The Lifeline Expedition in France May 15 June 9 2002
When the members of the Lifeline Expedition came together at Bethanie Centre in Normandy in mid-May for a few days of orientation, we were full of anticipation, but also full of questions. Our team consisted of people from Belgium, Cameroon, France, Mali, Martinique, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Togo, United Kingdom and USA. Would this diverse group be able to gel together to become a community who could "embody forgiveness"? We were about to do something very unusual - for the first time white people were going to walk in chains and yokes as an act of apology for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. How would people respond to this action? Was it really appropriate?
The phrase "Embodying Forgiveness" comes from a book of that title by Gregory Jones (published by Grand Rapids 1995) and it well describes our calling. In it he explains that forgiveness is not a gift that we receive as isolated individuals, but that it is a gift of the Spirit for us as people belonging to different races. It is connected to the narratives of our past and therefore calls us into communion with each other. "In such communion, we are invited and required to learn to tell the story of each of our pasts, not ultimately in terms of violence committed or suffered, but in terms of the new life that induces us to repent and invites us to become holy in the future." (page 173)
In those early days at Bethanie, which was for us a very special safe place, we began this process of learning together. It was never easy. When we, as a group of people committed ourselves in an area of reconciliation, it was amazing how deeply we identified with the sins of our forefathers. So for example, the Swiss members of the team felt deeply about the way Swiss banks supplied the funds for many voyages from the French slave ports. After just three days together, we had our first major assignment...
Rouen - a significant beginning.
On Saturday May 18th, we drove down to Rouen and met with Pastor Gilles Boucomont of the Eglise Reformee who had organised our visit. He took us first of all to the Town Hall where a reception had been arranged. While we waited in the entrance hall a beautiful thing happened. A young couple (Afro-Caribbean and white French) came to register their first child. These were the first people we spoke to and who received our leaflet. This seemed very significant to us as we realised that this was also the day for us that we were publicly registering that something new had come to birth in terms of reconciliation between Europe and Africa.
Soon afterwards we were in that public context of the reception which included speeches by Councillor Dr Chabert and David Pott. Dr Chabert had stayed up till 1am the night before preparing his speech, which showed great understanding about the issues surrounding the slave trade and it's awful legacy today. He asked for forgiveness on behalf of his city and proposed that the nations of the West make restitution to the nations of Africa and the West Indies where these atrocities took place. Though Rouen was not directly involved in the slave trade they benefited greatly from the labour of slaves as they were heavily involved in the cotton industry. Interviews followed with the Sunday newspaper Liberte Dimanche and France Bleu Radio. It just so happened that the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Rafarin and the Minister of Education were also due to arrive shortly at the Town Hall and we were very grateful that Dr Chabert was able to present to them the project of the Lifeline Expedition with our literature and also one of our T-shirts! After an excellent lunch prepared by members of the church, we prepared to walk in the coffle (the word used to describe a group of slaves chained together) for the first time. We used a short scriptural liturgy, which included these words:
Those to be chained: We are free men and women Called in the Lord to become Christ's slaves. We choose to be bound as Christ was bound, As a way of taking up the cross to follow Him. We are slaves of no one except God, So we will walk as free men and women of God.
The others: It is for Christ's sake that we bind you with these chains - You are prisoners in the Lord Slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. We declare that it is for the sake of the gospel of peace That you walk this day as ambassadors in chains.
We walked fairly fast along a route that had been agreed with the authorities. Many people continued with their business and barely glanced at the procession, but others stopped and stared and some wanted to ask questions. One young man from North Africa read one of our leaflets and later ran to catch up with us to ask if he could take some for his friends to read. We stopped at the magnificent Rouen Cathedral, where we were welcomed by a representative of the bishop and the vicar general.
