Category Archives: Featured

Looking Back to Move Forward

It has been forty-five days since the January 6 storming of the Capitol and seven days since the U.S. Senate acquitted Donald Trump of inciting the riot that caused the death of five people. I want to believe the rioters are gone, back to their small towns and villages, where they don’t have to see or speak to anyone like me, but some of those who engaged or supported the riot live closer to me than I want to acknowledge. The Justice Department is indicting participants in the deadly riot. Still, Republican state legislators are introducing bills to restrict early and absentee voting, furthering the specious notion that widespread fraud denied Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, I am left to struggle with questions over whether I have a future here, in my country of birth. The answer is no longer sure.

Although I was born in Philadelphia, no less, the nation’s birthplace, the rioters were testing my right to citizenship and its most essential pillar – the right to vote. Sure, I can claim birthright citizenship which came in 1868 with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. It defined citizenship as applying to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The amendment granted citizenship to freed slaves after the Civil War, overriding the Naturalization Act of 1790 that conferred citizenship only on free white persons “of good character.” It also nullified the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford that rejected the notion of African-American citizenship. But the riot was a challenge to democracy, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment. It felt deeply personal as if the right to vote and have it count was on the line.

Whatever right I thought I had, whatever citizenship claim I could assert, the rioters had shaken everything on January 6. But any bit of uncertainty I may feel is pale in comparison to the ever-present tension my ancestors must have lived with before the Fourteenth amendment’s ratification as free and enslaved inhabitants of Virginia. Through genealogical research, I have found a glimmer of their struggle for recognition, even when it’s refracted through the words of a slave owner like Caroline Littlepage.

On August 18, 1857, Caroline Littlepage wrote in her diary, “A delightfully pleasant day. The Maj. rode to the mill, then to the Court House, and returned at dark. I have been quite sick nearly all day from eating watermelon, had to go to bed.”

I laughed and immediately thought of challenging a group of friends to write their diary entry — riffing off Caroline’s words and making something of their own.

Caroline Littlepage wrote her diary entry 164 years ago from her King William County, Virginia plantation. Along with her husband, Major Lewis Littlepage, Caroline owned Woodbury, a plantation in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Caroline B. Ellett married Lewis Littlepage on February 5, 1829. She had 13 children. The Ellett and Littlepage families were two of the most prominent families in the county and among its largest landholders. Both families were established in the county before its formation in 1702. Her words are lean and factual, making the diary feel more like an almanac. The weather, household chores, church, and the coming and going of her children and extended family members occupy prime space in her diaries, ranging from 1855 to the late 1860s.

There is something carefree and upbeat about her August 18 entry. The day is sunny and warm. The Major is tending to his mill business, and later, he will go to the courthouse that sits on land his family donated to the county. When it is dark and the sky is full of stars, he’ll ride his horse home and have supper.

This outward picture of bliss can’t hide the uneven social order which made their lives comfortable. Caroline’s words belie the trouble that surrounds her, like the slave cabins hidden behind a nearby grove and the great civil war that is coming.

The disconnect between what Caroline can see and what she cannot see could make me laugh – but I rarely do. Her blind spots could make me angry – but I never am. I have the benefit of time, and it would be too easy to mock her ways and the antebellum lifestyle she represents. In fact, I am thankful to her because, in her diary, I found an entry that I believe mentions my great-great-grandfather when he was a young boy. His name is “Henry Littlepage.”

On January 29, 1864, Caroline writes that Henry delivered an invitation to her children to spend the evening at their Uncle Hardin’s house. It’s just a line. One hundred-odd letters of the alphabet. A peppercorn of action, but so full of meaning for me. Do you understand how rare it is for an African-American to see the name of an ancestor before 1870? Not a number, but a name. Henry and his letter delivery amount to little in Caroline’s life, but it meant a great deal to me. In her diary, he moves when the movement of most black people is violently restricted. On official documents, we are often reduced to a hash mark, but I can almost imagine his face on this page.

The excitement I felt when I saw his name in her diary now five years ago was unforgettable. I’m tied to him, this family, and this land across centuries.

Caroline is white. Henry is probably the mixed-race illegitimate son of Caroline’s brother-in-law, who lives on a nearby plantation. Henry is not enslaved. I don’t read Caroline’s diary for amusement. I’m searching for stories to tell about my place in America, our place in America.

