Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Body of Christ: Ohio Slave Experience

Crouching, I put down my right fist, trying to give my arched feet a rest. I lifted a small black spider on the end of a twig from the forest floor. Amidst the sound of everyone trying to catch his or her own breath, a solemn thought rang through my mind. It was strange feeling like – in that moment – the little spider had more freedom than any of us.

It was Corpus Christi Sunday, a feast in the Catholic Church where we celebrate the gift of Christ’s presence with us in the world. One way we encounter Him is in our neighbor. To be made aware – in such a real way – that day of how we need to be a voice for the voiceless, to build up and love our neighbor, even at the cost of our life, was a tremendous blessing.

I had traveled to a summer camp with the Ohio FFA. A friend of mine and I were to facilitate a three-day conference about living one’s life based upon virtues. After a session one evening, all participants and staff prepared ourselves for a different kind of activity, with the strict awareness we would be getting dirty over the next few hours.

Camp Muskingum boasts an authentic experience for students unlike any I had heard of or encountered. Camp staff appeared, draped in overalls, old-time hats, and handkerchiefs, with braids in their hair and holes or patches in their britches. Lined up on a hillside, we were told that we were now members of a band of runaway slaves, each with our own slave-runner as our guide. For the following few hours, we would listen to their instruction as we attempted to make it from our current location to freedom.

The experience was authentic.

We learned to sing “Amazing Grace” together, as our “master’s papers” denoted we were a traveling choir. If stopped, we needed to prove our forged document true. We memorized and answered over and over again the questions our runner posed to us: who our master was, to whom we were traveling, when we were required to return home. We ate pine needles for the moisture and protein and were offered apple pieces from a kind woman who took us in for a moment to catch our breath. We tromped trough mud and hid behind trees, rocks, and even in the floorboards of a cabin.

At one of the most intense encounters with a plantation owner, we were commanded to lie down on the grassy, muddy field, face down in the ground. “I said get down!” screamed the angry owner. Before I knew it, I a blade of grass brushed against my face, and all I could do was hope I wouldn’t be asked to stand and speak to the angry, armed farmer. Bugs hopped on my arms as I tried not to move even an inch in order to scratch them off of me.

Just as our group was crammed into and back out of a wire cage, a neighboring plantation owner “took us off of the hands” of the other. He led us away to his property, where he revealed he was on our side, trying to abolish slavery laws in the south and assist slaves seeking freedom.


After so much running, hiding, being demeaned by those we met along the way already that evening, I had a glimpse of what it was like to be thought of as human for the first time. This man asked if we understood things, called us “people”, not slaves, dogs, or property. As he told us why he chose to risk his own life for ours, my eyes welled up with tears. “We fight for those who cannot stand up for themselves, that one day they will have a voice.”

"Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf."  - 1 Cor 10:17 (from the Second Reading from Corpus Christi Sunday)

Image taken at the campground