On Thursday, we were up early again, in order to gather, load, and arrange boarding passes for nineteen pilgrims to fly from Tamale to Accra. Our departure time from the lovely Hotel Maryam was set for 6:45 am sharp; once again, all pilgrims made the bell.
At the airport, we waited – surely one of the features common to all travel. It is a feature common to all pilgrimages, too. When I set out on this journey, I knew I would learn more about patience, for patience is part of every pilgrimage. The destination is not the goal; the pilgrimage itself, the journey itself, is the goal. One does not get there without patience. Last Saturday, both my flights – from Atlanta and from New York—were delayed substantially. At JFK, my flight waited on the tarmac for almost two hours and almost turned around to cancel the entire flight. But I made it. Patience. My pilgrimage had begun.
So, on Thursday, we got our boarding passes in due time and proceeded through the security screening process. We knew from our earlier flight that the Ghanaian security process involves not only the typical x-ray machines for luggage and person, but also a brief but thorough hands-on frisking.
However, in spite of the awkward frisking, even the security agents in Ghana display an amazing politeness. I must say that I have never encountered a more courteous security staff than the one at Tamale airport. “Good morning,” smiled the man who would search me. “You’re welcome,” he continued, pre-emptively, “I’m glad you were here.” The woman who had informed me that I had to take off my shoes had the same manner.
Once I got through, I glanced back and worried that my colleague Gay Jennings was being delayed somehow. When she got through, I asked her if everything was alright. “Well,” she said, “when my bag went through, a buzzer went off and they asked if I had any metal inside.” “Metal?” she wondered.
Gay Jennings is President of the Episcopal House of Deputies, and she has been the leader and special guest on our trip. Just after she was elected, she instituted a special honor for persons who have shown distinguished service to the House of Deputies and the Episcopal Church: the House of Deputies Medal. She had brought several along on the trip, to give as gifts to our host bishops and others.
She didn’t have any “metal” except the metal in her “medals.” “Could this be the metal (medal) ?” she asked, and she held up the piece. She began to explain what they were. He held the medal and was curious. “Do you want one?” Gay continued, clearly being as pre-emptively courteous to the agents as they were to her. “Yes!” replied the agent happily, and he immediately placed the medal in his pocket. Gay walked on through, glad that she had brought some extra medals.
I am glad that that Tamale security agent possesses a House of Deputies Medal. I believe he has it, by God’s grace, on behalf of all the courteous Ghanaians we met. (By the way – breaking news flash! – the security agents at JFK terminal 4, where I arrived back the United States, were just as courteous as the Ghanaian agents! Hallelujah!)
Apparently, our Thursday flight also carried one of the local chiefs. As we were waiting in the boarding area, one of his attendants approached several of us and asked that we either sit down or move a bit away from the door, for no one was supposed to enter the door, that is to say, exit the door, on to the tarmac, before the chief. We obliged. The chief was wearing a beautiful customary smock; and draped over one shoulder, like a sort of ceremonial kente cloth, was a New England Patriots scarf.
Our intrepid organizer and protector, Vesta, might not agree that Ghanaians seemed pleasant today. She had had to take on another issue today, and they do arise. As always, Vesta succeeded, and we all got aboard the flight with seats. I would follow Vesta to Antarctica; she is the woman who gets things done.
Once back in Accra, we boarded another bus, and drove another three hours, down the coast to Cape Castle and Elmina. We had a lovely lunch at the Elmina Beach Resort Hotel; we would check into our rooms later.
Then we boarded the bus for Elmina Castle.
I hesitate to add my words to so many that have been written about Elmina Castle – and about the larger Cape Coast Castle, which we would see on Friday. This was the part of our pilgrimage about which I had done more preliminary reading. These two places were, for many Africans, the last places on their home continent they would ever see. The castles contain dungeons, cells, wretched and horrible holding caverns where slaves spent their last weeks, chained nakedly and closely together, waiting for the boats that would take them across the Atlantic Ocean – the Middle Passage, part of the atrocious Atlantic Slave Trade.
I shouldn’t use the word “waiting.” My sense of their agony is that they would not have been able to “wait” for anything. “Waiting” might imply some hope. Their plight looked as close to hopeless as any I have ever known.
It was probably appropriate that our day was hot and humid. I was uncomfortable both emotionally and physically down in the dungeons, hearing first about the female dungeon and situation. We heard how the governor of the castle would systematically abuse selected women. We walked through the male dungeons and saw the tiny, tiny outlets for any air or light, often one tiny “window” per room.
We heard of the squalor, the abuse, the sheer horror of existence there; again, I hesitate to use the word “life” for what they experienced there. It was appropriate that we were sweating ourselves: a very, very small price for us to pay for admission to this holy place.
Was it a holy place? I hesitate to use that word, too.
We walked down the tunnel that would take slaves, both male and female, to the door of no return. We gathered in that last room and looked out the iron gate to the ocean. I have often considered a view of the ocean as a sign of exhilaration and hope; this view, I realized, was one of horror and dread for outgoing slaves. They probably knew that boat conditions were more devastating than the dungeon conditions.
As our Episcopal Relief and Development group laid a wreath in that place, I was the one asked to pray. I had no idea, and I still have little idea, how to pray in such an agonizing place. We laid the wreath in honor and in memory of those who had been there before – those who had died there and those who had passed through. We gathered in the name of remembrance, for sure. But we also gathered in the name of horror and suffering and pain.
I finally used the word “witness.” Other words might work, too. But, for me, we were there to witness that place. We must give witness to it. We must see the truth and acknowledge it, certainly before any effective restoration and redemption might occur. By “witness,” however, I also mean the witness of the Africans who died and passed through there; in Greek, the word for “witness” is “martyr.” The slave castles are places of witness, places of martyrdom.
But the other word for me is “mercy.” “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,” we prayed. Have mercy on the sweet souls who passed through this place, have mercy on us who witness, have mercy on all of us who work to overcome unjust conditions in our own time. For, surely, the effects of that slave trade, and of its associated racism, still exist in our world today. They exist in my world.
Finally, of course, God might just speak to us in the silence which we allow ourselves in these places of suffering and tragic inhumanity. Every word, at some point, fails when I try to describe, or pray about, humanity’s inhumanity to others. Every word falls short, at some point.
But, yes, I do believe the place is holy. Elmina and Cape Coast Castles are both holy, sacred places of pilgrimage for those who must give witness. Indeed, holiness must exist in places where human beings have suffered. It is a tragic part of our human history; and, if God is not present in suffering, then God is not present anywhere. Again, if God is not present in human suffering, then God is not present anywhere.
Sweet and healthy human beings suffered agonizingly at Elmina and at Cape Coast; they must be holy places. When words fail, all I have left is God. Even if it is the silence of God.
Later on Thursday, I had good conversations with several of my colleagues about Elmina Castle, about the systems of racism and of privilege that still exist in the United States, too. Other colleagues had similar conversations. Thursday, visiting Elmina Castle, was a holy day.