The Value Of A Life

I spent this past July 4th weekend attending my family reunion. The last reunion I attended was 50 years ago, and I was excited to see cousins I’d known as a pre-teen. The education and family history portion of the event were both surprising and challenging. I learned that my great grandmother Jane and her son Eli were purchased in 1800 in South Carolina by a French Huguenot to work his plantation. The bill of sale listed sundry items like a wheelbarrow, lumber, and whisky. Then it lists “Jane and her son Eli, $400.”

Seeing my flesh and blood sold and purchased brings sadness, shame, and anger. To see in print the historical record that my flesh and blood relatives had a price placed upon them is still jarring. I do not know where Jane came from. I do not know if this was her first plantation, but it would be her last. Eli was age 7 in 1800 when he was sold into slavery. I was in second grade at age 7, playing with Hot Wheels and GI Joe. Eli was a slave.

What is the value of a life? Systemic racism results in the media attention that focuses on one community while ignoring other areas of Chicagoland, which are just as traumatized. We must ask ourselves, “How we as a church are contributing to the sea of racism and classism in which we’re swimming, and what are we willing to do to change this tide?”

The slaveowner who purchased my relatives was a Huguenot, which meant he was a Calvinist. Other than myself, he is the only Presbyterian I have found in my family. When I did my genealogy, I discovered that 93 – 96% of my bloodline came from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria), and 3 – 6% of my bloodline from Europe (Scotland, United Kingdom, France). Is it a coincidence that this is the same area of Europe where the slave master who purchased Jane and Eli is from? I lower my head in shame realizing my people were owned and possibly abused by a Presbyterian master or his family.

From this darkest of family history comes my cousins. They are educators, artists, business owners, and professionals. There are many pastors (surprise!), prolific singers (Mary Wells from the Supremes), athletes (the boxer Joe Frazier) and just good people to hang out with.

What does the race and class history of your church or institution look like? Maybe our turbulent past is a volcano whose lava becomes the rich soil for a fruitful future. Perhaps, even the turbulence of racism, classism, and gun violence we are experiencing today may bring our presbytery closer together as we tackle the challenges of Chicagoland together. Through this current trauma, we can create a future church that truly does value all lives. May it be so.  

Rev. Craig M. Howard