Vol. 2 No. 6 - Nativity 2007
The Underground Railroad:
The Legacy of Saint Moses the Ethiopian
"Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."
- Ruth 1:16
Since the 1970s, Canadians have marked Black History Month during the month of February. The event grew out of the practice among certain black Americans to honour the birthday of abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and his role in the emancipation of black slaves south of the border. The single day celebration eventually grew to a week-long event, and later to an entire month.
Canadians, and the nation's sovereign territory, played an important role in the assistance of American black slaves seeking freedom. While Canada's own history is not without slavery, the role of Canadians in the establishment and assistance of the Underground Railroad provides a remarkable record. Estimates suggest that between 30,000 and 100,000 escaped to Canada through this network of safehouses, most of whom settled in Upper Canada, now Southern Ontario, between Windsor and Toronto. The Underground Railroad also fed the developing black settlements in Nova Scotia, Lower Canada (now Quebec), and Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas' opposition to slavery bolstered the political independence of the island from the United States.
The Underground Railroad itself took on a spiritual significance for many of those for whom it provided a path out of slavery. The liberation of the first Israel from bondage in Egypt resonated in the hearts of black American slaves. Negro spirituals reflected a shared hope that God would once again deliver His people from bondage, to a new promised land. Some songs, like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", became signals to fellow slaves that the eyes of the slave owner were turned away for a moment, and that the time for escape had arrived. Each river became a new Jordan to be crossed, and the North Star - like a light over a New Bethlehem - pointed the way to freedom in Canada.
The spiritual inheritance many enslaved blacks brought with them from Africa was profoundly steeped in ancient African Christianity. The connection to the first Israel - although often forgotten or unknown by black Americans seeking their freedom - found its roots in the ancient Orthodox kingdom of Ethiopia, which traced its own roots through the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Their legacy was an ennobled legacy: a legacy of Christian kings, who were from the start Orthodox, baptized at the hand of Saint Frumentius, the apostle to Abyssinia. Their prayers, their dance, and the tone of their spiritual songs were all shaped by their roots in the Orthodox Church, and they joined their prayers for freedom to the prayers of their own Orthodox ancestors on the African continent.
Despite the loss of much of this memory, the black American slaves who found their freedom through the Underground Railroad to Canada, also shared unknowingly in the ascetic struggles of another African saint, Moses the Ethiopian, called the Black. Named for the darkness of his early criminal life, as much as for the colour of his skin, Saint Moses proved to be an exemplar of humility and repentance. Like Saint Moses, black American slaves lived in exile from their homeland, in the new Egypt of America. Like Saint Moses, they endured a humbling of soul, which could only result in a turning to the Lord, or toward despair. And like Saint Moses, the crucible of life in the spiritual Egypt forced a confrontation with their own humanity and weakness. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers tell us of the following account:
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, "What is this, Father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
Such humility is for the most part lost in the suburban neighbourhoods of Canada today. Yet it is the noble struggle in Christ of this spiritual giant that is the inheritance of each descendent of the emancipated black American slaves who found freedom in Canada.
Yet the kind of freedom Canada offered was and remains far from ideal. While the Canadian situation is arguably better for black youth and adults than that of their peers south of the border, the life they inherited in Canada was far from the noble heritage they had lost. Materialism has largely cut off black youth from their own spiritual roots. Life in suburban wastelands has not offered black Canadian youth a path back to their Orthodox Christian roots, but too often a recipe for a cycle of poverty, violence, and family breakdown. The pride in their heritage they are offered is too often the false pride of an adolescent swagger, in contrast to joy and inner stillness through Christ, tasted by their ancestors through the harshest of circumstances.
Modern secular solutions to the challenges of life for black youth have yet to rediscover this inheritance. The path of Christ presents what seems to be a weak picture, in contrast with the base assertiveness of a false ghetto culture. Here again, Saint Moses provides the example:
The magistrate heard about Abba Moses one day and he went to Scetis to see him. They told the old man. He got up and fled to the marsh. Some people met him and said to him, 'Old man, tell us where the cell of Abba Moses is.' He said to them, 'What do you want with him? He is a fool.' So the magistrate went back to the church and said to the ministers, 'I heard people talk about Abba Moses and I went to see him, but there was an old man going into Egypt who crossed our path and we asked him where Abba Moses' cell is, and he said to us , "What do you want with him? He is a fool."' When they heard this, the clergy were offended and said, 'What kind of an old man was it who spoke like that about the holy man to you?' He said, 'An old man wearing old clothes, a big black man. 'They said, 'It was Abba Moses himself and it was in order not to meet you that he said that.' The magistrate went away greatly edified.
North America, once sold to people around the globe as a kind of "promised land", has revealed itself to be merely the fulfillment of material dreams. The emptiness of urban life in Canada is evident to all who have ears to hear: to business owners who wonder if there must not be more to life than work, to suburbanites who scratch around for some fulfillment beyond what the shopping mall can deliver, and to immigrants who fear they have lost something of the spiritual life they knew in their former homeland.
Like all these, black North Americans, descendants of former slaves, can claim a noble history: a history of saints and holy ones who lived the fullness of the Orthodox faith. It is through reclaiming this inheritance - their own inheritance - that the fullness of life in a new land can be rediscovered, and through it, life in the true Promised Land.
Selections taken from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward SLG, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo MI, 1975.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.