We ended the walk in chains at the Reformed Temple, which was once a Catholic Cathedral but was given to the Protestants by the Catholics under the order of Napoleon in 1803 as recompense for the brutality shown by the Catholics to the Protestants during the religious wars. One reason we visited Rouen was that in 1642, it is recorded that two members of the Reformed Church protested about other members who were involved in the slave trade. These two members were censured by the Synod and that decision opened up the way for further Protestant involvement in the trade. We have proposed that that decision taken in 1642 should be revoked at the forthcoming Synod in Rouen this autumn. We ended our time in Rouen with a time of prayer at the docks on the River Seine.
The other former slave ports.
Space does not permit such detailed descriptions of our visits to the other former slave ports, so these snapshots will have to suffice!
- Honfleur. (May 20) A very attractive old port at the mouth of the Seine, important in the early years of the French slave trade. We realised that we must walk more slowly and stop more often, both to pray more effectively and to allow the visual impact of the slave coffle to impress itself on people. It was effective having Monette, a slave descendant, leading the coffle, with our rainbow coloured symbol of the snake on the pole this was a constant reminder of Godıs promises and his power to heal the wounds of the past and the present. Gilbert from Togo walked behind the coffle drumming quietly on his djembe. That sound was like the heartbeat of Godıs love for Africa as well as being an aid for us in walking with a rhythm and in unity together.
- St Malo (May 24) The weather during the whole of our trip was not what you expect in France in late May and June!! Yet every time we walked in chains it stayed dry. The night before our time in St Malo, it poured with rain and the next morning it was still pouring down as we drove to St Malo. Would we be able to go ahead? Yes! As we approached St Malo, we discerned approaching brightness and the weather rapidly improved and stayed that way till we were done. We spent some time in the morning praying from a height across the river that this walled town would open up! After some tricky moments, permission was granted. We walked once around the walls and then into the centre of the town. The local Christians who came with us had never walked and prayed around St Malo in this way before and there was a strong sense of a breakthrough in a spiritually hard place.
- Nantes (May 26) This was the most significant of the former slave ports from which two thirds of the slave trade voyages from France set out. We were led by Andrew West, a local church leader, who describes here what happened: "On the Sunday afternoon we walked for 2_ hours in the streets of Nantes, praying for forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a powerful time. There weren't many people out and about in Nantes, because it was Mothering Sunday here, but many of those who saw the march - particularly seeing the five people who were yoked and chained together, just as slaves would have been - were very interested. It's the first time that we have seen leaflets being avidly read at once!"
- La Rochelle (May 30) The focus of our walk was the Old Port from which the slave ships would have sailed. The towers, which are on either side of the entrance channel, have stood here since the 14th century. As we paused at the foot of the St Nicholas Tower, Nadege from France felt that we should all kneel down by the quayside. Our time of prayer and confession there was deeply moving. As we knelt there together, the gentle breeze which had been blowing into the harbour, strengthened into a strong wind and we noticed too that the tide had risen since we had started the walk. So often on our journey we found that things that were going on in the creation were a stimulus and encouragement to us.
- Bordeaux (June 2) Media coverage was excellent here. Interviews on France Trois TV with Edmond (France) and Monette (Martinique) went very well. There was a report and photo in Sud-Ouest newspaper and radio interviews included one with Voice of America which is heard extensively in Africa. We were especially encouraged by the response of slave descendents (mostly from Guadeloupe and Martinique) who we met on the streets. Here are some of their comments -
"ENFIN!... At last we can see that white people are taking our history seriously ... Thank-you for what you are doing... Keep going! ... But there is much more that needs to be done."
On the Line
On the Line
The vision of the Lifeline Expedition is closely linked to the Greenwich meridian line, so apart from our visits to former slave ports, these were other places we visited...
The meridian line enters France from the English Channel at Villers-sur-Mer where there is a prominent meridian marker. In the light of the troublesome history between England and France, we decided on a simple symbolic action. The three English members of the team waded out into the channel in line with the meridian, carrying the rainbow snake on the pole. They then turned around and walked through the waves to the beach where they received a very warm and heartfelt welcome from the French, who received the snake on the pole. Then we walked on along the meridian line and we committed ourselves afresh to work together to bless the nations.
