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Special church service honours enslaved ancestors

ALL SMILES: Jamaican High Commissioner Aloun Ndombet Assamba (left) with Rev Eve Pitts and Lieutenant Commander Robert Jaffier

“THEY will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong; they will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.”

Poignant words from a former slave – however, at a packed church service in Birmingham, people did remember those millions of heroic Africans who were stripped of their human dignity and forced from their homeland to labour and die among the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

Reverend Canon Eve Pitts, the Anglican vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Birchfield, Birmingham, has had a long-held dream to hold such a service. She worried that only a handful of people would come – yet there was standing room only with queues in the dark of the evening outside her inner-city church.

To cheers of applause, she said she hoped this would be the first of many annual services to honour and remember our enslaved ancestors, while reclaiming the history of the African and Caribbean people.

The service was indeed something never seen before within the walls of a Church of England building – there was both sorrow and joy, dancing and toasts to remember those whose lives had been sacrificed for the greed of the sugar industry.

There was dignity and prayer – with some prayers in Swahili – and also sheer exuberance as Rev Pitts danced in the aisle of her church, urging everyone to party for those ancestors who never could.

At one point the church was plunged into darkness to remember the millions of unknown ancestors who had died terrible deaths, yet kept their dignity in the face of unimaginable evil.

With just the dim lights of the altar, people called out names of their heroes – Jamaica’s seven national heroes, along with others – Bob Marley, Bernie Grant, Harriet Tubman, and Birmingham’s own Isaiah Youngsam, stabbed to death in riots ten years ago because of the colour of his skin.

“Will someone pinch me and say I am in a dream. Are you real?” Rev Pitts said to cheers from her church. “It has been a long time coming, but today is the day when we hold our heads high and reclaim our history.

“Ours is a complex history which has been ignored by us and others for too long. We have been told to draw a line under our past – told we have chips on our shoulders, yet this country could not be the country it is without the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.

“That is why we need to look back, like the African Sanfoka bird, so we can be renewed and look forward. As a people we have been held back emotionally and spiritually; we have not been able to hold our rightful place in this world.”

Rev Pitts, who also spoke in patois, and has been called a British Maya Angelou, after the famous African American poet and civil rights activist, said: “Our ancestors’ hearts were crucified by the torture of slavery.”

Byron Jackson had a standing ovation for his beautiful delivery of three spirituals: Steal Away, Take My Hand Precious Lord, and Down by the Riverside.

Claude Mackay’s famous poem If We Must Die was read by Nicholas Bailey, and Maya Angelou’s Arise by Barbara Hamilton.

In a thought-provoking sermon, professor Robert Beckford, one of Britain’s leading theologians, criticised Prime Minister David Cameron’s lack of ‘emotional intelligence’ for revealing plans to build a £25million prison in Jamaica during his recent visit to the island.

“I hear emotional intelligence is now to be taught at Eton,” said prof Beckford, to much laughter. “We must not stay silent on slavery. We have to ‘out’ the slavery deniers. We have to remember the past rightly. We do not want a payback, we do not want revenge; this must be a healing process.”

He said he felt Britain had much to learn from the way the US had developed more permanent memorials to slavery.

While Camille Ade-John, a Birmingham-based former lecturer, spoke movingly of her visit to the Elmina slave castle on Ghana’s Gold Coast.

“When I saw the room where the women went through the door of no return and were starved before they were herded through a hole to go down to the ships I felt a terrible pain that I could not explain,” she said.

“We are all told we must move on from this history, yet I opened a paper recently and there was a big article about the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt – slavery’s history is so much more recent.”

The service was attended by Yvonne Mosquito, deputy police & crime commissioner for the West Midlands; Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, and Clare Short, who was Labour MP Birmingham Ladywood for 27 years until she stood down in 2010.

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