I met Ingrid Askew
at our friends’ wedding, a three-day affair near Boston. The bride introduced Ingrid to us as “Someone you will want to know.” It was true. Her laughter and honesty, together with her towering spirit and deep faith, were attractive. I soon learned that these were qualities she had needed for her amazing pilgrimage to Africa. She had retraced the steps of an ancestor who had been a slave.
“It began when Sister Clare told me of a dream,” Ingrid explained. In 1992, Sister Clare Carter, a nun from New England in the Japanese Buddhist order Nipponzan Myohoji, had been on a peace pilgrimage in Sri Lanka when she began thinking about peace work needed in the United States. Sister Clare dreamed she needed to take action. Back in Massachusetts, she contacted Ingrid, who was known locally for her work in arts and education.
Hearing Sister Clare’s dream, Ingrid meditated on loss. Slavery meant there had been loss on every level, for so many generations. Eventually she replied, “When I lose something, car keys, anything, I retrace my steps. That is what we need to do.” And so, they began. For five years, they planned and mapped a route back to Africa. It became an interfaith, multiracial, multinational journey.
In 1998, they took their first steps, literally, walking from the New England Peace Pagoda
in Leverett, Mass., to New Orleans, a 2,400-kilometre trek. En route, they held meetings and opened dialogue about the legacy of slavery in America. They sailed to the Caribbean and to Brazil, then to Africa, on a pilgrimage that traced, in reverse, the middle passage.
(The transatlantic slave trade had three stages. The first passage was from Europe to Africa, where goods were traded for slaves. On the second leg, or middle passage, these slaves were transported across the Atlantic. The third passage then brought raw materials and money from America or the Caribbean back to Europe. Round and round it went, for 300 agonizing years.)
When Ingrid said that they had even walked back through the terrible “Door of No Return” at the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) on the island of Gorée in Senegal, my heart stopped. I recalled how moved our former governor general, Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean was when she visited. I remember seeing the door in a newspaper article, remember wondering, “How many tears rained on those hard stones, how many hearts drummed grief, how many iron-clad feet dragged chains over that threshold?” My God. How would I feel to have that history in my veins?
Some people travelled with Ingrid and Sister Clare for the whole 13-month pilgrimage; others joined for shorter times. They walked, prayed, sang; they talked about the legacy of slavery; they slept in churches, homes, wherever they could, true pilgrims. “And we were welcomed home,” Ingrid said. “Home.”
After the pilgrimage, Ingrid moved to South Africa, where for several years she used the arts to empower young people. Back in the United States, she has dramatized the pilgrimage as a play: Crossing the Waters, Changing the Air. She and her company, the Griot Women, also provide residencies for communities that want to enter a deeper dialogue about what divides us. Of writing and directing the play, Ingrid says, “I wanted to share the pilgrimage story in a way that would be compelling and aesthetically authentic to the spirit of the experience. It was an auspicious, heart-wrenching, traumatic, but also spiritually uplifting search for truth by walking the earth.”
The bride was right. For the work of changing the world, we need to know people of courage, hope and vision. We do want to know Ingrid.
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