New Jersey pastor sails sabbatical seas aboard Amistad

New Jersey pastor sails sabbatical seas aboard Amistad

January 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

"You can see how Amistad's presence makes an impact on Freetown, visually as well as spiritually," says the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, a UCC minister who is working aboard the Amistad Freedom Schooner during its cross-Atlantic voyage. Paul Bryant-Smith photo.
'Floating icon' in midst of Atlantic Freedom Tour

Christmas day was different this time around for the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith. Instead of a leisurely day celebrated with his family, he was catching a plane to Sierra Leone, on the western coast of Africa.

There he joined the Freedom Schooner Amistad, where he began a three-month sabbatical on board as a volunteer deckhand and educator.

At Christmas, the ship already was seven months into its 17-month Atlantic Freedom Tour. Bryant-Smith, pastor of First Congregational UCC in River Edge, N.J., is sailing the infamous Middle Passage, the second leg of the old slave route where captives from Africa were brought to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Along the way, the Amistad is stopping in Dakar, Cape Verde and Barbados before Bryant-Smith returns home in time for Easter. "It's fabulous that he can do this," said the Rev. John Deckenback, the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference Minister. "Amistad is a floating icon for those in this area. It's a beloved symbol. You cannot understand the mission of the UCC without knowing the Amistad influence."

Justice advocacy is mission

Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith
Bryant-Smith loves telling the Amistad story. In 1839, 53 Africans — 49 men and four children — were captured in Sierra Leone and brought to Cuba to be sold as slaves. In Havana, the captives were put on the 119-foot, Cuba-based coastal schooner, Amistad. Ironically, the word amistad is Spanish for friendship.

During a storm some captives broke free, said Bryant-Smith. They killed the captain and cook and ordered two of the remaining four Spaniards to steer the ship east toward their African homeland, according to "The Amistad Event," a brochure published by the UCC. "But the Spaniards tricked them. By day they sailed east; by night they sailed west by the stars. For two months they zig-zagged," the brochure reads.

The Gulf Stream drew them north to the United States, Bryant-Smith said. They came ashore in New London, Conn., where the 39 remaining adult male Africans were charged with mutiny, arrested and jailed, according to Amistad America's website.

Many New England Congregationalists joined forces with other abolitionists and, within a week of the ship's capture, had formed the Amistad Committee to raise money for the defense of the captives.

Language was a barrier to learning the Africans' story. So Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale, visited the captives and learned to count to 10 in Mendi, the language of the Africans. Then he went to New York and walked along the docks repeating the Mendi numbers to find a person who understood Mendi, according to the UCC brochure.

Gibbs did — and brought a native Mendian back to New Haven, so he could hear the full story of the Amistad. Yale Divinity students tutored the captives; the Committee hired a matron to teach the children.

In 1841, John Quincy Adams argued before the Supreme Court that the Africans were not enslaved, but were people born free who had been kidnapped and thus had a right to freedom. After two years in prison, the court freed the 35 Africans who had survived. "They were dumped out of jail," Bryant-Smith said, "with no provision to send them home."

The Amistad Committee supported the Africans while raising money for their passage home to Africa. First Congregational UCC in Farmington, Conn., housed the Africans from March to November, 1841. They converted a barn into a dorm for the men and placed the children with families, Bryant-Smith said.

"They lived, worked and worshipped among us," said the Rev. Ned Edwards, the church's pastor. He said he considers the Amistad experience a turning point for his church in the way it considered mission.

On Nov. 27, 1841, 35 survivors, along with five Americans — two black and three white, two of whom were ministers — sailed for Africa, where they arrived in January 1842. The Americans worked to establish the Mendi Mission.

Five years later, the Amistad Committee helped create the American Missionary Association, the first anti-slavery mission society in America. In 2000, the AMA's name was changed to Justice and Witness Ministries, one of the UCC's four Covenanted Ministries.

Bryant-Smith paused in his narrative. "You know, Steven Spielberg [producer and director of the 1997 movie 'Amistad'] did not establish the connection with the Connecticut Congregational churches. That's our story, a UCC story."

Connecticut's tall freedom ship

Today's Amistad Freedom Schooner was built in Mystic, Conn., in the 1990s and is 10 feet longer than its historic counterpart. The modern ship needed room for diesel engines and life boats. Its home port is New Haven, Conn., and it is one of the official Tall Ships of Connecticut.

For the past four years, Bryant-Smith has donated two of his four weeks of annual vacation each year to live on the ship as a deckhand and educator. When the ship is under sail, he "works the sails, takes a watch at the helm." He helps maintain the vessel, scraping and painting. He helps repair rigging and clean toilets — "heads, as they're called on a ship."

And he teaches. Bryant-Smith especially enjoys sharing the Amistad story with groups of school children who visit the schooner. "I take the group below deck, in the summer heat, turn off the lights. We're tightly packed, and people start to experience the sensation of what it was like" for the captive Africans. There were 59 on the historic Amistad — 53 captives — as well as six Spaniards: the captain, navigator, cook, the two plantation owners who wanted the captives as slaves, and a cabin boy.

For this year's Atlantic Freedom Tour there are 20 aboard, a crew of 12 and eight college students.

Amistad America planned the tour to begin in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Wilberforce Declaration, which Great Britain passed in 1807, making illegal the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The recent movie, "Amazing Grace," told the story of William Wilberforce and his work getting the declaration passed.

The Amistad began its tour June 21 — the eve of the opening of the UCC's General Synod in Hartford, Conn. — when the ship set sail from its home port of nearby New Haven. Many UCC members from across the nation were on hand, including the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president.

'Ambitious trip'

"This is the most ambitious trip we've done," said Greg Belanger, president and CEO of Amistad America. "It's the first time we've gone to West Africa and Sierra Leone. It's a real milestone for us."

A year ago the captain of Amistad, Eliza Garfield, invited Bryant-Smith to go to Africa and sail the Middle Passage. "Whenever he has vacation or can reach us, he volunteers," Garfield said. "After three years of that I offered him this opportunity. It's a very humble position. He'll be teaching, taking part of the watches. Everybody gets to do everything."

Bryant-Smith is the UCC representative in the educational piece of the trip, "the anti-racist work that we do. He's an inspiration to all of us. I'm really looking forward to having him on board," Garfield said in a telephone interview from Portugal where the ship was in port in early November.

For Bryant-Smith, this is a dream come true. His wife, Kimberly, has been a "wonderful support," he said. "She said, 'Do it now.'"

Their son, Ian, 11, is eager to work on Amistad, too. He's looking forward to when he is in high school and might be able to have a crew job.

Upon his return home, Bryant-Smith envisions his Amistad work continuing. He hopes to bring back to his church "a greater understanding of our Congregational ancestors and their justice work. It's an opportunity for this church to be active in the community, making presentations about the work our UCC continues to do."

Bryant-Smith is a member of the board of directors of the Central Atlantic Conference and is chair of its mission committee.

In January 2007 he was invited to bring the Amistad story to Immanuel UCC in Cambridge, Md., as part of that church's annual mission dinner.

"We were delighted with his stories," said the Rev. Joan Evans, pastor of Immanuel UCC. "He knows how to use Amistad for telling the story of freedom. We are working on a dream to have Amistad stop in our community. Racial relations are still an issue in Cambridge."

Deckenback agrees that Bryant-Smith has captured the Amistad experience. The sabbatical on the Amistad "is a marvelous use of his time," Deckenback said. "The social justice culture of the UCC derives from this. Clearly Amistad has had a major impact." 

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