A merged congregation bonds over a project to honor the freed and enslaved Africans buried in its cemetery
A historic, predominantly Black congregation in New Jersey seeks to learn the names and stories of more than 300 unidentified souls buried in unmarked graves.
In December 2019, when the Rev. Dr. Wanda Lundy was settling in as the new pastor of Siloam Hope First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she made a discovery that changed her ministry.
Then a newcomer to the community, Lundy was participating in Elizabeth’s Four Centuries in a Weekend -- an annual tour that celebrates the historic city. As the oldest English-speaking church in New Jersey, Siloam Hope First Presbyterian is a regular stop for this annual event.
It was that day, Lundy says, that she was first introduced to the ancestors.
One of the volunteers on duty gestured toward the church’s cemetery, which dates to the late 17th century, and mentioned that there were 313 freed and enslaved Africans buried within its borders in unmarked graves.
What does it mean to be surrounded by this specific company of unnamed enslaved saints?
Lundy had known that the church was steeped in history. Dating back to 1664, First Presbyterian (as it was known for centuries), with its Old First Cemetery, is the final resting place for soldiers of the Revolutionary War and other American patriots.
And the academy built on its premises educated founding fathers, among them Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Yet the story of the freed and enslaved Africans who worshipped in the church’s balcony -- and now lie in unmarked graves -- is virtually untold.
“It was the way she said it, so nonchalantly,” Lundy said. “There’s a great deal written about the history of the European church members, but here you have people whose stories have not been told.
“From that point on, I said, ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I believe the ancestors called me here because they want to be remembered.”
The discovery inspired Lundy to start the 313 Project-- a mission to honor the freed and enslaved Africans who rest in the Old First Cemetery. The project is also helping members of her congregation, as well as the broader Black community, build a stronger sense of identity.
“Community is at the heart of the gospel. And the core to community is identity,” Lundy said. “For people of color, one’s story has not always been affirmed and told in the larger community.”
The 313 Project: Looking back to claim the future
Before coming to Siloam Hope First Presbyterian, Lundy had not served as a pastor in decades. An accomplished educator, Lundy is an assistant professor at New York Theological Seminary, where she teaches world Christianity and directs the mentoring program. But she felt the need to get back in the pulpit.
“Any person in theological education will affirm that the church has changed, which means that theological education must change to address that,” Lundy said. “For me [returning to the pulpit] was bringing theory and practice back together in the 21st century.”
Lundy also had another reason for stepping back into the pulpit: to help unite three merging congregations. A year before her arrival, First Presbyterian Church had merged with two previously merged Presbyterian congregations -- Siloam and Hope Memorial.
Siloam Presbyterian, which had always been a Black congregation, traced its origins to First Presbyterian. The older church, which originally relegated Black congregants to its balcony, had built Siloam a few blocks away in the mid-19th century as a segregated church for African Americans. Now, over 170 years later, the Siloam congregation had come back to the church that founded it.
While two of the three congregations were either white or integrated, the current congregation -- which has about 60 members -- is predominantly Black.
How do the practices of truth telling and reckoning with our institutional histories lead to present-day and future healing?
The 313 Project and its push to honor the hundreds of forgotten souls in the Old First Cemetery has helped unify the three distinct congregations.
Its current goal is to build a monument to the dead -- one that symbolizes where they came from, what they contributed to this country, and how their very survival paved the way for future African Americans. Ultimately, Lundy hopes to learn the names of all the deceased and create a database that may help identify their living descendants.
“I see it as a full circle, coming back to the original church,” said Wanda Sizemore-McRae, the congregation’s clerk of session and a member of Siloam Presbyterian before the congregations merged. Sizemore-McRae said the existence of the graves was common knowledge but she had been surprised at how many there are.
“A lot of merged churches have a hard time coming together,” she said, “but the 313 Project has been a bonding experience. For all of us.”
Congregant Bessie Allen, who grew up attending Hope Memorial, said she also wants to honor the 313.
