In February, 1839, Portuguese slave traders kidnapped a number of Africans, members of the Mendi tribe, from their home in west Africa, in what we know as Sierra Leone. Estimates of the number of Mendi captives range well over 100. The captives were loaded onto the Spanish ship Tecora and transported to Havana, Cuba, then a hub for the slave trade. The 53 Mendi captives who survived their kidnapping were sold, in Havana, to two Spanish planters, and on June 27, 1839 were loaded on the Cuban schooner La Amistad (ironically, “friendship” in Spanish) for transport to the planters’ land holdings on another part of Cuba or in the Caribbean.
On July 2, some distance out of Havana, one of the Mendi captives managed to free himself and other captives, probably using an iron file secreted by one of the woman captives from the Tecora. The Mendi killed the Amistad’s captain and cook. Some of the sailors escaped. The Mendi then ordered the remaining crew, led by capable sailors Ruiz and Montez, to sail the Amistad back to Africa. However, the crew altered course at night, unknown to the Mendi, and sailed not to Africa but north along the coast of the United States.
On August 26 the Amistad was anchored off Long Island. Several Mendi went ashore, to the village of Montauk, to procure water. The ship is discovered and the Africans are held in a Connecticut jail while the ship’s owners sue to have them returned as property.
Abolitionists in Connecticut, including Congregationalist forbears of the United Church of Christ, formed an “Amistad Committee” to assist the Mendi and to fight for their freedom in court. The case becomes a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery. The Supreme Court rules the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom. The Mendi were free, but they were not home. The 38 surviving Mendi were housed in Farmington, Connecticut as the Amistad Committee raised funds for their repatriation. Finally, early in 1842 the Mendi, then numbering 36, returned to their homeland.
These abolitionists, our ancestors of faith and church tradition, hungered for righteousness and were called to action to right this wrong.
In 1973, the bi-annual General Synod, the national meeting of the United Church of Christ, was gathered in St. Louis. At the same time, grape workers, led by labor organizer Cesar Chavez, were striking against unfair farm labor practices in California. They learn, through telegraphed appeals form Chavez, that farm owners had unleashed a campaign of violence and beatings against strikers. Recognizing the need for a strong church presence to stand up for the workers and to put an end to the violence the UCC, funded by church members, chartered a plane at midnight and sent 95 members 2000 miles away to Coachella Valley to join the workers on the picket line.
The delegates’ thirst for justice caused them to act out their witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ.
On May 8, 2012, North Carolina enacted Amendment One to the state constitution. Amendment One makes it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. Under state laws consistent with Amendment One, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that hasn’t obtained a license, and such a license may not be issued to same-gender couples. In short, the state has threatened ministers with jail, probation and/or community service for conducting wedding ceremonies for couples that cannot present a state issued marriage license.
Last month, the United Church of Christ responded to Amendment One by filing a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for violation of our right to religious freedom under the First Amendment.
Discussing the lawsuit, Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries, said “The United Church of Christ believes in advocating for justice. We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. God calls the church to speak truth to power. We are standing up for the freedom of religion, and to protect the rights of our ministers to do their jobs in faith.”
The United Church of Christ has a history of hungering for righteousness and thirsting for justice. Memorial Congregational Church has been a part of that history for almost 375 years. Since before our denomination, even before our country was formed, we’ve been involved in our own fights for fairness and equality. We helped the country gain its freedom hundreds of years ago and we declared our openness to all decades ago.
Today we will meet at our Annual Meeting and we’ll begin our planning for the year to come. As we look to the new year and consider how we’ll continue to grow stronger as a church, I look forward to working with committee members and hearing everyone’s thoughts about how we will continue to worship God by serving humanity. We have been called together as a unique part of the body of Christ. Using our special combination of gifts, I believe that MCC’s voice will grow louder in the coming year as we offer music to our community, as we dedicate our resources to serving others locally and around the world, and as we work harder to strengthen our relationships through open, honest, and respectful conversation.
In 1839, in 1973, in 2014 and at countless other times, our hunger and thirst for righteousness has been revealed by our fight for justice and equality. I invite you to take a moment and wonder: how will we at MCC, in 2015 and beyond, be a public presence calling for change where it is needed? How will we continue to fight for equality? How will we speak the truth to power? How will our hunger and thirst for righteousness be filled?