What we are learning from the failures of a New Milford slave owner

This saying is one of the ways the United Church of Christ proclaims its special pride in a story of learning from the past and adjusting to the present. When I arrived in June as pastor of the First Congregational Church in New Milford, I stood on the historic green in the shadow of the steeple and wondered about the faithful who had been here for hundreds of years. How did their thinking impact society?

I suspected that, like the history of most enduring institutions, time would likely reveal a legacy of positive and negative impacts. Honestly reflecting on centuries of activity across current understandings of racism, sexism, and economic inequality is hard work, but the central tenet of Jesus’ teachings on loving neighbor demands it.

It’s true that looking at old stories again and critically questioning them can make some people uncomfortable. My tradition of faith has been invaluable in this area as it has taught me to look at the oldest stories in the Bible and ask questions about what is happening and why. Who recorded the story? What do we know about the norms of the society where this happened? How can we draw parallels with the events happening today so that we can live in a way that we love and care for one another?

Using a similar method, the New Milford Historical Society is preparing an exhibit on Black Lives in New Milford which is slated to open in November. Their search for documents on some of the oldest black lives in our community led them to the First Congregational Church. Specifically, the historian was looking for possible burial records of a man called Primus.

Primus had been enslaved to Daniel Boardman, the church’s first established pastor. I learned that Primus lived independently through the Housatonic on a piece of land he farmed, and he was baptized in the 1730s. Every time I cross the Boardman Bridge to Route 7, I wonder to imagine what his life was like. How did he live? Who did he like? Where did he find happiness? How was his relationship with Boardman?

Perhaps these questions seem distant and irrelevant at first glance. After all, what difference can it make today? Clearly, in the years that followed, sweeping changes brought about a society and a church that proclaimed equality for all. Yet as a society we are still struggling to achieve this ideal of equality. The demon of racism looks different today, but the harm it causes continues.

I am intrigued to learn what facts this research might reveal about Primus and the other lives of people of color that the Historical Society profiles because I firmly believe that stories have the power to change the way we think. When we step into the story, we have the opportunity to imagine how each person could have made decisions and how we could learn from their mistakes and do better.

Taking on an old story can be easier than a new one, but it’s also important to take the step to ask how this story can teach us how we live today. In the case of a public figure like Boardman, it is a rich illustration of the complexity of life. He was a man who certainly intended to follow the commandment to love his neighbor and did a lot of good, but he also did not recognize the full humanity of Primus.

Each of us is probably similar to Boardman in that we intend to do good, but fall short. Maybe, like Boardman, there are cases where this is the result of common thinking that prevails throughout our lives. We may lack the perspective to be able to see the fullness of our actions as history will, but we have more resources to try than ever before.

The 2020 census tells us that the demographics of New Milford are changing. People of color will constitute an ever-growing part of our population, and the subject of racism will continue to be at the forefront of life here. I can’t know how history will judge us, but I’m sure hearing the stories of our neighbors is the key to both loving them and being faithful followers of Jesus.

Reverend Amy Carter is a pastor at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ at 36 Main St., New Milford CT 06776. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Previous “It's a Milestone”: Green Lake Pilgrim Center Renamed “Daycholah Center” to Honor Indigenous Peoples | New
Next Can Rami Malek play? How the No Time to Die villain became Hollywood's most polarizing actor

No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.