Group re-enacts slave ritual in Marsh Chapel

By Kevin Joy

The candlelit room was dim, the organist nonexistent and most of the 20 people in attendance sat on the floor. But with pots and pans, call and response songs and a step dance testimony expressing the plight of slavery, they reenacted a traditional worship service practiced by enslaved African-Americans yesterday afternoon in Robinson Chapel.

The Bush Arbor Camp Meeting, sponsored by Marsh Chapel, was held to celebrate the culmination of Black History Month, according to chapel director Meredith Ellis. Marsh’s Community Outreach Director Hailani Chan-Williams led the service.

Chan-Williams explained the origins of bush arbor services, which, because of white restrictions prohibiting slaves to worship collectively, often forced them to gather in secret.

“There was a time when we had to hide in the bushes–literally–to do this,” he said. To maintain security and secrecy within the wooded gatherings, members would guard the entrance of the circle and require a password to enter.

Meanwhile, two BU students stood outside the chapel’s heavy wooden doors to keep imaginary watch and screen visitors in the same manner. The password was “joy.”

While other such services went under names such as invisible institution, arbor meeting and campfire, Chan-Williams said recognizing the existence of different forms of worship was important.

“This is something we don’t really want to talk about,” he said. “But in order to understand black history, we need to look back and learn from it.”

Chan-Williams performed a step dance routine with his wife Sharon that dramatized a field slave being forced from her husband and child. At one point an imaginary slave owner threatened to discover the service and the chapel’s lights were dimmed to conceal worshippers to and allow Chan-Williams to hastily convince the man that he was alone, simply going out for a walk.

“This was how we had to act,” he said after the performance. “The heart of the African in America still wanted to praise God. Even though languages and dialects were different, people came together with dance and song. This was how they could be free.”

The service then focused on the Civil Rights Movement struggle during the 1960s and the untiring work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the South.

“Back then, they didn’t have to worry about email, voice mail, Nextel, computers and cars that didn’t work when you needed them to,” Chan-Williams said. “They fought for freedom with their minds and peace in their hearts, and said, ‘No longer’ to their oppressors”

The early origins of Christianity in Africa and modern variations of slavery were also discussed.

“Today you have people that are slaves to sickness,” Chan-Williams said. “60 percent of people in South Africa are infected with HIV, while we are being told to focus on more important things, like the war over oil in Iraq.”

The group then joined hands in a prayer circle to end the service. Their final song, the 1970’s hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” inspired many to get up and dance.

“Ain’t no stoppin’ us now, we’ve got the groove — you may ask how we can talk about ‘groove’ in this context,” Chan-Williams said, encouraging the group to apply the afternoon’s lessons to everyday situations and setbacks. “But the groove, the rhythm, the thing that keeps us going is the spirit itself.”

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