Each time I approach Elmina Castle on the Cape Coast of Ghana, I am struck by the beauty of its setting. The Castle sits on a bluff looking out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Swaying palms. Breaking waves. Shimmering white sand on an endless beach. Blazing saffron sunsets.
However, the beauty is counterfeit. Evil permeates Elmina.
The crimes committed at Elmina were brutal, frequent, and systematic. Kidnapping. Rape. Torture. Execution. Starvation. Debasement. Enslavement. My immediate instinct is to turn away.
Originally built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle is the oldest European building south of the Sahara. As ownership passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch and finally the British, Elmina grew into one of the most important storage and transit points for humans leaving Africa in bondage for North and South America.
Between the years 1450 and 1900, slave traders kidnapped an estimated 12.8 million Africans to be sold and shipped to the Americas. The scale was massive.
On my first visit to Elmina, I was stunned to see a church (now a museum) in the central courtyard of the castle. How could people possibly worship God in this evil place as they committed unspeakable crimes just steps from the entry to the sanctuary?
In fact the trans-Atlantic slave trade was made possible through close cooperation between commercial interests, the state, and the church. Moreover, the church not only sanctified the evil, but profited from it.
The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), a Church of England missionary arm, is closely associated with the origins of the Episcopal Church in the United States. It founded and built many churches throughout the colonies.
USPG was a major slave owner. In part, the wealth produced from the Codrington Plantation’s slaves in Barbados funded UPSG’s work in the colonies. USPG did not free its slaves until slavery was abolished in 1833. In addition, American slave owners in both the north and south donated considerable wealth to the Episcopal Church in the form of buildings and endowments.
Those of us who are members of the Episcopal Church today benefit from that legacy every time we enter our peaceful sanctuaries, contemplate a beautiful stained glass window, admire our lovely church buildings, or add up our endowments. Wealth derived from slavery made a good deal of that majesty possible.
The Door of No Return at Elmina Castle is the opposite of majestic. It is in a cramped room at the end of a series of small chambers and corridors leading from the dungeons.
It was from here that people were loaded onto small skiffs and ferried out to the slave ships. Many had never heard or seen the ocean before. Once they passed through the Door of No Return, their histories, their family ties, their identities, their dignity, everything about them was erased. The terror is palpable to this day.
This is where I find God.
God is with the terrorized. God is with the broken. God is with the enslaved.