St Pierre-sur-Dives is a small Normandy town with its own Greenwich café! Here after a civic reception, we were invited to pray in the impressive abbey church. The context was rather different from what most team members were used to! The priest welcomed us dressed in all his vestments. We wondered what he must have been thinking as he was introduced to each one and we explained where we all came from. We began with a time of silence, listening to discern God's heart for the town. Then we prayed respectfully in turn blessings upon the town and its people and on the church. We read some scripture promises. Then together we declared the adaptation of Tennyson's poem with the blast of the shofar echoing around to enforce those powerful words: Chassez les tenebres du pays / Faites place au jubile du seigneur Jesus! (Blow out the darkness of the land / Bring in the Lord Christ's jubilee!) It is certain that nothing quite like this had happened there before!
Neuvillalais is a small village not far from Le Mans and here we received a very warm welcome, which included eating together at the Meridian Bar. There we sampled a bewildering variety of local pates and cheeses and there was plenty of good wine, including their own special with the "Greenwitch" label! Yes that was the spelling! God is interested in the small places and, perhaps because of their meridian line location, the people in this village look beyond to the wider world and are interested in the call to reconciliation. They asked us to help them establish a twinning relationship with another village in England on the line. The plan would be that after that the two villages would combine together to link with an African village. Our journey through France was not unlike the snake on the pole - we looped out especially to the west of the line, but we always came back to it. When we came back to the line it was an opportunity to align ourselves afresh to Godıs purposes for us as individuals and as a community of reconcilers. So for example on the day we drove from Nantes to Poitiers, we stopped a few miles short of Poitiers at Chalandray and had a time of recommitment there at the meridian marker. Poitiers itself is an important centre spiritually in France. Our time there had been carefully organised by Anne Marie Fitzgerald who has also done excellent translation work for the project. We walked in chains through the heart of the city and then had a reception in the Town Hall. We made a return visit to Chalandray to share with the pupils at the Meridian school there.
Other places we visited by the line included St Maixent, Angouleme and Pau. The churches that hosted us in these places were quite small in numbers but all had a big heart for Africa so our role was simply to encourage and affirm their commitment. Hospitality in these places and in so many others was outstanding. We were amazed at the way people squeezed us into their homes and fed us like royalty. We know that this kind of hospitality opens the way for the kingdom of God and brings His blessing in all sorts of ways.
As we reflect on what took place during the walk, we are conscious that there were some special features which have become part of the culture of the Lifeline Expedition. There is the important place of symbols - the rainbow snake on the pole, the djembe and the shofar reminding us of the jubilee year and the release of slaves. Then there were the chains and yokes themselves. Jesus took the cross, a dreadful instrument of torture and disarmed and transformed its meaning. Something similar occurred with the chains and yokes. They became a sign of unity. Male and female, Catholic and Protestant, English and French were bound together literally as one coffle. Walking together required close interdependence and sensitivity to each other. Those who were yoked together felt a special bond of unity. We understood what St Paul meant when he spoke of someone as a "loyal yokefellow." (Philippians 4:3)
Lively times of intercession were another feature. Often issues came up very naturally. For example we heard that Paul (Cameroon) and Monette's daughter Severine had had two obscene phone calls. We began to pray about the situation but this soon led into a time of praying into the awful abuse that black slave women suffered at the hands of the sailors and plantation owners and of course similar abuse continues today. We used water symbolically as we prayed about removing shame. We were often aware of the intensity of spiritual warfare - our khaki T-shirts were certainly appropriate for the battle!
