Sankofa is a symbol which comes to us from West Africa. The symbol is usually seen in the form a bird with its head turned backwards carrying an egg in its mouth. The symbol speaks about the need to reach back into the past to get that which is important for life today. It has also been associated with the proverb which says that it is not wrong to go back for what you have forgotten. Today the Sankofa bird is a symbol for African heritage and a reminder of the rich legacy the peoples of Africa offer to the world.

Each February, we in North America acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of Black people (i.e. Africans and the African Diaspora) to the development of our society.

Yet even as we pause to do this we must acknowledge the history of Black people in our country. The reality is that being part of the British Empire, Canada was also a venue for the enslavement of Black people from Africa. With slavery also came the philosophies which supported the subjugation of one race of people by another. This meant that the legacy of slavery has been racial prejudice, racial discrimination, White privilege, and White Supremacy. These are the same philosophies and mindsets which gave rise to Apartheid in South Africa and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada.  And I was intrigued recently to learn of the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada and how it flourished in the west with the support of many members of the church.

History tells us that Black people have had to, and continue to, overcome these same issues of racial discrimination while eking out a life for themselves and their children on this continent. In the face of many formidable obstacles they have constantly drawn upon the resources of their heritage as a lever to move forward. This can be seen in the place that music, art, dancing, worship, community, and family hold in the lives of many Black people today. They reached back and carried with them the strength of their heritage to move forward.

Black people have made their contribution to the positive development of our Canadian society. People such as Michaëlle Jean, Viola Desmond, Donovan Bailey, Lincoln M. Alexander, Carrie Best, George Elliot Clarke, and many others, are names of some of the many Black people who have helped to make positives impacts on the Canadian context.

The first Black Moderator of the United Church, Wilbur K. Howard.
The first Black Moderator of the United Church, Wilbur K. Howard.
Credit: 
The United Church of Canada

Within The United Church of Canada many Black people have made their contribution for the church to carry out its mission. Many of these were — and are — the rank and file members in the pews who have worked to keep the witness of the church alive. In 1974 the Very Rev. Wilbur K. Howard was elected the 29th Moderator of the church. He was the first, and to date only, Black person to be elected Moderator. Today we know that at the General Council Office, in Conferences, and in Presbyteries many Black people continue to serve indefatigably to enable the witness of the church within Canada and on the global stage. There are many Black people, past and present, who continue to offer sterling service at all levels of our church — too many to name, but I give thanks for their contribution in shaping our church. The church owes all of them a great debt of gratitude.

Yet I wonder if in this Black History Month there is a more fundamental lesson that Black people can teach to the church. With all the changes of structures of the church that are being contemplated, there is the great temptation to jettison anything which smacks of the past because we are seeking for the new. I was at a retreat recently where a somber reminder was given, “The structures may change, but that which is the ethos of the church must remain.” While saying this I am also cognizant that even ethos must be constantly reflected upon to find relevance for today. Could it be that there is a lesson from the Sankofa bird to us as we move forward?

At the time of Union, the ethos of the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians came together in a dynamic tension to form The United Church of Canada. The Congregationalists gave us the ethos of the importance of the local congregation to carry out the mission of the church. The Presbyterians gave us the ethos of the leadership of spiritual elders and conciliarity governance. The Methodists gave us the ethos of connexionalism and the principle holiness (personal and social). All three gave to us their undying belief that the church has a mission that it needed to discern and fulfill.

As we move into new structures what do these foundational understanding tell us now and how does this influence the journey forward? Do we throw these out by arguing that they are of no value, or do we reach back to see what they teach us now and into the future?

 It is said that the people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it in the future. Black History Month in this year of contemplated changes may well be offering us a prophetic call to reach back to take with us that which is important for the future. Could those important things include our sense of mission and the understanding of who we are?

So, let us honor and celebrate the contribution of Black people to our country and our church this month. But let also be open to one of the lessons that Black heritage teaches all of us. Sankofa: it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten

—Paul Douglas Walfall is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Yellowhead Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference. 

Download United Church worship resources for Black History Month. Also see the DVD, "Sankofa," which introduces histories and heritages of Black peoples in The United Church of Canada.