slaves to be used in the courts and also to become missionaries.

â—? The Dutch, not willing to meet in a Catholic Church, built their own chapel on the second floor. Over the door they inscribed Psalm 132:14: “This is my resting place forever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.â€? The guide, when he translated the inscription said, “Apparently, God lived in this room alone; they didn’t let him out.â€?

What God were these people worshiping? I am not able to reconcile the fact that the people, who on the one hand, perpetuated such injustice against humanity were, on the other hand, calling upon my God. I’m bothered because this treatment of God is not relegated to the distant past. This is still a modern problem as people “in the name of Godâ€? act in ways that are fundamentally different to my understanding of Scripture. And what about me? Do I have a preconceived notion about God derived from my culture that promotes a caricature of the true God?

This week I read a book which helped me identify a beginning step for all of us who are likewise bothered: The Heart of Racial Justice, by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson. This book was written by a Caucasian and an African American who have worked in the trenches of racial reconciliation for many long years. They suggest that the first step towards racial reconciliation is worship, for it is in worship that “we encounter God’s presence and power to melt our hearts and create a new possibility for being healed, reconciled and re-created.â€?

It was in worship that Isaiah saw the Holy God, high and lifted up. The temple was filled with his glory, and Isaiah could do nothing but to fall on his face, and exclaim, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.â€? Worship always compels us towards confession and repentance.

McNeil and Richardson write: “Whenever we truly see God for who God is, the light of his glory causes us to look more closely at ourselves and take a more careful inventory of our life. It is almost as if the glory of God functions like a searchlight or a spotlight that helps us to see things about our people group and ourselves that we hadn’t seen or acknowledged before.â€?

In worship we cannot coerce God into our way of thinking and being. True worship is a movement away from self, away from one’s own world-view, away from “the way things are,â€? and into the presence of God who is always “Other.â€? In humbleness, the worshiper opens her/himself to who God really is.

“Imagine how practicing the presence of God could transform our quest for ethnic healing and racial reconciliation! The ‘wild animals’ of racial superiority, judgment, woundedness, hatred and rage would all be accessible to the melting, piercing presence of God. That quieter, stronger life could get at the right parts of us. That higher perspective could become our perspective. And all this becomes possible as we worship the Holy Spirit—God’s transforming presence with us and within us.â€?

As one leaves Elmina Castle, this inscription catches the eye: “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace; may those who return find their roots; may humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this.â€? My own inscription would add something like this: “May we not only learn the lessons of the past, but also go beyond them. May we truly, deeply learn to worship in a way that convicts us and moves us beyond where we are today. May we truly practice God’s presence.â€?