“We want the monument to be a daily reminder that during the Revolutionary War -- during the time this church was built -- we were here. We were part of it. We want people to know about that history,” she said.
As for the planned monument, Allen said, “God is going to make a way for all this to happen. They [the ancestors] have waited long enough.”
The past informs the future
For Lundy, this project is not only about telling the stories of those who have been silenced for so long; it’s also about building relationships among the living and moving the conversation forward.
“It’s one thing to recognize our past as history. But it’s another to understand that history is not just our past but our future,” said Lundy, invoking the symbolism of the Sankofa bird that will stand atop the monument.
Translated from the Twi language of Ghana, “Sankofa” means “go back and get it.” The symbolic representation shows the bird’s feet facing forward and its head turned back.
“You can’t understand your present until you understand your history,” Lundy said.
Lundy recognizes that her church may be in a unique situation. While some predominantly white congregations have begun reckoning with their racist past, in this congregation the story is more complicated. Indeed, some of the souls in the graves may turn out to be the direct ancestors of people in the pews.
“This church was a beacon of white supremacy. The founders never would have imagined us where we are today,” said Linda Caldwell Epps, a historian, consultant and retired president of the New Jersey Historical Society.
What projects of historical reckoning are happening in and around your community? How could you take part in them?
“I’m glad to see that some institutions are trying to come to terms with what has happened in the past instead of just continuing to ignore it,” she said, citing as examples ongoing research projects at Princeton and Rutgers that are examining the universities’ connection to slavery. “The great force of history is that we carry it within us.”
Epps is among the wide range of partners Lundy has convened to help bring to light this unwritten history. Included among them are faculty from local universities, members of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, a history teacher from South Carolina, Lundy’s theological students -- even the local police chief. The list keeps growing.
‘How much did their lives matter?’
Even though she grew up in Elizabeth, Epps was surprised by the news of the unmarked graves.
She first learned of them in 2012, when First Presbyterian’s previous minister asked her to conduct some preliminary research. Looking through church and historical records, the historian discovered other surprises as well -- such as the extent to which slavery played a role in Elizabeth.
“That there were slave traders who lived in the city is something that was new to me,” Epps said. “Through working with this 313 Project, we are discovering what 17th, 18th and 19th century was like in the city [for people of African descent].”
What is the role of the church in community efforts to uncover the truth of racism and honor the victims of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and other forms of systemic racism?
Cherekana Feliciano, who has done extensive research about African American cemeteries in New Jersey, underscores the importance of initiatives like the 313.
“I think people don’t typically connect New Jersey with slavery,” said Feliciano, the vice president of the New Jersey Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “These kinds of projects talk to that.”
Epps said she thinks the 313 Project fits in with the current anti-racism movements, including Black Lives Matter.
“How much did their lives matter for those who they were working for? Obviously, they didn’t matter so much that these people weren’t put into mass graves,” she said. “It’s time for us to wake up. This country would not be what it is today had it not been for the enslavement of Africans.”
An unexpected source of support
Lundy now has a spreadsheet of more than 150 people with whom she’s built relationships to help bring the 313 memorial to fruition. She likes to say it’s not her building these relationships but the ancestors guiding her. The ancestors, it seems, have also led her to some unexpected champions, including the local police chief.
Since Chief Giacomo Sacca, a lifelong native of Elizabeth, first learned of the mass graves during a routine visit to the church in February 2020, he has become one of the 313’s greatest champions.
“I had a walking post in front of that cemetery as a patrolman. I’d never known there was an unmarked mass grave there. When the reverend told me, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “This is a wrong that we can correct. We can pay them the respect they deserve as human beings, and as national historic figures.”
Since then, Sacca has helped find a local artist to design the memorial with inputs from the community, put out bids to monument companies to collect estimates, and presented the project to the Elizabeth Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which donated $3,000 from its fall fundraiser toward the monument.
Sacca has also proposed additional fundraising opportunities, such as the sale of inscribed brick pavers for a pathway through the cemetery, to be built with volunteer labor from the police force. The brick paver fundraiser went live in November.
