A clearing in a forest.

Photograph Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

It was in the clearing: hush harbors and soul freedom, past and present

July 27, 2023

It was in “The Clearing,” a hush harbor, that a gifted exhorter of the word named Baby Suggs preached to her congregation to love themselves and to love one another. In Beloved, author Toni Morrison brings the hush harbor to life in a way I had never experienced. Hush harbors, sometimes also referred to as brush harbors or bush arbors, were the secret meeting places of enslaved Africans. These sacred meeting places were usually nestled in wooded areas cleared either by nature or by the hands of my enslaved ancestors. These meeting places were buried deep in the woods out of the sight and earshot of their slave masters and were our places of worship.

It was in these spaces that enslaved Africans would steal away so that they might be free to worship, authentically. In these spaces, they were free to express African Christian worship practices and to show up authentically as who God created them to be. In the hush harbors, religious freedoms began to come alive for enslaved Africans. Dr. Wayne E. Croft notes, “However, enslaved Africans lived out Baptist principles in the ‘invisible institution’ long before the Baptist denomination was officially established in the United States…” [i] Croft states that Africans employed Bible freedom, interpreting the gospel from the lens of the oppressed, and enjoyed soul freedom as they spoke and prayed to God without an oppressive intercessor. It was in the hush harbors that our identity and humanity were affirmed.

As the world witnesses the attack on black bodies – women, men, girls and boys, murdered by convenience store owners, ordinary citizens and police, I understand “The Clearing” is a place of safety. As we witness Scripture utilized to suggest that women have no place as preacher, teacher or pastor, “The Clearing” is a place of restoration. As we witness that persons who do not identify as cisgender, heterosexual white males have no place in church leadership or that LGBTQI+ persons need to be “delivered,” “The Clearing” is a place of healing. When we try to whitewash history, turn a blind eye, close our ears, and stitch up our lips to biases and injustices we are employing the oppressive practices that require the continued existence of hush harbors.

The hush harbors of social media groups, chat rooms, coffee houses, spiritual retreats, podcasts, book clubs, community organizations, and interest groups are “The Clearings” we can see. These are the places that are known by many, where we can steal away to envision what we hope for. “The Clearing” is where we can find peace, acceptance, belonging, and gain clarity about the journey ahead. These are the sacred spaces equipping those of us who have been pushed to the margins to develop a decolonized, spiritually rooted community of revolutionaries. Only in “The Clearing” do we see, hear, feel, and recognize a community thriving in the spirit of Ubuntu – I am because we are.

Hush harbors were the secret meeting places of enslaved Africans in which our identity and humanity were affirmed. What our ancestors started in the hush harbors unfortunately must live on today, so that those of us who have been pushed to the margins can find peace, acceptance, belonging, and gain clarity about the journey ahead.

“More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize,” Baby Suggs exhorted in “The Clearing.”[ii] Humanity was and is affirmed in these invisible institutions where freedom and autonomy can be exercised. From these unseen institutions, creativity, courage, and revolutions are birthed. What our ancestors started in the hush harbors unfortunately must live on today. These sacred spaces must live on because these are the places where persons who do not identify as cis hetero white men feel safe to gather to worship, pray, question, and lament in whatever manner we need to. These are the places where we strengthen ourselves and one another so that we do not perish under the horrific physical conditions and mental turmoil brought about by churches who exclude us and condemn us.

Many of us are looking for our members. We are wondering where they went in this post-COVID reality. I will tell you where they are. Theyre in “The Clearing”! The stark reality of the pre-existing political and social conditions of America was amplified as a result of COVID. And like us, our members were forever changed. Realities shifted, priorities were realigned, and people are currently choosing to be in spaces where they can find peace, acceptance, and joy. They are choosing spaces where they can safely lament and mourn. They are finding spaces where they can authentically worship.

The question is, are we prepared to resist centering ourselves, our traditions, and our institutions and are we equipped to join them in “The Clearing”? As a Christian, I recognize now is the time! We were called for such a time as this to be transformers and agents of change and healing in communities that are crying out for transformation and restoration. We are called as healers and bridge builders to unite in dismantling systems of oppression, calling out promoters of oppressive -isms and mitigating unconscious biases in congregations and communities.

While I cannot define for my fellow Christians how they might influence change or what specific actions they can take in their individual contexts, I pray that this writing encourages others to take some time to reflect and to consider how we can be the change needed to transform society from the power of our hush harbors.

Rev. Dr. Ebony D. Only serves as inaugural community chaplain fellow for Bishop Anderson House and is executive pastor First Baptist Church of University Park in University Park, Illinois. She is a vibrant, energetic, and humble preacher and teacher of God’s word who takes God’s message of justice and grace to workshops, retreats, conferences, conventions and pulpits across the United States. 

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Wayne E. Croft, Sr., A History of the Black Baptist Church:  I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired (Valley Forge, Judson Press, 2020), p. 195.

[ii] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, paperback edition, 2004), p. 104.

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