Before I began researching my ancestry, I had one singular narrative, and Philadelphia was at its center. Three of my four grandparents were born in Philadelphia. I was fascinated, maybe even a bit envious, of kids who went south during the summer to visit their grandparents and extended family members.

As an adult living here in D.C., I met some friends for drinks at the rooftop bar of the W Hotel one evening. A woman who was from the south asked me, “Where are your people from?” I said, “Philadelphia.” She looked puzzled and asked me again. “No, really, where are you from?” Again I answered, “Philly.” She assumed it was a pretense, but Philly was all I knew, as did my parents and their parents. I could date the earliest arrival in Philadelphia to the 1880s, and that made me proud. At the time, I didn’t know my ancestors came from Virginia’s Tidewater region and may have descended from some of the earliest Africans and Europeans to land in the Virginia colony.

Last year was tumultuous. The constant sound of sirens from police cars and the helicopters patrolling the skies of Washington, D.C., last spring and summer made me anxious. The riot left me feeling unsteady and unsure about my connection to white people and this country. Oddly, reading Caroline’s journal and doing my genealogical research makes me feel American. In the reading, I see African-Americans, my ancestors, pushing forward to say I’m here and to assert claims of citizenship-what I once took for granted. I use the research to push back racist narratives and willful ignorance. I look back to move forward.

Little Sermons

Finally, my brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8 NIV

Little sermons, found in bulletins, greeting cards, notes, etc. are so often overlooked.  If you spent a lot of time searching for the card that conveys the exact message that you want to convey, chances are that it was time well spent.   Here are some of my personal examples:

OFTEN ON MY MIND
Always in My Heart. That’s You!


Hope you are well – This card was meant for me to send to you – as it expresses my thoughts so well.

Corine

Thank you so very much for all your kindness and thoughtfulness when I was so ill. I am especially grateful for taking the time to pray for me.

Love, Veronica

Mrs. McCullough, Remembering you is one of the special joys of the season.

John W. Mitchell

Have a blessed Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Your sweet smile and loving greetings every Sunday morning makes my day special! Thank you!

Josie


Black History Month: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

“Go tell it on the mountain.” “Sermon on the Mount.” “Spreading the gospel.” “The good news.” These are not only common phrases for Christians, but also common phrases in American culture. The idea of sharing our story, our testimony, and what we believe in with others is an integral part of our American experience – particularly the Black American experience. We know that through telling our stories, we form shared beliefs and shared cultures.

Ida B. Wells circa 1895

Throughout Black history, there are many examples of powerful orators, storytellers, and visionaries. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was all three. As a writer, editor, and newswoman, Wells-Barnett not only broadcast the injustices of anti-Black lynching; but created numerous platforms to share the stories of others with the goal of achieving justice.

In addition to utilizing her Memphis based newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, Well-Barnett traveled the country and Europe to make light of anti-Black lynching that ravaged the American South. Her advocacy did not go unnoticed. Threats of harm from white supremacist vigilantes kept the writer and editor from her home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1893. While away from home, the well-traveled orator had made it her business to share the injustice of lynching that occurred right in a suburb right outside of Memphis. Wells-Barnett chronicles her story in her 1893 speech, “Lynch law in all its phases,” delivered in Boston.

Well-Barnett traveled across the country and across the Atlantic with the goal of engaging others in a long-term campaign to eradicate lynching and all forms of anti-Black violence. She appealed to people of all identities and self-interests, including fellow Black people, international allies, and specifically Christians. In Wells-Barnett’s 1909 speech, “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation,” the orator appeals to not only the ideals espoused by our constitution, but also appeals to the Christians of our nation.

As one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909, An early advocate of the anti-lynching bill was Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Due to her indefatigable advocacy, a federal bill to make lynching a federal crime was introduced in 1918. Now after a century, the campaign to make lynching a federal crime is still an active struggle. Just last year, the three Black senators – two Democrats, one Republican – introduced legislation to make lynching a federal crime, a signature campaign of the NAACP since 1918. However, the bill was stalled by a lone senator.

