From the moment I entered the ministry 33 years ago, I have had the opportunity to work in churches whose very name carried great biblical or historical significance. When I first began, I served at Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. That church was named for the village outside of Jerusalem where Jesus spent so much time with Mary, Martha and their brother, Lazarus. Two years later I went to Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. This church was named after the ancient North African nation that is now called Ethiopia. That was one of the earliest centers of the Christian faith. The eunuch who served Queen Candace, who was converted to Christianity under the ministry of the apostle Philip, came from that region of the world.
Then I went to St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey. That church was, of course, named for the great apostle who established so many of the early churches and wrote almost one half of the books in the New Testament.
Since 1987 I have served here at the Antioch Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. Our church is named after that community of Christians who lived in the city of Antioch as discussed in Acts 13. Antioch was a city north of Jerusalem in what is modern day Syria. Antioch, along with Jerusalem, Ephesus and Rome, was one of the great cities of the Roman Empire and one of the early centers of the Christian faith. In fact, according to
It was from the city of Antioch that Paul began his first missionary journey to the Gentile nations (
However, there is something just as interesting and just as important about the church in the city of Antioch, something that historians and filmmakers seem to have overlooked or completely ignored.
However, there were two other names mentioned in
The other man was Lucius from Cyrene. That was a city from the North African country of Libya. This is not the first time a man from Cyrene entered the New Testament story. You will remember that it was a man named Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry the cross of Jesus when the Lord could no longer stand beneath the awful weight of that implement of execution. Now we meet another man, Lucius, from that same African country. Consider that the leaders of the church at Antioch included a man who was referred to as Niger, and another man whose homeland is identified as the region of North Africa.
Do you not find it strange that these names are seldom if ever mentioned in most churches? Saul and Barnabas have churches, schools and hospitals named after them. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to establish forever the names of Simeon the Niger and Lucius of Cyrene. These names were not inserted in the Bible during the Civil Rights Movement. There was no court order that mandated that these names be included as a form of Affirmative Action. These names, and the link they certify between black people and biblical faith, have been in the Book of Acts from the beginning. But for all of this time they have been largely overlooked, if not completely ignored. It is important for us in Antioch of Cleveland to Take a Look at the Elders of Antioch.
Let me state several reasons why this observation is important, especially now at the start of our annual observance of Black History Month. First of all, this single text helps us dispel the Gospel according to Cecil B. De Mille, the Hollywood filmmaker. Has it ever occurred to you that all of his epic films about biblical stories relegate black people to obscurity? Consider The Ten Commandments. How likely do you think it is that Moses really looked like Charlton Heston, or that Rameses I looked like Yul Brenner? Not a single person who appeared in that film as an ancient Egyptian bore even the slightest resemblance to what we know was the appearance of ancient Egyptians.
Of course, they did have the nation of Ethiopia represented in that film. The Egyptians had just conquered them, and the proud black actor, Woody Strode, played their king. How odd that all the Ethiopians (conquered people) were portrayed by black people, while all the Egyptians (conquerors) were played by whites. Those two nations share a common border, so how they could look so different from one another is more a matter of the racism of Hollywood than a matter of telling the truth. But what filmmakers cannot undo is what we see written here in
A second equally important point for us, especially during Black History Month, is the reminder that our history as a people does not begin in the cotton fields and tobacco patches of North and South America and the Caribbean. Long before we came to this hemisphere, African people had established countries and great civilizations. References to such places as Egypt, Ethiopia, and Cyrene remind us of that fact. We have all heard about the great Roman Empire, but we have heard almost nothing about the black general named Hannibal, from the North African city of Carthage, who conquered Rome in one of the single greatest military maneuvers of all time. Slavery in America may be part of the history of some African people, but our history certainly does not begin at that point.
You are not fully aware of this fact until you go to Africa and discover that they are almost completely disinterested in the issue of slavery in America. Remember, however, that the people now living in Africa are largely the descendants of people who were never taken from their homelands. They are the offspring of the people who escaped the snare of the slave catchers and the suffering of the Middle Passage. The people of Africa are much more interested in shaking off the last vestiges of European colonial rule on the African continent that ended just forty years ago, than they are in what happened to those Africans who were taken away, never to return, four hundred years ago.
When you go to Africa you become reconnected to the cultures that existed on that continent while Europe was still groping through the Dark Ages. Empires such as Songhay and Mali were centers of art, learning and organized religion long before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade began. An exhibit at the Cleveland Art Museum about ten years ago focused on the arts and crafts of Benin in the 16th century. That exhibit was a clear and tangible expression that the people of West Africa were not savages who needed to be brought to Europe and America in order to save them from the darkness. They were a civilized and ordered community whose darkness only began when they were forced into slavery. Let it never be forgotten that our history does not begin in America, it is rooted in the continent of Africa. This is one of the most important things we can teach during Black History Month. The presence of Simeon the Niger and Lucius of Cyrene is also a reminder of that fact.
A third reason why I am intrigued by the presence of Simeon and Lucius, is that it helps me refute those who continue to insist that Christianity is “the white man’s religion,” and that Islam is the true religion of the black man. Those of us who grew up in the 60s will remember how many times we heard that from those who followed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. They would frequently point to a hangman’s noose attached to one of the cross beams of a cross. They would suggest that it was white Christians who were responsible for the brutality inflicted upon black people over the years. That point may be largely true. However, it does not dismiss the presence of Simon and Lucius as leaders of the church at Antioch.
Black people, African people, have been a part of the Christian faith from the very beginning. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, sometimes called the Coptic Church, precedes the birth of Islam by more than 500 years. Black scholars such as Augustine and Tertullian were helping to shape the doctrines of the Christian faith 400 years before their prophet, Muhammad, had even been born.
I do not doubt and I cannot refute the claim that much of the worst that had happened during slavery was done with the full knowledge and support of some organized groups of white Christians. However, many white Christians also fought and died to end slavery both in America and in Europe. It must also be noted that the African slave trade involved Muslim slave traders who cooperated in the capture and exportation of black Africans not only West to the Americas, but also East to the Arabian Peninsula.
There is enough blame to go around so far as the active participation of both Muslims and Christians in the slave trade is concerned. But the main point must be kept clear. Black people are not out of touch with their history when they confess faith in Jesus Christ. They have been doing that since Simeon the Niger and Lucius of Cyrene were among the elders at Antioch in the 1st century A.D.
Finally, this story in
Let us use the reminder of Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun (
I am not interested in arguing that Simeon and Lucius were better than Saul and Barnabas. I am not interested in proving that they were smarter or more faithful than Saul and Barnabas. I just want you and the rest of the world to know that they were in this story about Christ from the very beginning. I want to write them back into the telling of the history of the early church. I want us to be aware of all the people who were numbered among the elders at Antioch. It is not too much to say that the words of Jesus apply even in this case; “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free (
Marvin A. McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.