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HIV, Plantations and the Holy Ones

By Rev. Andrena Ingram

March 7, 2014

Well, beloved Black History Month has taken on a deeper meaning for me this year. I have learned of some noteworthy, and yet unknown Black folk in my family tree,Which I began tending back in 2006 but its growth was stunted because I could not get past my great grandma Alice on my mother's side of the family.

With the help of a genealogy group on FB, I was able to find some roots that went beyond my great grandma. I unearthed that there was a common thread crawling through my mother's side of the family. I found that most of her distant relatives were listed as coming from the state of Virginia, and as I am digging and unearthing clues, I'm getting so excited, because I know there is something there. How did they all end up in West Virginia?

I would discover to my amazement, that the common grounds which connected them all in Virginia were slave plantations!

I am the descendant of enslaved people! My mother would say: what did you expect? And you may be wondering the same thing as well!

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Here's the thing: It's one thing to wonder about it, quite another to have the name, to see the entry on the census, listing your ancestors as a "laborer," "kitchen help," or as a "servant" on a certain plantation.

It is quite another to KNOW that in 1838, the first of the "Flemings" (my mother's people) was born on a plantation owned by the Cabell family, in Nelson County, Virginia. His name was Tarlton "Slave" Fleming (indeed, his middle name, reflected in the census is "slave"!). He was named after his owner/father: a Fleming originally from London England. Because of my great great great grandfather's parentage, they couldn't very well have a "Jr." at the end of his name. They had to make sure this person was distinguished as "slave" in order that they might not lay claims to anything his owner slash father possessed. Henceforth, the middle name being reflected as "slave."

Although, in hindsight, we know they were not slaves, but rather, God's holy Ones.

It didn't matter that the child was probably the product of rape, it didn't matter that our enslaved relatives had no say in the matter, no voice in the matter, no choice in the matter, when it came to sexual relations on the plantations between the owner and the owned. It's funny ... little did they realize it would connect us ALL by blood. The owner and the owned ... their blood runs through our veins, whether they like to admit it or not. We all, the different families on every plantation owned by the Cabells, are RBS's ... we are Related By Slavery!

So, what does my family history have to do with our readings this morning? Actually, it does fit in with Black History Month ... taking it all the way back ... all the way back to the field, as it were ... Amen?

Our reading from Leviticus takes us back to the field. It is a lesson which focuses on how we are to demonstrate our love for our neighbor. Whoever that neighbor may be.

We hear about what it means to show love for our neighbors, especially those less fortunate. It meant that some of the harvest was supposed to be left behind. They were not to harvest every single morsel of food ... every ear of corn ... every kernel of wheat ... every sugar cane ... every vegetable.

They were to leave some behind for the orphans and the widows and the poor who would come behind them and glean (gather up) what was left. It was like an open air "food pantry" (if you will), It was a very tangible way to care for your neighbor. And the strangers -- and those who lived on the margins of society. It was a form of justice to ensure no one went hungry.

God calls the congregation of Israel, who followed this practice, holy, because God is Holy ... and God is a holy God who has always sought justice for the weak, And those who were bowed down by the systematic oppression of that time. God called them holy because they were striving to seek justice and fairness for those less fortunate -- like God!

God also reminded the people of Israel about a lot of things they were NOT to do which were harmful and unjust to their neighbor. It was like a ten commandments of what you shouldn't do! One which speaks specifically to my message to you, is this:

"... you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. I am the Lord."

Now, Let's go back to the plantation for a moment. Everything God told the Israelites not to do, has been done to our enslaved ancestors.

In fact, I will go so far as to say, that the ones who were gleaning the fields on the plantation were the enslaved themselves. Only, they harvested the fields for their owners.

If memory serves me correctly, there was a lot of blood spilled as those fields were harvested ... as we picked and toted that cotton, as we lifted those bales, as we worked from sun-up to sun- down.

A lot of profit was made off the backs and between the legs of our ancestors.

