Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Not to Run From History, But to Learn From It

By John Ohmer & Nikki Graves Henderson

This Saturday, The Falls Church and the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation will jointly dedicate a stone sidewalk plaque in front of the historic building of The Falls Church. The intention of this plaque is to convey to the public that we hold in our hearts deep regret, and with gratitude and repentance we honor the enslaved people who built The Falls Church.

As Congressman Gary Ackerman said in 2012 about a similar proposed acknowledgement regarding the construction of the White House, “While slavery is no moment worthy of national pride, the American way has always been to acknowledge our wrongs and constantly strive for better. It is wrong not to acknowledge wrongs. An acknowledgment of the role of slave labor…would be an important symbol that the United States does not run from its history, but rather learns from it.”

What the Congressman said of Americans and American history — that Americans do not run from our history, but rather learn from it — we are saying, all the more, of Christians and Christian history: we do not run from it, but rather learn from it.

While many Christians opposed the sin of slavery and were central to the abolitionist movement, it’s a tragic part of our history that many Christians were complicit in, apologists for, and beneficiaries of the evil of slavery. On Saturday we will acknowledge — more than acknowledge, we will literally carve in stone our repentance of — that fact.

By so doing, we hope to do at least two things.

First, we hope to correct an error, by omission, of the church history we present to the public in the form of commemorative plaques.

The buildings and grounds of The Falls Church display several signs and plaques that acknowledge famous people associated with the church. There are signs about the church’s foundation, its construction, and its architect, James Wren. There is a city of Falls Church historic marker, commemorative stones for Confederate and Union soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War, a Civil War Trail marker and a Virginia State Historical Marker.

It was a relationship between the leadership of The Falls Church and the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation that led to an effort to correct the historical error, by omission, of the role that enslaved peoples played in the construction of The Falls Church. Many of the descendants of enslaved and free residents still live, work and worship in the area.

In 2003, several members of The Falls Church and the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation began to independently research the history of the construction of our 1769 historic brick church building. Over the ensuring years, the two efforts came together in the forming of The Falls Church Enslaved Workers Acknowledgement Committee, which continued researching historical documents and speaking with local historians, researchers, and city residents.

One result of their efforts was to develop language to be used on the commemorative plaque that will placed this Saturday next to the James Wren plaque on the sidewalk outside our historic church.

The exact language of the plaque is “With gratitude and repentance we honor the enslaved people whose skill and labor helped build The Falls Church.”

The language of “repentance” brings us to the second hope we have in taking this action. The very fact of placing the plaque is intended as an apology – itself a difficult thing to come by, and rife with risk of controversy. But when it comes to Christian complicity with slavery, apologizing is necessary, but not sufficient: the United States today — and not coincidently, much of Christianity today — still suffers from the hangover of our noxious slave-holding past in the form of individual, ecclesial, and cultural racism.

And so we wish to express repentance: a change in intention, direction, and most importantly, behavior. While “apology” is important, absent a change in behavior, it can stay in the realm of emotion and mere talk. “Repentance” is a theological and biblical term that conveys not only a sense of deep regret, but an intention to change one’s behaviors.

The plaque is therefore meant to convey, to all who pass by our hallowed buildings and grounds, that we hold in our hearts the deepest regret that enslaved peoples built The Falls Church, and with gratitude and repentance we honor them. We honor them by not running from our history, but learning from it, and working together to reconcile all people to God and to one another.