All of this, of course, has been happening against the backdrop of the pandemic, which forced the church to close its doors and conduct services online, and the firestorm of racial injustice that has triggered protests against police killings of African Americans.
In May, the Sunday after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Lundy invited Sacca to address the church. During the Zoom meeting, a woman whose grown son has autism said she feared for her son’s life. A nonverbal Black male in his 20s, he walks around town with a hoodie on. And his go-to move when he gets nervous? He shoves his hands in his pockets.
Sacca worked with her and other parents to develop the Safe Interaction Program, which was launched this fall. Besides direct training for individuals with special needs -- and educational resources for their caregivers -- the program offers personalized identification cards, available on the police website, to help facilitate safe encounters with first responders.
“The idea is, when a cop makes a vehicle or pedestrian stop, before they have to say anything to the individual, the cop knows what they’re dealing with,” Sacca said.
Sacca is quick to point out that they never would have developed the program had it not been for the Zoom meeting to which Lundy invited him.
Lundy, again, deflects the credit: “The ancestors are trying to teach us. They are trying to help us.” That is why she is so committed to telling their stories. “As long as I have breath,” she said, “their names are going to be called.”
At the moment, Lundy has 117 names, to be precise, of the 313. At a recent online All Saints’ Day service honoring the dead, members of the congregation read those names aloud, from the youngest (Malvina Manning, age 3 months) to the oldest (Betsey Hoagland, 103).
“What matters is that we know that they are there,” Epps said during the service. She referenced Psalm 102: “The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee” (Psalm 102:28 KJV).
How do projects that reckon with racist histories connect to the liturgical practices of confession, absolution and reconciliation?
‘No one is forgotten’
There is one member of the congregation who may be able to add some names to the monument. Leonard Jackson, a native of Elizabeth, has a list of names he inherited from his mother, Margaret, who descended from the original Siloam Presbyterian members.
A few years before she passed away in 2014, Margaret Jackson entrusted the 13-page printout to her son.
“She told me, ‘I want you to keep this. On the list, you can see where I have marked where you have relatives in that cemetery,’” Jackson said. “But she never told me what to do with it.”
Scanning through the pages, Jackson read off the names of his known ancestors. “Post. That was my mother’s second cousin. Here’s another: William Best. [He] would have been [one of] my mother’s first cousins.”
Then Jackson got to the nameless entries. There are 316, and most of them do not have full names -- or any names, for that matter. Among them: Baby boy, Child of Mr. Daniel, Black woman of Major Hartveld, Child of Miss Lawrence. Colored.
“The way they just threw them in this dirt -- it’s just terrible,” Jackson said. “How can you put someone in the ground when you don’t have their first or last name?”
Will they ever know all the names? Or even the exact number? As information flows in from other sources, the estimated number of souls there grows closer to 370. And, according to Lundy, there may be more bodies buried under the church parking lot.
“Even though we can’t call each and every one of them by name or know just exactly how many they are, we know that they served, they defended, they loved,” Epps said. “By their labor, their love, their songs, they created for us a new world.
“We cannot possibly know all of their names,” she said. “But no one is forgotten in our tribute.”
Innovation isn't a good unto itself; at its core, innovation is about solving problems, says the co-founder of RootedGood. She shares the lessons she has learned as a social entrepreneur.
Is innovation becoming an unholy grail?
It’s tempting to believe the promise of innovation: Innovate and our future will be secured. Start something new and people will flock through the doors. Like the quest to find the holy grail that will lead to everlasting life, the current hunt for innovation seeks a grail that often is anything but holy.
While the drive for innovation might lead to an increase in new programs, new plans and new products, how long is it before they are replaced by other new programs, plans and products?
How often is our constant push for the new and cutting-edge coupled with mounting expectations, competition, burnout and fatigue?
It’s not that we don’t need innovation. But innovation for innovation’s sake is pointless -- and it can be destructive. We must ask ourselves what good innovation is and why it matters.
