Ps. 137: Exilic Emotions
July 27, 2020
Reverend Dr. Leslie D. Callahan (from Gary, West Virginia) is the first female pastor of the historic St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Callahan earned the Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Harvard University/Radcliffe, the Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Religion from Princeton University. She was ordained in 1997 at Judson Memorial Church and served as Minister of Christian Education at the First Baptist Church of Princeton, New Jersey. She also served as interim pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. A gifted professor, Dr. Callahan, has served on the faculty of New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) as Assistant Professor of Modern Church History and African American Studies. Prior to her time at NYTS, she was a member of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania as assistant professor of religious studies.
The complex emotions of exilic texts mirror my own complicated relationship with the United States—the way that I am aware on a cellular level that this place is simultaneously both home and not home.
I am a U.S. citizen by birth. I know the pledge of allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner by heart. I have earned degrees from premier institutions, gotten good jobs with benefits, and bought a house. But history and current events are replete with reminders that my people—Black and Woman—have only provisional welcome and entree in this society. We are so often embraced only on the terms and for the purposes of the captors’ culture.
Last year, with a milestone birthday looming and a pastoral sabbatical beckoning, I made plans to travel to the continent of Africa. I had done no DNA analysis to determine from which community, nation, and people in Africa my blackness originated. And while I associated an apocalyptic phrase from the tradition of the spirituals—“as soon as my feet strike Zion”—with the visit, I had no conscious expectation that anything earth-shattering would occur during the trip. I simply felt that I was behind schedule when it came to Africa, and it was past time to get there.
Following an overnight flight, my feet touched for the first time the soil that gave birth to humanity—Africa the mother of us all. I sighed. Standing on the shores of the Atlantic and looking west, I confronted the pain, sadness, and rage of my ancestors’ displacement. Our group retraced our people’s steps and walked back through the “Door of No Return,” praying and singing, weeping and wailing.
In an instant I marveled that I had taken my Disney princess-fascinated 6-year-old daughter to Africa to visit castles. But we found was no Magic Kingdom. These castles were real, and nothing about them is pretty, built as they were on the enduring foundation of racist, capitalist brutality.
Goree in Senegal, Elmina and Cape Coast in Ghana, and many others up and down the coastline remain as monuments and memorials. They follow a pernicious architectural pattern. There are dungeons, dark and dank, still carrying the memory and fragrance of barbarous captivity. Dungeons for men, women, and children. And above the dungeons there are the remnants of enslavers’ quarters and trapdoors allowing access to the bodies of their captives. There, too, are churches.
Have you ever seen child-sized shackles? While you imagine them, try to grasp not just the sadness but also the rage. This kind of rage could easily manifest as it does in the concluding words of Psalm 137, a desperate cry to avenge terrible violations inflicted on innocent children by their captors. People who can brutalize children don’t usually stop until someone or something else stronger makes them stop.
The irony and tension of exile is that we make our home in places that we know on a cellular level are never fully home. But it is not just the indignities of this land that remind us that another land exists, it’s also the soul-deep refusal to forget that some place—beyond any specific geographical location—more like home exists. It is the ancestors singing in our ears of the places we come from and destinations yet unseen. It is a life-giving determination to live in the beauty of that unseen home. Perhaps that is why at the very moment we question how we can sing the holy song in a strange land, we do so by means of a song.