Rev. Carie Johnsen engaged in a three-month cultural immersion experience in Wales, United Kingdom. During this time, she lived in the village of her ancestors, engaged in a partnership building ministry with the Welsh Unitarians and attended a Welsh language program. In this article she describes how her commitment to racial justice ministries became grounded in her journey to discover and integrate her ancestral story.
Hearing the call for white allies to engage in responsible advocacy and action, I began to discern sabbatical goals to inform my justice ministries. Recognizing the fundamental value of grounding one’s commitment toward multicultural anti-racists and anti-oppression ministry in ancestral heritage, the call to the land of my ancestors –Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Wales – could not have been clearer.
Discernment on where was just as clear: all roads led to Wales. The path to the land of the red dragon, daffodils and sheep, as it turned out, was the most developed part of my family tree. In Wales, the names of farms have been conveniently handed down through the centuries, therefore easy to locate on any map. Finding my way to the small rural village and farms of my ancestors was part geography 101 and part magical unfolding. With twenty-two Unitarian congregations, thirteen of them Welsh speaking, the second of my two prerequisites for a spiritual and ancestral pilgrimage emerged with exciting opportunities to be in community.
In Wales, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered parallel religious histories. My familial story and the Unitarian story merged in the history of the faithful dissenters of the Church of Wales. These early Protestant Christians did not conform to the governance and practices of the established church of Wales. As nonconformists they risked life and livelihood to worship as they believed. While my Trinitarian forefathers and foremothers were given legal right to worship in 1688, our Unitarian cousins would have to wait an additional 125 years until the signing of the Unitarian Relief Act of 1813.
In Gwynfe, Llangadog, Wales, I stood in the graveyard of Jerusalem (Independent) Chapel and gazed upon the ancient barn of Pantmawr farm in the foreground. (Picture above) Both religious sites connected to my ancestors. My Great Great Great Grandmother Margaret (Morgans) Howells was born and raised on Pantmawr. Villagers tell the stories of 16th Century nonconformists worshipping in the barn, hiding under the cover of darkness with only moonlight to guide their way. My Great Great Great Great Grandfather Samuel John Howells served this rapidly growing nonconformist congregation as a lay minister. Generations of Howells filled the pews and children ran playing through the adjacent fields that also served as footpaths to their farms. In the graveyard lay their children who would be left behind when three generations emigrated to the United States in search of farming opportunities in the westward expansion.
At Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel in Pantardawe, I found, as promised, a wood fire and a warm welcome. This small chapel located on a secluded mountaintop is a stark reminder of a time when worshippers were safest in remote settings. At Hen Dý Cwrrd, Cefn Coed, I took service and sat in the ancient rostrum once carried in and out of the illegal barn services held across the valley. At Yr Gen LLwynrhydowen, I attended the historic reopening of the mother church of Unitarianism in Wales. This chapel closed in 1876 when the congregation and minister were evicted for their radical non Tory Unitarian ideologies.
I had come to Wales to connect, grow and live out our Unitarian Universalist principles and values beyond our borders. What I found was a story of dissension that linked my familial ancestry with my present day convictions as a Unitarian Universalist. At the heart of both stories, I found people of faith committed to religious liberty. Dissenters who centuries later made possible a free faith, something I all too often take for granted.
I had come to Wales to the villages of Llangadog and Gwynfe to be still, to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, and to listen to their stories. What I found was a sense of coming home to place where I never knew I belonged. In doing so, I caught a precious glimpse of why people, tribes and nations are deeply connected and spiritually rooted to the land of their ancestors. Through this experience, I learned it is more than a story of belonging to the land; it is a sacred story of being of the land.
I stood on the Black Mountains gazing upon Gwynfe trying to imagine the adversity and hardship generations of my ancestors endured as tenant farmers. Like immigrants arriving today, they wanted more for their children. Leaving behind their homes, their culture and their families to start anew in unknown territories was the price they were willing to pay.
Informed by the faith and journey of my ancestors, I stand in my story: granddaughter of immigrant dissenters and Dakota homesteaders. They risked life and livelihood for religious freedom and economic opportunity. Their willingness to risk it all for their children and their children’s children is reason enough for me to stand with the immigrants of today seeking the same.
In the United States, they were among the successful homesteaders and it came at a high cost to the indigenous people of this land. They directly benefited from the colonization and genocidal violence against the First Nations. Subsequently, I benefit from this history of injustice; I didn’t cause it, but I do share responsibility for world we live in today. As such, I am motivated to stand up, speak out and take action to restore the future of indigenous people and their cultures.
The courage of my ancestors gave me countless opportunity; in homage to them, may my life be an expression of their fortitude, strength and courage. May I follow their lead and endeavor to build the world I wish to leave for my children’s children. May that be a world where equality, diversity, justice and beloved community led the way.