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I don’t know why I answered ‘yes’ when a woman on the second of three massive concourses at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture asked if I’d seen the most recent documentary on Nat Turner. I had not.

The woman, Kiara, and I were about the same age and both reading a plaque chronicling Turner’s contribution to the freedom movement. Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, led a slave rebellion in August of 1831, one of many insurrections that paved the way for the abolition of slavery.

Kiara went on to note that though she’d grown up with the view that Nat Turner was an unequivocal hero, but that throughout the documentary she had found him somewhat selfish — harsh, even. She found this strangely comforting. Heroes, she said, could be many things.

I listened, nodded at the right moments, and then we went our separate ways.

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I finally made it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. I blocked one full day to see this historical and architectural feat. Upon arriving, I was aware of the weight of the project. Structurally, it required a “giant underground bathtub” just to divert water around the three underground history concourses.

Every inch of the structure is symbolic. Billions of dollars and thousands of hours were poured into the design of the building, modeled after a Yoruban crown, an artifact from one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa — an ethnic group from whom many African Americans today descended. The structure is surrounded by majestic bronze screens, signifying the craftsmanship of free and enslaved African Americans.

The museum tells an unvarnished truth: that slavery built the economic foundation of America. From Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching crusades to Treyvon Martin’s blood-stained hoodie, it demands its place alongside the polished Washington Monument, visible through its iron-wrought slats.

The underground corridors are dark, packed tightly together, and they forced me to move slowly, to wait for the person in front to finish reading, or inhale and tiptoe over their shoulder. The design is intentional: recreating the feel of a slave ship, the ankle-level text evoking shackles. Or for others evoking midnight drum circles and secret worship gatherings.

Black families, White families, Latino families, Arab families: all funneled through narrow corridors, sharing a space and a history.

And that of course, is both Holy and awkward.

I felt so powerless against a history that is filled with such evil. Shame, guilt, and anger all surface. And then an immediate desire to explain, to make sense of it all. As a tall and blonde and (very) white male, reading a plaque about how many slaves the Netherlands’ brought to the ‘New World’ over the shoulder of an African American grandparent is not comfortable. And to see the same man lean in to inspect the robes of an AME minister, pointing them out to his grandchild, feels like intruding on sacred space.

That, of course, is both a privilege and a challenge in this space. I loved what Maya Philips wrote in her New Yorker review of the museum:
I witnessed, among the clamor of schoolchildren, a woman with skinny dreadlocks quietly weeping in front of an exhibition of a slave cabin — unceremoniously blotting her nose and eyes as she continued on through the space. In some sense, the museum, by design, by the limits of its perspective, will always be a failure. In another, in the spaces where the black visitors lingered, looking at their ancestry, and where white visitors passed respectfully, silently, noting their own position in the history — a shared history that implicates all of us in this America — the museum was and will continue to be a success.

The inevitable awkwardness of this all is perhaps why I told Kiara I’d seen a documentary I’d never even heard of. But I remember her words: “Heroes can be many things.”

I found them deeply refreshing, especially juxtaposed against the knee-jerk responses many hold toward this museum. Within a half hour of my Facebook post in which I reported back on what I’d learned, a white graduate student listed six reasons in six separate comments as to why I shouldn’t trust the Smithsonian museum’s thoroughly researched claim that slavery built the economic foundation of America.

We would be wise to listen to Kiara’s reflections: that a nation and a person can be many things: good and evil and gracious and terrible.

The next day, I sat in an ‘adult Sunday school’ at Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church, where two mentors were sharing about their work in Costa Rica, citing the tragedy of our immigration system and the income inequality that spans the Americas.

When asked ‘what can we do,’ Jim simply replied, “Start by creating spaces to be together, journeying into friendship together.” Begin there, and expect those spaces to be messier than you expect.

Holy spaces, after all, are awkward spaces. Our neat and tidy narrative of a Savior entering the world is anything but neat and tidy. During this season of Advent, I am reminded that Jesus entered a world of tumultuously shared space. Not more than a few decades before Jesus’ birth, a Jewish high priest who allied with the Sadducees had 800 pharisees crucified. And beyond this infighting, the bitterness of the Jewish peoples toward the Romans was at its zenith. Jesus entered this world — proclaiming peace and justice, judgment and righteousness. Sharing space with us.

I am encouraged again to live in this real world, to share space with real people; not pretending our history — or any history — does not contain great evil and great good.

Campus Chapel, a student ministry in Ann Arbor, has begun commencing its services with a land acknowledgment, citing the reality that we worship on stolen land. That is awkward. It messes with our history, with our comfort. It places us alongside those who we’d rather not consider.

But it welcomes us to share space with those who might generously offer to share it with us. Be that in the first concourse of the African American Museum of History and Culture, a church sanctuary, or this Advent — in the story of an anything-but-tidy birth of a Savior.

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and founding director of Cohort Detroit, a ministry which aims to raise up a new generation of young leaders who love God deeply, work for justice, and humbly serve marginalized Detroit communities. He fills the cracks in his summers with disc golf and gardening. 

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