As someone who has worked with countless entrepreneurs, faith communities and business leaders, and currently helps congregations seeking to innovate, with tools such as our Mission Possible game and The Oikos Accelerator, I have come to recognize these important facets of the innovation process.
Ten aspects of faithful innovation
Good innovation begins with dissatisfaction. Innovation is about change. We have to long for things to be different. This longing isn’t just about style or preference; it is about solving a problem. This means we have recognized that something is fundamentally broken and believe things can be different.
It is fueled by empathy. Empathy is arguably a byproduct of love, and innovation requires loving people and places. It requires proximity -- we must be close enough to care. Empathy is at the heart of good innovation, as well as good design, because it puts people at the center. We have to think first about whom we want to serve and what they want or need, not what we want to do for them.
It isn’t just about great ideas. Innovators want to be the people who create the next shiny object, whether it’s a program, a space or a product. But we need to be careful not to get hung up on our ideas. Innovation isn’t about you and your idea or me and my idea. It should be about the impact we want to make; the idea is the strategy to achieve that impact.
It requires us to know what good is -- and what it looks like. It’s not enough to know what is broken; we have to be able to clearly describe the alternative. What, specifically, is the change we want to see in people, places, policy or systems? When we get clear about that, we’ll be clear about the impact we want to make.
It challenges us to think big. Innovation is not about incremental change, and it’s not about just tweaking things. It’s about having a big, audacious goal and believing -- truly believing -- that anything is possible. Thinking big is a David-and-Goliath mindset. It is Henry Ford aiming not for faster horses but beyond horses. It is Wilberforce aiming not for kinder slavery but beyond slavery. Far too often in the church, we think too small. We have limitations on what we imagine to be possible, and we think with our own survival in mind. But Scripture says that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). All things are possible. Good innovation forces us to act like it!
It requires a willingness to fail. Christianity has never been for the faint of heart. True innovation involves many failed attempts. Yet these failed attempts offer priceless opportunities for learning. This is also why measurement is a critical ingredient. It creates learning loops and helps guard against mission drift. If a measurement reveals that a given innovation is not creating the desired impact, we must change our approach and try again and again and again.
It demands a commitment to excellence. Innovation is undertaken because what is is not good enough. Faithful innovation demands that we think, build and act with a commitment to doing our best and greatest work. Put another way, if our goal is doing good, let’s make sure that we do good work. For far too long now, excellence has not been the hallmark of our work. Over 100 years ago, the church built the best schools and hospitals -- but now? When we need to deal with systemic racism, generational poverty, falling education rates, the church isn’t the place where most people look to bring about new solutions. Why not? Let’s change that!
It takes time. True innovation doesn’t happen overnight or lead to immediate success. In a world that thrives on 24/7, on-demand service, we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can control the timeline. But innovation requires understanding, listening and patience. We may rush to act, but God often asks us to wait, to prepare, to watch and to listen.
It demands collaboration. Innovation isn’t for lone rangers. Collaborators bring with them a diversity of ideas, skills, talent, experience and other networks. They often will see the problem -- as well as opportunities and resources -- from different angles. Resist the urge to see others as competition and to jockey for position.
It emerges from unlikely leaders. The freshest thinking often comes from the margins, not the mainstream. People who innovate often have what my friend Jonny Baker calls “the gift of not fitting in.” I worry that with the increased desire for innovation, we are seeing a “cool kids club” emerging. However, this is the Achilles’ heel of innovation. The more we seek to be seen and validated, the less radical, less innovative, less inclusive we become.
If we are to have faithful innovation, we will be looking for those who are humbly and diligently working for change, unseen, and will listen to their voices and elevate their leadership.
I believe we need innovation because what is is not enough. Innovation should help us do work that transforms the problems of our day and leads to the flourishing of people and communities. It should help us achieve our mission.
Let’s make sure we aren’t chasing an unholy grail. This is a holy endeavor that cannot wait.
