Sermon by Reverend Rebecca Bryan
My toe just went over the finish line as I heard my childhood name over the loudspeaker: “Becky Bryan!” It was spoken quickly, amidst hundreds of others, and even so, I knew what I had heard. How in the world did they know my name from childhood, the sound of which still made me cringe at that point in my life?
I was finishing my first, and only, half marathon, done largely to prove to myself that I wasn’t that young child from my past, that less popular girl, fearful, shy, the one who would go home crying every year because she couldn’t run the mile for the Presidential Fitness Test. Yes, I was, at that point, still running away from my past.
Later that day, reading the race results online, I saw to my amazement that a Becky Bryan crossed the finish line 1/30th of a second after me, Rebecca Bryan. It was bizarre, even haunting, and certainly prophetic.
For it was only a few months later that I stopped running away from my past. I began instead to turn back to my past to retrieve what was lost so that I could live in the present and make the future I dreamed of creating.
And here I am, here we are, sixteen years later, sixteen years of returning to the past to heal, to learn, and, above all, to retrieve my soul, myself. Along the way I put a few things down, like addictions, raised my children, went to seminary, and became Reverend Rebecca Bryan and so many other things.
It was hard. It was spectacular. And it’s not over, that beautiful process of returning to the past, to learn and retrieve what we lost or what I thought was better forgotten and left behind. This process and all the people who have been a part of that journey helped me become who I am today. It would not have happened if I had kept running from the past. That is a fact. How will you return to your past and what do you need to retrieve?
Sankofa is a concept from the Akan tribe in Ghana. It is made up on three words: SAN (return), KO (go), FA (look, seek and take). It translates as “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
The symbol for Sankofa is the mythical Sankofa bird, an image that you may be familiar with and that is the artwork for the cover of the Order of Service this morning. The bird, with its feet planted firmly in the ground, is holding an egg in its mouth, while turning its head backwards. Its body represents the past, its neck represents the present, and the egg represents the future.
Though Sankofa comes from Ghana, everyone has a personal interpretation or application of it. I was fortunate enough to have spoken with Newburyport resident Prince Boateng about Sankofa. Prince and his sister were raised in Ghana by their grandmother until they moved to Brooklyn in the United States when Prince was thirteen.
Prince told me that the Akan culture in Ghana is strongly influenced by women, like his grandmother, who own businesses. His grandmother and great aunt taught him about the concept of Sankofa, which, to Prince, always meant to move forward. It is interesting how all the work of this multitalented person today links back to agriculture and Africa, whether in working with the government, the navy, his own start-up lending to farmers in Africa, or his post-doctorate studies. “It is true,” he said to me, “I spent a lot of time on family farms over my childhood. It may be Sankofa that I am drawn to this work.”
Prince’s business partner, on the other hand, understands Sankofa slightly differently. He told Prince that when he is stuck on something, he goes back to the past, to see what he can learn or understand to get unstuck.
Sankofa has a lot to teach us. It is a wise and important concept for these times, for individuals, groups, and our country.
Our ministry theme this month is reflection. The wisdom of the Akan people and Sankofa is an excellent example of the power of such a practice.
The tendency of too many of us is to move full steam ahead, layering mistake upon mistake. We don’t return to the past to learn, retrieve what was lost, and change. We are living with the results of that kind of tendency. We see that kind of tendency in systemic racism, in climate destruction, and in an increasingly polarized culture, in which people are unremittingly unkind to one another. It seems as if we have forgotten the power of simple acts of kindness, one at a time. Right here. Right now.
Let us make peace with our past and learn not only from our ancestors but also from our experiences. Our past–the past–is always there. It is up to us how we engage with it; we can decide to befriend it for the good.
Maya Angelou said, “The truth is very important. No matter how negative it is, it is imperative that you learn the truth…”
May we know the truth, the truth of our United States history, including the history of those perceived as outsiders: Indigenous People, Blacks, LGBTQ, Asians, Hispanics, women, those who are differently abled, and the elderly.
May we learn from that history. May we take its lesson to heart, make amends, and change. Let us make today a day of justice, glory, and wonder, and let us make a future in which children and grandchildren and all beings of the Universe not only survive but thrive.
Amen and blessed be.