I learned what our enslaved ancestors harvested was communal anguish, with bowed over backs suffering the lash and emasculated men, as their womenfolk were forcibly and resignedly raped. A lot of what our ancestors gleaned from the fields and the big house they spent their life blood in was a little something extra than we usually talk about when we talk around plantation life. That little something was disease. Sexually transmitted diseases. Particularly, syphilis and gonorrhea.

If you ever want to hear about what one particular "owner" was giving to the enslaved persons on his plantation, Google the name: Thomas Thistlewood from London, England. He documented every single day and every single sexual encounter he had with the enslaved on his plantations on the islands.

The untreated long-term effects of these diseases were documented as well. They were horrendous, and debilitating.

Sadly, condoms were not available.

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And let's not forget the pregnancies. Some of us were sold, simply for breeding purposes. We didn't have a choice or a voice in the matter of what was done to our bodies on the plantation.

But what they didn't understand, was that we were a holy people. Even then, our bodies were holy. Even as we bore the lash, even as we bore disease, even as we bore the wrath of those who enslaved us, even as we bore children to those who took us against our will. Our bodies have always been holy. Because our bodies were built in the image of God. Amen?

Our ancestors on the plantations were Holy simply because of what they had to go through, what they endured. We were a diverse people on the plantations we were categorized as Negroes and mulattos, quadroons and octoroons, to name a few. And even though many of us died from neglect, from murder, from disease, we have survived. We are a people unmatched by few. Civilization began with us. We are descended from a royal line, all related by our homeland. We were taken and scattered throughout the earth.

Unprotected and unaccounted for. We are still here, because we are resilient.

We still survive. We still overcome.

It is time for us to protect ourselves brothers and sisters.

And no, I am not talking about revenge, not talking about "an eye for an eye," not talking about taking up arms against those who have oppressed us or are still systematically oppressing us. It is really time to turn the other cheek and stop focusing on who is doing what/and who has done what to us.

I'm talking about keeping the focus on ourselves and building ourselves back up to who we are. I'm talking about doing what our ancestors, who paved the way for us, were not equipped to do during their lifetime. What was not possible back on the plantation was the ability to think and do for themselves without the threat of punishment.

What our ancestors were not able to do for themselves was to protect themselves from disease, unless they were skilled in homeopathic remedies and even those were not able to cure everything. Especially syphilis or gonorrhea.

Beloved. We can protect ourselves today. We can educate one another today. We can empower each other today and empowering each other is what I see All People's Church stepping up and doing.

You have a voice and a choice today. You also have faith leaders who are concerned about not only the spiritual growth of their congregation, but the physical health as well. And not only the health of their congregation, but of the surrounding community outside these walls. It's not an easy task, for certainly when you begin addressing the sexual health of your congregation, the sexual health of your community, there's bound to be some who will be cracking the whip and banging you in the head with their Bibles.

Thank god for Pastor Jerbi, who took the initiative to get tested in front of you and Elijah, who did the same, and for those of you who were tested as well ... it all begins inside these walls. It begins with the faith leaders being a model and inviting others to come forward as well. While Pastor Jerbi modeled the game: "follow the leader" You can be assured that HIV is not a game. Being tested is not a game. It is about your life.

It is about faith leaders addressing the needs of the community. A big need is doing what is needed to get the community engaged in HIV testing. It's about coming in out of the plantation, sitting down and taking about what needs to be done, instead of placing our focus on issues that don't really concern us. I don't care who you are sleeping with. (Well, let me take that back. I do care if your partner is beating and abusing you ... I do care if the relationship is one that can land you in jail ... I do care if it is not a healthy loving relationship. How about we model what "love" really means?)

But I digress. We are talking about Black history month and HIV testing and the faith communities response toward healthier communities. It should be more than lip service and pontificating. It is about modeling for our teens and young adults and not only our young adults, but some of our senior citizens as well. They are another statistically growing concern when it comes to HIV, especially with the advent of the little blue pill -- that Viagra.

EVERYONE needs to be aware, EVERYONE needs to know how to be healthy and stay healthy ... check yourself, before you wreck yourself.

