African Christian heritage did not originate as the result of Christian influence during slavery or colonization.
The heritage of today’s black Christians can be traced to the times of Jesus.
Dr. Clifton Clarke expounded on these themes during his talk, “Simon of Cyrene: The Legacy of Black Faith,” as part of festivities at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary celebrating the denomination’s Black Ministries.
“Simon was the man who was called to carry the cross when Jesus could no longer carry it by himself,” Clarke said.
A Roman soldier chose Simon from the crowd.
“Black hands embraced the cross of Christ … how dare you exclude me from the history?” Clarke said.
Clarke said if Simon had not been black, researchers would have been more interested in chronicling his history.
“They would have uncovered his background. They would have uncovered his location,” Clarke said. “Because Simon came from a place called Cyrene. New Testament scholars grew amnesia and made ambiguous his ethnicity.”
Cyrene was located where Libya is today.
Clarke said Cyrene had been conquered by Greeks in 613 B.C.
“It was a city of great wealth and learning, and commercial prowess and training,” Clarke said.
Before that, the area was ruled by pharaohs.
“There have been malicious efforts on the part of Western Church historians to write contemporary Africa and African Christianity out of the rich tapestry of Christian history … but we see Simon as a part of this rich heritage,” Clarke said. “We were not some people who came many years later. We didn’t come during slavery. We were not converted during colonization. We weren’t coerced during the rise of the Pentecostal movement. Our hands were there. Don’t tell me I don’t have a place.”
Simon’s story is told in three books of the New Testament. Clarke especially focused on the account in Mark, which mentions Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus.
Clarke said it is important to note that Mark, who does not usually mention people’s names, includes not only the name of Simon but also those of his sons. Clarke said this was most likely because he and his sons had become well known in the early church.
“We know from Romans 16 that Paul apparently knew Rufus’ mother,” Clarke said.
Simon later lived in Antioch and then in Rome.
“They were prominent in the church there,” Clarke said.
The account is also told in Matthew and Luke.
Clarke said Simon was most likely an African convert to Judaism and had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Clarke said Simon would have saved money for a long time in order make the long trip.
“We are told it took 855 miles by land, 57 days to walk, 37 days by camel or horse ... [or] at least six days of sailing,” Clarke said. “For Simon, this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey … He longed to sacrifice [at the temple in Jerusalem].”
The city would have been crowded with others coming for the same purpose.
“No doubt Simon, as he got into the big city, got lost looking around trying to find his way,” Clarke said. “He was a foreigner, you see, a stranger in the city.”
Clarke said Simon found himself “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Simon had come to celebrate the Passover. Little did he know he would end up meeting the Passover Lamb,” Clarke said.
The city was in commotion when Simon was there. Clarke said Simon was on a mission to get to the temple, and did not want to be a part of the uproar surrounding the walk to the Crucifixion.
“Simon would have been passing through looking for a temple,” Clarke said.
However, he found himself on the sidelines as Jesus was carting the cross. When Jesus, weak from being beaten, could no longer carry the cross, a Roman soldier forced Simon to carry the cross.
“The Bible says he was compelled, which means there was some resistance,” Clarke said. “And Simon like many of us of color are, is caught between a rock a hard place: caught between legality and my faith, caught between righteousness and injustice … Simon knew that if he was to lay his hand upon the bloody cross … he would contaminate himself, rendering himself unclean and no longer able to sacrifice.”
Carrying the cross was not an easy task. Clarke said it is estimated the cross weighed between 200 and 300 pounds. The task was also humiliating as crucifixion was a penalty for “hardened criminals,” according to Clarke.
“It is amazing how ordinary citizens can easily become criminal. Just passing by by virtue of my race, I’m criminalized, singled out,” Clarke said. “I’m just passing by but someone says, ‘You must be doing something wrong.’ Simon understood that.”
The faith of Simon and his family has a legacy that stretches even to United States history.
Clarke said it was the legacy of Simon that rose in song as negro spirituals.
“It’s the legacy of black Christian faith … that says I will not hate because hatred is of the Devil,” Clarke said. “It is the legacy of black Christian faith that caused Negroes to love the hate out of white oppressors. It is the legacy of black faith that inspired blacks to believe in the greatness within them when they were told they were property and not people.”