While Well-Barnett died in 1930, the campaign to eradicate anti-Black violence continues – even the goal of outlawing lynching. And while lynchings do not occur in thousands as they did during the Wells-Barnett era, lynchings and anti-Black violence still occur. This is where we must take up the mantle in the twenty-first century. As Christians, we must spread the gospel of justice. Through our Congress, we have a unique opportunity to finally outlaw these barbaric, White supremacist practices; to honor the legacy of Black leaders and ancestors who came before us; and to earn the respect of future generations. Like Well-Barnett, we as Christians must utilize our own voices and our own platforms to inform, educate, and agitate others regarding the injustice we see and employ solutions to stop injustice.

A Benevolent and Equitable Future

African-American History Month, 2021

African-American History Month in the year 2021. Now is the time we’ve set aside to remember, and also to honor the stories of those who crossed the Middle Passage, to the Americas and their descendants. It is critically important to state that without free African labor, the wealth of the West simply would not exist. The standard of life we have today, is the result of their hard work. They built the roads, bridges, and the railroads for “nothing,” as James Baldwin said. This is the first African American History month in the Covid-19 Pandemic. One in which African-Americans have suffered disproportionally when compared with other groups, while simultaneously having less than equitable access and distribution of the life-saving vaccinations. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, have succumbed to the disease.

This past summer we witnessed, organized and marched in large peaceful protests around the country. There was and still is, a national call for Justice. This was in response to a series of violent acts committed against African-Americans. We have watched the video recordings, and read the news media coverage, of preventable, racially motivated murders. Among them: Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, and George Floyd; just to name a few. We remember the excruciatingly painful and traumatic, eight minutes 46 seconds (8:46) video, capturing the knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd. The video captures and manifests the often overlooked brutality forced upon us in our daily life, the callous indifference with which African-American, and other Peoples of Color are treated.

We most recently watched in awe an Insurrection at the US Capitol. Carried live on TV, and as we saw that crowd waving flags, and committing various other acts of sedition, take over the US Capitol, and steal from its grounds. With few arrested and charged from that group. We know justice is not blind. Evidenced by the leniency shown to them by friendly prosecutors, and courts. In my opinion a fair reading of our current situation implies that our story, as a People is unfolding, but not uncertain. We have a firm foundation in our faith. And, against all odds, we are compelled to hope. That hope is that one day soon, we will see injustices finally come to an end. The times now call upon us to write a new chapter. In this moment each one of us has a part to play, a say, a vote. With all urgency we must do everything humanly possible to facilitate justice equity, to build capacity, or even economies, if such actions will secure the creation of systems which treat all people, all African-Americans as full human beings. In this new environment healing, reconciliation, and rejuvenation might finally take place.

The most effective way in my view to celebrate African-American History Month is to occupy our time, by doing all we can to ensure a bright, benevolent and equitable future.

Our Fate Lies Not in Our Hands

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

Ephesian 1:3

Church, hear the good news of Christ’s blessings! Our fate is not in our own hands, but in God’s and it has already been determined for us. And God, in mercy and love, refuses to be limited by our inabilities or abilities. God refuses to be limited by our abilities to do harm, evil, and even produce death. As we begin this new year, may we count our blessings, may we be blessings to one another, and may we demonstrate to the world the hope that Jesus brings. Amen. Thank you,

Rev. Nick

Christ is the Reason for the Season

Dear Riverside,

As we conclude our Advent season and eagerly anticipate the coming of Christmas this week, it is my prayer you and your loved ones find hope, love, joy, and peace. I pray that during this time you are filled with warmth and contentment. This time of year can be difficult for many. Please know and feel the love of your Riverside family. If you are able, please join us Thursday at 7:00 pm for a Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols virtual service. The information is posted below and on the website.

Sincerely, 

Rev. Nick


Thursday, December 24, 7:00 pm: You are invited to a special live, virtual Lessons and Carols Christmas Eve service! Members of the choir and diaconate will lead us in Christmas carols and scripture readings as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

You will not be asked to participate, simply come and enjoy our service. The Zoom link is here.

Righteousness and Praise

“To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”

Cornel West

In light of this weekend’s events, Riverside Baptist Church wishes to state that we stand with and support our sisters and brothers of Asbury United Methodist Church and Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal. Riverside remains resolute in her commitment to justice, peace, and love. We will contest hate and prejudice at every corner while demonstrating the radical teachings and love of Jesus, whom we both celebrate and await during this Advent season. Love will overcome.