Your body is a temple in which the spirit of God resides. Treat it as such. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

If holiness is reflected in the acts of justice and mercy you-saints of ALL PEOPLE's Church carry out on a Regular basis, at least from all the justice and mercy oriented things that you all do ... then by God, you are holy!

You are holy when you are in the courtroom demanding justice for Darius Simmons. You are holy when you grow vegetables in your little field, for community members to come by and take (within reason). You are holy when you teach our young children how to grow these vegetables -- a skill that will hopefully sustain them when they grow older, and they in turn teach someone else.

YOU are holy, for I the Lord your God is holy.

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I also thank God for community organizations such as Diverse and Resilient, an organization you have partnered with, who concern themselves with the whole person regardless of their sexual orientation and because of folks sexual orientation.

The categorizations are different these days. No longer are we categorized as negro, and mulatto, quadroon and octoroon. People no longer concern themselves with that. People now concern themselves with whether you are lesbian, whether you are gay, or bi-sexual, or transsexual or queer. It's time to get over it, already and work toward making our communities safe and healthy and work towards making our sanctuaries and churches -- just that: a sanctuary -- to come in from out of the plantation and find acceptance, respect, and grace. Lots and lots of grace, grace for you, grace for me, grace for those who would strike us with their judgments and lash out at us with their hateful words. Yes, lots and lots of turning the other check and offering the cheek of grace.

All People's Church is a place overflowing with an abundance of grace which spills out into the community, with your various communal gardens. You have leaders such as Venus Williams, (or shall I call her the "Owner of the year"), who created Alice's Garden, taking a plot of land and teaching folks how to grow vegetables.

No longer are we on plantations growing and harvesting for overseers and plantation owners, but we can have our own little plot of land and grow and harvest it for ourselves. Thank God for Venus and others who have this vision. But I digress again.

I began talking about the plantation and my ancestor Tarlton "Slave" Fleming, who eventually married and begat Abe Fleming, who migrated to West Virginia. Abe Fleming begat Arthur Fleming and Arthur Fleming begat Jean Fleming, who begat me.

My grandaddy worked the coal mines and built a beautiful house on a hill. And he built a stairway which seemed to go on forever to my little girl eyes whenever I visited West Virginia. It took forever to get to the top of those stairs. My grandaddy was a skilled master builder, when it came to building that house and those stairs, which are still standing today.

God is a skilled master builder when it comes to God's creation, when it comes to Gods destiny for our lives. We have an active role in how that destiny manifests itself, today and hereafter.

We can rise up and be counted among the living building our destiny together by responding to our brothers and sisters in need:

Because we are holy people of God, we use our temples -- (that is our bodies) to ensure the least of these are fed, to visit the least of these in jail, to clothe the naked and to be a balm for someone who has been whipped by life.

I spoke earlier about those of us descendants of that plantation in Virginia who were RBS's (Related by Slavery). We here in this place and space are all RBC's (related by Christ). We are all related by Christ through the baptismal waters and by the meal we are served each time we gather ... not coming from the margins…not sneaking in and grabbing crumbs from the table ... not living in secrecy and shame…not with our heads bowed down .... not fearing a lash.

Christ bore the lash for us ... Amen?

Regardless of what you may have done, know that you are holy. I know that regardless of my past, which gets thrown up in my face, whenever folks have a hankering ... I AM HOLY -- because God IS Holy! God would create nothing less!

ALL PEOPLES CHURCH ... You are God's Holy ones ... You are holy, because I am holy, says the God of Israel. We are holy, because God IS. Amen?

Can I digress one more time?

Know your status. Get tested. Be safe ... the safest sex is no sex at all. But if you must, use a condom.

And finally, know your history. Find out something about your ancestors, it's worth it. Know from whence you came and you will know where you are going. Continue to do the work, you have been called to here in God's fields of Wisconsin.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Milwaukee and tell them, you shall be holy for I the lord your God is holy.

Thanks be to God. In memory of our ancestors. Amen




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