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Yearlong journey retraces slave route

NCR Staff

They are retracing the route of the slave trade -- on foot and by ship. But what they really need, said walker Teresa Williams, “is a bus, one of those where you can put the luggage in underneath.”

Right now they are using vans to shuttle baggage for this praying, drumbeating band of about 80 travelers -- the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage(http://www.shaysnet.com/~pagoda/) -- as it draws attention to the dreadful legacy of slavery.

The Middle Passage was the middle part of a journey that brought captive Africans to America, a 21- to 90-day crossing of the Atlantic aboard overcrowded sailing ships that transported millions of African men, women and children from about 1520 to 1850. The Africans were in continuous danger from epidemics, limited rations, threats of slave mutiny, attacks by pirates or enemy ships and bad weather. Men were shackled to each other or to the deck throughout the journey.

The pilgrimage will trace the route in reverse, moving slowly down the East Coast of the United States, then a hop to the Caribbean, through the islands and on to Recife, Brazil, before crossing the Atlantic to the West African coast.

Then the pilgrims will walk some more -- to South Africa.

They began the walk in Massachusetts on May 30 and intend to conclude it on May 31, next year in South Africa. The pilgrimage’s intriguing notion is that the walk back through history confronts -- in the words of the honorary chairman of the pilgrimage, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- “the reality of the horrors of slavery both in context of the times when slavery was common practice and in examining our attitudes and prejudices in the present day.”

The walkers started out from the Buddhist Order Nipponzan Myohol Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Mass. The pilgrimage is similar to one the Buddhists led from Auschwitz to Hiroshima three years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb.

The drummers and chanters, African-Americans, Native Americans, European Americans and the dozen saffron-robed Buddhists, had paused this day, July 15, at the pocket park near the World Bank in solidarity with Jubilee 2000, the pressure group seeking cancellation of Third World debt.

Much pilgrimage work is done with ritual -- a “waterside ancestral ceremony” at the Potomac’s edge, a “gospel requiem” at Shiloh Baptist Church.

At the patch of grass at 18th and Pennsylvania N.W., resting homeless men cover their heads to keep out the drumbeat, motorists glance momentarily at the colorful sights, and passersby wonder and walk-on.

A yearlong walk does not just happen. There’s a pilgrimage command post in Massachusetts, there’s money to be raised and always the luggage.

“Most of these people have never lived on the road,” said luggage handler Red Moonsong, who a decade ago was Cheryl Newell of Michigan doing what women with a growing family do. When the children finished college, she sold the family house, changed her name and hit the road of activism. This day, a block from the park, seated in a Saab with its rear seat loaded with backpacks, she said she was impressed with the pilgrims. “These people have given up their jobs, their apartments, their homes, their lives for a year to do this.”

Gradually, she said, the fluctuating band of marchers is coalescing as a family but still feeling the normal family strains. “We haven’t built in a working conflict resolution system yet,” she said, “but it will come. These are good people.”

Local churches play host. The pilgrims sleep in homeless shelters and church basements; they hoist their backpacks and duffel bags on and off vans.

Williams said, “We’re not allowed to walk across bridges, so we have to set up small group shuttles. It’s extremely time consuming.”

And a block away, baggage handler Red Moonsong agreed and echoed, unbidden, Williams’ comment: “Sure could use a bus,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998