Her name was Bethlehem. A well poised, elegant spoken, beautiful young Ethiopian sister. To my recollection, she was either Jewish or an Orthodox Christian. I can't remember exactly: it has been 20 years ago to this past week when we first met. My first few months as an undergraduate student at Howard University, I encountered a wide array of Black folks from different states and countries; she was among them and likely would have been considered one of "the beautiful people," as they were called at Howard.
The intellectual energy at Howard University and in Washington, D.C. was awe-inspiring and mentally stimulating. Nothing like it had I ever experienced before. William Jefferson Clinton was in his first years as President of the United States, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial (against Nicole Brown Simpson) captivated the American public, and Johnnie Cochran dazzled television viewers.
My encounter with Bethlehem was brief, but memorable. After brief conversational exchanges over the course of a week, we eventually got onto the subject of Christian faith. She challenged me about my Pentecostal background and I on her high-holy yet subdued liturgical formulations. To my estimation, she needed to be less rigid and colonial-like. The semi-light banter turned to a heated exchange which left her exclaiming, "Unlike you Black Americans, we Ethiopians know where we come from and who our ancestors are." Not being undone, I fired back, "It is important to know where you come from, but it is much more crucial to know where you are heading." And just like that, Bethlehem walked out of my life forever (at least up to the present).
Who was Bethlehem and what was her story? What did our meeting and brief exchange represent? As an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, she reflected (particularly for people of African descent) an African ancestral lineage who embraced one of the oldest forms of African indigenous religions. Along with Judaism, which also was on the continent some ten plus centuries before Islam (Christianity antedated Islam no less than five centuries), and other modern ancestral worship practices, Christianity, perhaps, came to Africa not less than several weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ; this might be suggested from Jesus' encounter with Simon of Cyrene in Mark 15:21 (this was the Simon who took part in carrying the crucifixion cross of Jesus on his way to Golgotha). No doubt Simon carried and shared Christ with his kinsmen upon returning home to North Africa.
On the basis of this and the fact that John Mark (considered the patron saint also of this region and arguably the author-compiler of the gospel of Mark) was also born in Cyrene, Christianity is many things but what some have exclaimed as the white man's religion.
Early records and historical evidence shows that Christianity emerged out of an African context beginning with its Judaic roots. Jesus was both very Jewish and a person of color. Historical indications point to the fact that the people of this region (Palestine), at this time (1st century C.E.), were people of color whose skin type was brownish-black.
This physiognomy similarly connotes the appearance of other biblical characters including Noah's son Ham and his progeny: Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt), Put (Lybia) and Canaan (the one who was cursed by Noah). All of Noah's sons were dark-skinned individuals who ultimately retreated to various geographical locations.
By the time Jesus of Nazareth was on the scene, others, contemporaneous with him and who, too, were people of color, who also participated in the gospel story included Simon of Cyrene (already noted above) and the Ethiopian eunuch who accepted Jesus as Lord and Christ when he encountered Philip on his way home from worshiping in the Judaic temple.
This Ethiopian was a high official of Ethiopia who took Christianity and the good news of Christ back to his native land. The Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic Christian churches are the oldest extant Christian fellowships which date back to this first century. These Christian traditions essentially have been informing larger Christiandom for a couple millennia.
Reflecting upon Bethlehem's remark and, in turn, my sharp quip, now after some 20 years, our brief encounter represented a bridge – she, a bridge reflecting the ancestral Judeo-Christian roots of African-descended people, and me, a recipient of this past whose present Protestant-Pentecostal foundation rest. Of course the triune-God is the cornerstone.
[Jamal-Dominique Hopkins (Ph.D., University of Manchester, U.K.) is C.E.O. of the non-profit Christian think tank, the Institute for Advanced African American Christian Thought (IAAACT). He is the author of Thinking Out Loud: Thoughts and Reflections on Life, Faith, Culture and Crisis (Journal Publication, 2013), and "Duty or Responsibility? The African American Evangelical's Identity" in the Journal of African American Christian Thought (2009). Hopkins is available for preaching, speaking or conducting workshops or seminars. To contact him or to contribute to IAAACT, visit www.iaaact.weebly.com.]