“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008”
(April 17, 2008) — The Church of the Brethren was represented at United Nations events on March 27 marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21) and the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25).
Doris Abdullah attended as the denomination’s credentialed representative with the UN, and as a member of the UN Subcommittee for the Elimination of Racism of the International NGOs Committee on Human Rights, which planned the events. She is a member of First Church of the Brethren in Brooklyn, N.Y., and serves on the board of On Earth Peace.
“Both programs went extremely well,” Abdullah said, noting the expertise of the speakers. The morning briefing on “Lest We Forget: Breaking the Silence on the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” drew an overflow crowd. A documentary film by Sheila Walkers, “The Slave Route: A Global Vision,” explored the slave journey of people of African descent over thousands of years. “She traced the route and interviewed descendants of African communities from the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Turkey, as well as the Americas,” Abdullah reported. The film is a part of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, and will be made available to the public. Abdullah recommends its use by Brethren for education in the church and the wider community.
Speakers for the morning and afternoon briefings were recommended by Abdullah’s subcommittee. At the morning briefing, speakers included Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who works with UNESCO on the Slave Route Project, and William D. Payne, a former member of the New Jersey legislature who offered two bills that came to the subcommittee’s attention. The first in 2002 called the Amistad Bill acknowledged the landmark 1839 Supreme Court decision that found the Amistad slaves not guilty of murder and freed them to return to Africa. “The history of the rebellion aboard the Amistad is now taught in the New Jersey public schools,” Abdullah said. The second bill was an offer of apology for New Jersey’s role in the slave trade.
The afternoon briefing was titled, “Eliminate Racism: Prevent Mass Atrocities,” with speakers Rodney Leon, designer of the African Burial Ground Memorial in Wall Street; Yvette Rugasaguhunga, a survivor the Rwandan Tutsi genocide; Payam Akhavan, professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and the first legal advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force against Hate and Terrorism and associate director of education for the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Ervin Staub, professor and founding director of a doctoral program on the psychology of peace and the prevention of violence, emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and Ben Majekodunmi, human rights officer for the Office of the UN Special Representative on the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. Raymond Wolfe, H.E. Ambassador of Jamaica, also spoke, along with other government officials.
The African Burial Ground Memorial is the grave site of 20,000 slaves, and was discovered in 1991 at a construction site in lower Manhattan, Abdullah said. The architect’s design process for the memorial included education and an urban presence, along with “cultural, symbolic, spiritual, international, and interactive participation,” she said. “To me it means that we truly ‘walk on holy grounds.’ These Africans were brutally taken from their homes, chained in a boat for months, enslaved for a lifetime, and entombed in concrete for centuries, with the moneyed class walking over their bones. One story of one people, but what a story.”
Concerns raised by the briefings included hate games and violent games played on the Internet, the need for prevention of genocide and mass killings, and psychological recovery and reconciliation following genocide. “As Dr. Staub put it, dialogue is part of the engagement, not humiliation or cruelty,” Abdullah said.
Another way to state it, she added: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”