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Teachable Moments in Ghana

Bonney, Massenburg Take Action on Child Trafficking, Clean Water

At diocesan convention in November, the Rev. Raymond Massenburg and the Rev. Isaac Bonney co-sponsored resolutions that address the clean water crisis facing the west African country of Ghana and the trafficking of children in both Accra, Ghana’s capital city, and Chicago. Both measures, which passed unanimously, got their start in a journey the two men made together last August during Ghana’s Year of Return, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved African people in North America.

Bonney, a native of Ghana who came to the United States at age 11, is now priest-in-charge of Messiah-St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church in Chicago. He invited Massenburg, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago, to accompany him and his seven-year-old daughter to Ghana.

“I knew that last year was the Year of Return, a way for African Americans and people of African ancestry in the Diaspora to be able to come back and reconnect to their roots,” Bonney said. “I was taking my daughter home for her to meet her cousins on my side of the family. It was a homegoing and a reconnection for all of us, essentially. That was the driving force that allowed me to invite him [Massenburg] to visit with my family and visit historic sites.”

“I never really thought about going to Ghana until I was invited as a guest of Fr. Isaac Bonney,” Massenburg said. “I had heard about the Year of Return and the government of Ghana inviting all the folks of the diaspora back and apologizing for the role they played in trans-Atlantic slave trade. But I didn’t understand that Father Isaac was going to put me to work!”

While Massenburg was staying with Bonney’s family in Accra, he visited his home church, St. Joseph’s, North Kaneshie, Accra. They co-presided at a service, and Massenburg preached. When he is in Ghana, Bonney is encouraged by the congregation to preach in Ga, a language spoken by many people in southeast Ghana.

“When I preach in Ga, they laugh at me,” Bonney said. “It’s been thirty years since I lived in Ghana, and I don’t know the current slang. I start off in Ga and end up in English [the official language of Ghana], and they laugh. In a way, they want to ensure I have not lost touch with my roots.”

The Rev. Ray Massenburg (l) and the Rev. Isaac Bonney (center) with members of Bonney’s family in Accra, Ghana

The two men also travelled together to Cape Coast, a port on the Gulf of Guinea that was a center of the transatlantic slave trade. Together with Bonney’s daughter and his nieces and nephews, they toured Cape Coast Castle, where thousands of enslaved Africans were held and then forced to board ships bound across the Atlantic Ocean. The fort was home to an Anglican church built directly above the dungeons where male slaves were held.

“When we went down into the slave dungeons,” Massenburg said, “Isaac told his daughter, ‘This is where they kept Father Ray’s ancestors.’ It was a unique experience of being African American.

“’African American’ is a very unique historical evolution,” he continued. “We are bred and born under stress. Most people didn’t survive enslavement and the journey to America. When I looked into that dungeon, my mind automatically went to how I would survive. I am a descendent of the men and women who survived.”

To Bonney, the visit to the castle with his daughter was “a teachable moment, to learn something that she would not learn in class.

“She can see with her eyes how things unfolded, how good and how evil humanity can be at the same time,” he said. “I was trying to impart to her that sometimes this life is not fair, but it is how we respond to what has happened that determines whether we move forward.”

The two men also hope to create teachable moments by asking the Diocese of Chicago to take a stand against the trafficking of children on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Ghana, said Bonney, children leave rural areas with their families or on their own and come to the capital city for a better life, but too often, they end up as victims of traffickers.

“The Diocese of Accra is trying to mitigate this scourge by reclaiming these children, teaching families how to keep their children safe, and building a shelter where children are being educated and taught basic skills to reintegrate them back into society,” Bonney said.

The church in Chicago could follow that lead, he said. “I look at where we are on the South Side, and when kids of color go missing, nobody says much about them, but they often face horrible situations. As a church, we can become that beacon to educate the community and youth about what they face and make us all aware of what we need to be looking for to rescue some of these children.”

Likewise, Massenburg says, the church has the ability to help relieve the lack of clean water sanitation systems in rural Ghana. During his stay, he made contact with several of his brothers in Omega Psi Phi, an international historically black fraternity. One, the son of a Ghanaian regional king, is raising funds to drill boreholes in rural villages.

“It costs four or five thousand dollars to drill a borehole,” Massenburg says. “Parishes and dioceses can do this.”

Both men are eager to hear from other leaders in the Diocese of Chicago who would like to be involved in carrying out the convention resolutions they sponsored. Bonney, who is heading up the effort to prevent child trafficking, can be reached via email and Massenburg, who is raising funds to drill boreholes working with Team CSR Ghana, can also be reached via email.

“I’m telling children in the family that we need to leave the world a better place than we found it,” Bonney said. “This is a way to do that.”

top photo: Members of the Rev. Isaac Bonney’s family at Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana