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Roads to Freedom - learning about historic and modern slavery

21st March 2024 | Awareness raising ideas

The Clewer Initiative

Last month, Churches Together Woodbridge Area hosted an evening of music and words entitled “Roads to Freedom.”

The service was the brainchild of Valerie Shelley, the organist and choir mistress at St Andrew’s Church in Melton, Suffolk.

A few years ago, Valerie came across a book of gospel songs that brought together hymns and music that were first sung during the transatlantic slave trade and continued to be sung by slaves caught up in the domestic slave trade on American plantations.

She thought the choral music could form the basis of an evening service, where the story of the slave trade could be told and other reflections on slavery shared. She also saw the opportunity to highlight the work of The Clewer Initiative and provide some up-to-date information about modern slavery and exploitation in the UK.

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Val explains: “The evening was attended by more than 50 local people and enabled everyone gathered to reflect on the past horrors of slavery and how it has affected different people groups and continents.”

The choral songs included Poor Wayfaring Stranger, Let my People Go, Amazing Grace, Steal Away and a new hymn by Sarah Dodds and Keith W. Clements, Father of Glory.

The readings were

  • The Exodus of the Israelites
  • A Slave’s Story (William Brown, 1849)
  • The Background to the Slave Trade
  • The Search for Freedom (Martin Luther King, 1963)
  • The Four Freedoms (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941)
  • poetry by Warsan Shire, a British / Somali poet
  • words of Donald Swann about Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hanh
  • ‘Message’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

The event had been due to take place in Spring 2020 but the Pandemic meant it had to be postponed until March 2024!

Val adds: “We felt the content of the event was particularly suitable for Lententide. It is such a serious topic, and we didn’t want it regarded as entertainment. The evening was incredibly haunting and provided an important moment to stop and reflect on our own complicity in historic and modern-day slavery.

“We regularly read about county lines in our local paper so I hope the display in the church about modern slavery and freedom will help to increase awareness locally.”

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A group at St Andrews is also using the True Freedom Lent course to learn more about modern slavery. Every week, a handful of neighbours are gathering to watch the films, study Galatians and reflect on what modern slavery looks like in Suffolk.

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Val concludes: “It could be easy when you live in a pretty county like Suffolk to think that modern slavery isn’t nearby. But you only have to scratch the surface and open your eyes to see its presence. We are not far from the coast and sometimes refugees arrive in boats, across the North Sea, and simply disappear afterwards. There are many vulnerable people in our community and criminal gangs lurking, looking for people to exploit. The True Freedom Lent course is helping us understand the different forms of slavery and the discussion questions are a great prompt to help us begin thinking about our response.”

This is just one church’s story of how they have sought to shine a light on historic and modern slavery. Could you do something similar in your community? Could you use music or poetry or art to communicate the horrors of slavery and signpost the work of organisations like The Clewer Initiative?

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