From her perspective in the midst of the pandemic and with a new year dawning, a New York pastor advocates for leaders to look again for possibilities.
Advent is upon us, and many are bracing to restart in a new year. Scientists have told us that we need to prepare for more strict precautions in the near term. The weather is getting colder. The virus is getting bolder.
But I have good news for you. We are no longer starting from scratch. We begin this new church year and approach 2021 with wisdom and experience we lacked nine months ago. As we sit in this season of hopeful anticipation, we can lean into the lessons of our recent past, lessons that have prepared us for a more promise-filled future.
Everyone has a COVID-19 story. We have lived through trying times in these months. We might not have all the answers, but we’ve certainly picked up some survival skills. We now have both the burden and the blessing of surviving a pandemic. It is no longer new to us. This doesn’t mean that we have perfected our response, but it does mean that we have been leading through a global crisis and we’re still standing.
Take a moment right now to pat yourself on the back. You’ve lost some things, and heartbreakingly, you may also have lost some people. That pain will persist, but you are still here to tell the story. That is the grace of this moment. We did not know what we were doing, but we somehow found a way to adapt and innovate in a time of radical and sudden change.
Now, imagine what is possible. I’ve experienced the limitations that this pandemic has produced. I’ve wrapped my head around the likelihood that we will never return to normal as we knew it. But this Advent, I am shifting my gaze to what is possible.
In Advent, we typically pause, ponder and wait, but this year that thoughtful consideration is both more deeply reflective and more imperatively active. I invite all leaders to go on the journey of possibilities with me. Innovation is often born out of dire need. We have spent the past nine months naming what we’ve lost.
But approaching the new year, I want us to consider what gains have been and might yet be made. What innovation might be birthed? What and where can we create in the midst of a disrupted rhythm of creation? How can we learn from the loss of this year and allow it to inform how we create?
Within these new possibilities lies the potential for a vocational renaissance. Those with eyes to see will be the progenitors of this movement. So I ask: What do you see?
I see thousands of faith leaders who were afraid of moving into the digital space but are now skilled in video production and content creation. I see neighborhoods and communities looking out for one another. I see young people ordering groceries for the elderly. I see people showing gratitude to teachers, public transit workers, nurses, doctors, janitorial staff and clergy. I see traveling preachers, who had missed their families because they were always on the road, now spending time with their spouses and kids.
What do you see?
I see people getting rid of the unnecessary burdens that used to weigh them down. I see people with preexisting health conditions now being more attentive to their own well-being. I see college students who have to study from home adapting to this new environment and creating new standards of connectivity over social media.
What do you see?
Faced with unprecedented changes, I see the possibility of remembering how fragile human life and shared living really are. We are uncovering the truth that individualistic Americans actually have the capacity to be communal.
We are uncovering the importance of faith communities and faith leadership again. I see countless individuals who were detached from the church coming back to virtual worship services regularly and applying the sermons they’re hearing to the inner recesses of their hearts and minds. I see clergy, no longer obsessed with large crowds, giving attention to how their members are coping with the impact of this virus.
I see the intentionality of pastoral care returning. I see the particularity of caring for our parishioners deepening as we now offer attention to our virtual members. People who worship with us from afar are receiving the same pastoral care as those who worship with us within our own neighborhoods. All of this has the capacity to birth new possibilities.
As 2021 edges closer, we now have experience to build upon. We have seen how deadly this virus can be and how misinformation can literally kill someone. We’ve seen how we must live communally, caring for “the least of these” among us.
What possibilities can emerge from this pandemic-produced climate of care? As we redefine what success looks like, we are also redefining what our normal is. We cannot afford to be passive here. We must intentionally define what we want our society to be going forward. Since March 2020, we have seen the worst of people, but we’ve also seen the best. What do we want to live on? What do we want to do more of?
I invite you to think about what is possible. You have proved that you can innovate in the span of a few weeks what you had thought would take years. You’ve proved that your people are more flexible and adaptable than you had given them credit for.
