WHY ARE we at Christ Church - also known as the Nation's Church, the final resting place of seven signers of the Declaration of Independence - talking with tourists about slavery in Philadelphia?
Because Christ Church has an important history with the institution of slavery in the Colonial and Revolutionary War era, stories too long ignored and hushed.
Every year, 250,000 visitors come to the majestic buildings of Christ Church at 2nd and Market streets to hear how Benjamin Franklin helped finance the steeple in order to conduct lightning experiments, and how revolutionary clergy prayed and prodded the Continental Congress as they discerned God's providence for the nation yet unborn.
Schoolchildren from throughout the world love to see the prayer book in which, on July 4, 1776, the preacher crossed out King George's name, an act of treason so severe that he was tossed into a British jail. And who, whether skeptic or believer, cannot wonder what it means that when the British army was preparing to occupy our city, lightning struck the steeple, but the only damage was to the gilded crown symbolizing the English king, which melted and fell to the ground?
And now our tour guides will add stories not told before. From its 1695 founding through the 1800s, Christ Church had in its pews slaveholders and slaves, abolitionists and slave traders, agitators for justice and those who maintained the status quo. Many of Christ Church's most prestigious members - who are also luminaries of the Revolution - owned slaves and refused to release them, even as other members came to realize their sin and worked for the abolition of slavery.
We tell our stories through a character named Sarah, whose life is woven from the real accounts of slaves who worshipped at Christ Church. Our presentation gives voice to the slaves who came to rely on Christ Church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and attended one of the first schools for enslaved Philadelphians.
As our tour guide says at the beginning, we hope the contradictions and complexities of both the slaves and slaveholders in our church's history will give the courage to begin conversations about the legacies of slavery in our own time and motivate us all to fight the racism that persists.
Visitors will hear of Dr. John Kearsley, a slaveholder who supervised the construction of the current Christ Church building in 1727, and Alice, the slave who lived to the age of 116, remembering the construction of her "beloved" Christ Church, and of lighting William Penn's pipe! History is more likely to remember Kearsley's magnum opus - Christ Church - and forget that Alice was one of the most famous members of the church in the early years of the nation. As the character Sarah retells some of Alice's stories, we believe that the power of Alice and her story will live on.
All proud Philadelphians should know that the nation's first black church - the African Church of St. Thomas - was founded near 5th and Walnut streets in 1794 by Absalom Jones, a former slave. Who owned Absalom Jones for the first 38 years of his life?
The man he called "master" was Benjamin Wynkoop, trustee, warden and benefactor of Christ Church and St. Peter's Church. Three times after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an event celebrated in Wynkoop's church, Absalom Jones offered to purchase his own freedom, and each time Wynkoop refused. Finally, in 1784, Wynkoop gave Absalom manumission. Absalom Jones wrote afterwards: "I have ever since continued in [Wynkoop's] service at good wages, and I still find it my duty, both late and early, to be industrious to improve the little estate that a kind Providence has put in my hands."
Historians far more skilled than we must interpret the meaning of such a story. Our task at Christ Church is found in the words of civil-rights pioneer Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth: "If you don't tell it like is, it can never be as it ought to be."
Last year, when hundreds of thousands of visitors gazed into the empty pit in front of the Liberty Bell - where the President's House once stood - to see vague outlines of where real Americans who were also slaves once lived in bondage to the father of our country, we realized that we at Christ Church had a responsibility to use our church building - still-standing, still-used and authentic - to give voice to the reality of slavery in our city that is too often covered by centuries of denial.
Our effort is powerfully captured by theologian Miroslav Volf: "Remembering well is one key to redeeming the past; and the redemption of the past is itself nestled in the broader story of God's restoring of our broken world to wholeness - a restoration that includes the past, present and future."