At our annual Summer Camp Banquet, the campers from our theatre elective performed a play written and directed by third year counselor, Marchelle Huggins, entitled, Black to the Future. An Afrofuturist drama, Black to the Future tells the story of a young man, named Chris, who is transported through time and space by the power of a mysterious watch his great-great-great-great-grandfather made while enslaved on a North Carolina plantation. Abandoned by his parents as an infant and recently laid off by his job of five years, Chris is wrestling with bitterness and despair while attempting to find purpose and meaning in his life. As the watch takes him on a journey across generations, he meets several ancestors living at critical junctures of American history whose stories help him piece together his fragmented past. Each interaction peels back a layer of Chris’ identity, revealing anger, pain, confusion, and mistrust. Ultimately, Chris receives hope and healing for his wounded heart, but only after being vulnerable enough to reveal his brokenness.
The hope that Chris discovers is the hope of one who has dared to beat the odds (bitterness, despair, mistrust). In African-American culture, there is a movement known as Afrofuturism, which dares to imagine the possibility of a liberated future by combining elements of science fiction, history, fantasy, and magical realism. From a Christian perspective, Afrofuturism allows us to tell hope-filled stories of what life will be like in the new heaven and new earth, stories of what life will be like when death, pain and crying are no more. Afrofuturism allows us to tell stories of a kingdom that has no boundaries, yet is breaking through in the bounds of the here and now. Afrofuturism allows us to tell stories of a kingdom that is beyond our place and time, yet—as Jesus told his disciples—is in our very midst.
In Black to the Future, Chris’ journey gives us resounding glimpses into the emergence of God’s kingdom here on earth, glimpses that reverberated throughout the summer camp. Take for instance a camper named Isaiah. New to Urban Hope this year, Isaiah bounced in the door each morning bringing boatloads of energy. In fact, his peers dubbed him “Most Energetic” as part of our camp superlatives. Even during our Freedom Readers sessions, Isaiah was eager to read, despite the fact that he, admittedly, could not read well. He shared how schools had passed him along without addressing the need; but instead of shrinking back from the challenge, he read with a hope and determination to get better. Just like Chris, Isaiah was not ashamed to reveal his weakness knowing that God is pleased to provide us with strength (2 Corinthians 12:9).
While experiencing the kingdom of God has a profound impact on our personal lives, it is best understood in the way it transforms our life together with others, in the way it transforms our communities. The courage Isaiah demonstrated in reading was not just for himself. It also served as an invitation to his peers to respond with patience, compassion and affirmation. Reflecting on the situation with Todd, one of the counselors in the Durham Dynomite track (rising 7th and 8th graders), we realized something remarkable had taken place. Rather than choosing to jeer or deride him, the kids in Isaiah’s track embraced the opportunity to create a safe place trusting that the freedom offered to him would be mutually liberating. They trusted—if only for those reading sessions—that the gift of vulnerability granted to Isaiah, could also be granted to them whenever the time or need might arise. Is that not the taste of a new heaven and a new earth? Are we not called to trust God and others with the totality of our being believing that God will take the broken pieces of our lives and set us on a path toward healing and wholeness? Isaiah’s courageous vulnerability produced a ripple effect on the kids in his track allowing them to give us a glimpse of liberated life in the kingdom.
In the wake of the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Isaiah’s story has me wondering how courageous vulnerability might bear witness to the reality of God’s kingdom within our larger society. Let me take us Black to the Future one more time to an exchange Chris (pictured left) has with an ancestor named Harold who fought in World War II as one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Chris asks Harold, “How could you fight for this country? Don’t you hate white people and all that they have done? You know they won’t respect you when you come home, right?”
Harold responds, “Those are good questions…I fight for what this country could be…One day my children will sing a song of freedom clearer than anything I’ve ever seen or heard. I’m fighting for them. I don’t hate white people. I hate the system that taught them to hate. I hate what a system of white supremacy has done to them.”
We all should hate what white supremacy is doing to all of us. In the end, Chris begins to heal his bitterness and despair by allowing the hope and resilience of his ancestors to speak into his life. What will our path be? I believe it starts by listening to people of color, asking tough questions (What does it mean to be white? How does whiteness grant people power and privilege? How does racism impact the systems and institutions that govern our nation?), and working together to create new ways of being human that are life giving to all. I pray that we learn from young heroes, like Chris and Isaiah, and embody the courageous vulnerability required for the healing of our world, the courageous vulnerability required for us to experience the kingdom of God in our very midst.