You’ve proved that people care about one another deeply, as evidenced by the hard and attentive work of curating backyard weddings, 10-person funerals, Zoom birthday parties, drive-up anniversaries, and all the other ways that people have adapted to marking symbolic moments. You saw it for online Easter services, and you will see it online at Christmas.
Don’t forget what you have learned about the people you serve. Don’t forget their grit. Don’t forget their resilience. Don’t forget their communal care for one another.
As this year closes and another dawns, what is possible? All leaders need to ask and answer that question for themselves. Just remember -- you are no longer starting from scratch. You're starting from experience.
Church leaders can remain focused on their goals by anticipating challenges, naming them, and preparing for them, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
This has been a year of roadblocks and challenges -- one after another. And they just keep coming.
Sometimes they pop up out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Most often, though, the roadblocks and challenges we face are repeat offenders. While this may be annoying, their predictable red flags can give leaders cues for working through or around them.
I coached a pastor who felt challenged every time she went to a deacons meeting. She and I would talk the morning of this biweekly meeting, and each time, I would ask her the same two questions:
“What is the primary goal of the meeting?”
“What is Frank going to say?”
We all know Frank, also known as Frances, Francesca or Frankie. Sometimes Frank is a person. Sometimes Frank is a system or a committee. Other times Frank might be an oral tradition or voices from the past. The worst is when Frank is a voice in our own heads -- those recordings we play that remind us of past failures or times we haven’t measured up.
We all have a Frank. Every church, every institution, every meeting has a Frank. God bless Frank.
Frank is the one who will say in a meeting, “We can’t do that because …”
He will remind us how tight the budget constraints are and how few volunteers we have at this time of year.
Frank is the one in church who will say, “We’ve never done it this way before.”
He will remind us that the future is unknown and thus scary and that we should be afraid.
The Frank who lives in our heads says, “What makes you think you can do this? Don’t you remember when you tried …?”
He reminds us of our imperfect pasts and points out our shortcomings.
I asked the pastor the same two questions before those meetings to help keep her focused so Frank would not distract her.
“What is the primary goal of the meeting?” called her to stay on task and lead the conversation where it needed to go.
“What is Frank going to say?” enabled her to remain focused on the goal even when Frank put up a roadblock.
One of the gifts all Franks give us, unbeknownst to them, is their predictability. They typically have pet projects, and so they work themselves onto the right committees or places of power from which they can protect, preserve and perpetuate their particular interests. It doesn’t take long to see a Frank’s roadblocks coming. This is to a leader’s advantage.
When we know that a roadblock is coming and we name it, we instantly take away some of its power. It is no longer a surprise. Sometimes we can even guess when it will pop up in a meeting. This pastor could count down in her head: “Five, four, three, two, one -- Hello Frank, I’ve been expecting you.”
Once we name a roadblock, we can spend time in advance of the meeting planning how to either reframe it respectfully and productively or address it in a positive way.
By using your energy to imagine what Frank will say and how you will respond, you can stay focused on the goal of the conversation, positive and consistent in your interaction with Frank, and available in the actual meeting to meet the goal and perhaps unearth some good surprises and creative ideas along the way.
Effective leaders invest time preparing for meetings. This might look like creating an agenda, conducting pre-meetings with small groups, doing research and even preparing the physical setting for generative conversation. Great leaders enter a meeting with a clear goal to reach within a set amount of time.
How might your meetings change if, as part of your preparation, you spent some time with the second question? What if you imagined what roadblocks might arise and what your response to them might be?
You know who your Frank is. You likely know what Frank is going to say or do to challenge a new idea.
Frank isn’t going anywhere. If 2020 is showing us anything, it is that leaders must be equipped to face some of the most unexpected roadblocks and challenges -- ones too crazy even to imagine. Who thought we would be where we are last year at this time?
The challenges are going to continue to surprise us. We can be more effective, prepared and confident leaders if we name the roadblocks we know are going to arise and choose our responses to them in advance.
And frankly, we can all use fewer surprises in our leadership this year.