We enjoyed some great spontaneous times of worship African style led by Marguerite (Mali) and Monette with Gilbert's djembe accompanying us. A high point was when we arrived in Nantes. Our hosts had prepared a magnificent BBQ which we had in their roomy garage as it was raining. During the meal Marguerite and Monette struck up with a song where you sing God's blessing on a different nation each refrain. It was hilarious seeing the reps of each nation come into centre circle and dance - sometimes in extraordinary ways! Every time we took off the chains we sang the South African song "Freedom is coming! Oh Yes I know!" Perhaps this is the first time it has been sung in French?
In the last photo of our journey, Nadege (Europe), Gilbert (Africa) and Monette (Caribbean) tumbled across the snowfield and inadvertantly formed this triangle. As reconciled representatives of the former triangular trade, they express perfectly what the Lifeline Expedition is all about.
We spent the last few days at a spectacular location in a gite at Gedres in the Pyrenees, ten kilometres north of the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Spanish border. As we reflected on our experience, we knew that by God's grace we had completed the task successfully. However it had not been easy. Tiredness, media exposure and lack of time to process what was going on threatened our unity, but it held.
Our final walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie took place on Friday June 7th, a day earlier than planned because of a very poor forecast for the Saturday. It was the last day we walked in chains and tourists were very responsive. Monette forgot to bring the rainbow snake on the pole, which normally leads our procession, but God provided something even better.... As we walked upwards, a rainbow encircled the sun, possibly caused by snow particles blowing off the top of the cirque. It was like God's seal on what had taken place. Half of us scrambled on up to the base of the waterfall. It is the highest in Europe and the Greenwich meridian line intersects the top of it. We had a marvellous time praying for God's blessing on the nations there and then we glissaded and tumbled and laughed our way across a snowfield and back down the valley. One of the team was sure the Lord had said He would sound with thunder. It was not the sort of day for normal thunder, but at one moment there was a sound like thunder and we turned round and witnessed the awesome sight of an avalanche high up on the cirque. The words of Psalm 29 are a fitting description of this grand finale:
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name, Worship the Lord in the splendour of His holiness. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; The God of glory thunders, The Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
We are now in the process of seeking the right way ahead. We believe that the action of walking in chains has been shown to be effective as a symbolic and prophetic act of apology in connection with the slave trade. We plan to continue in Spain and Portugal in 2003 and there are possibilities of further journies along former slave trade routes in West Africa and perhaps to the Americas also.
However if these journeys are indeed God's will, then we believe that we will need to build a stronger base of supporters. That is why we are seeking to raise up "Friends for the Journey." We would also like to find the right people to assist with the considerable administration involved in organising these journeys. We are also aware of the potential for raising funds for various projects in Africa. We have been able to give to projects in Mali, Togo and Ghana after the expeditions in England and France, but we expect that much more could be done through the Lifeline Expedition in this regard. We believe we are called to oppose the greed and avarice of the West and to stimulate a flow of generosity instead. The challenge of Isaiah 58:6-14 is something we have often read and declared together on the expedition and there is a powerful drum beat like urgency about the way we are called to "loose the chains of injustice/ untie the cords of the yoke/set the oppressed free/ break every yoke/share you food with the hungry/provide refugees with shelter/clothe the naked/spend yourselves for the hungry/ satisfy the needs of the oppressed." Our hope is that those who read this report will identify with this calling and join us as "Friends for the Journey."
May God make safe for us each step May God make us one on our journey May God make clear the path ahead And may He take us in the clasp of His own two hands.
(adapted from Gaelic prayer in Carmina Gadelica, collected by Alexander Carmichael 1900)
There are so many people who participated in the expedition in different ways. I am so grateful first of all to all the team, who gave themselves in wholehearted commitment. Thank-you to all those who provided us with such marvellous hospitality. Thank you also to Anne-Marie Fitzgerald for translation, Zoe Pott for design work on leaflets, T-shirts and this report, Andrew Winter of Source Communications for photocopying facilities and constant encouragement, Nadine Roure and the staff at YWAM Le Gault for their support, my wife Pam for her inspiration and "holding the fort" and finally, thank-you to all the faithful intercessors!