Last week I attended a virtual webinar presented by the historical society in Rome, NY about the failed “Florence Settlement”. In the late 1840’s, Gerrit Smith (a wealthy abolitionist) gave Stephen Myers property in northern Oneida county with the hope that a utopian community would be established for freed people who had escaped slavery.
Unfortunately, the Florence Settlement failed. Historians lay the blame at the feet of the Fugitive Slave Act, but there are also indications that Stephen Myers and Frederick Douglass were chasing the same funds…. and although Douglass had originally endorsed the plan, he eventually withdrew his support. Gerrit Smith also abandoned the project, and some of his writings at the time suggest he was disappointed that Myers had taken the gift of land and had in turn sold it to others (albeit, for a modest cost).
The Florence Settlement is a short walk from the 10.5 acres we call “Rabbit Ridge”; a sweet meadow and woodlands that is now home to a wee cabin as well. During last week’s webinar I learned that our small acreage, with its stone walls and remains of a foundation, may have been owned by Brown – one of the initial members of the settlement, or one of his descendants who opted to settle close by. Long before Smith, Myers, and Brown, this beloved place was home for the Haudenosaunee and Oneida people. We add our names to those who have walked in these woods with hearts filled with wonder and hope and hold deep respect for those who loved this place long before we did.
My spouse and I refer to this property as “ours”, even as we know it really isn’t ours. The Psalmist reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof”. We’re blessed with the fruits of the land (in our case, some garlic, and LOTS of rock) but it isn’t really ours. It doesn’t belong to us, nor those who walked its paths years ago. It doesn’t belong to our daughter, or those who will follow her… all of us are caretakers; past, present, and future.
This thought fills me with awe.
It’s the same emotion that wells up when I enter a sanctuary.
It’s the same feeling I have when engaging with a community of faithful folks.
All these things do not belong to me, and yet for a moment I may share enough of myself with the land, church, congregation that they are mine and I am theirs. All of this, in essence, becomes OURS.
Years ago, I sat in a Session meeting and heard an older member make a comment about an action that had been taken. It’s telling that I don’t remember what the debate was about, but I do remember the conversation that followed. One Elder rose from the table in disgust and exclaimed to another “it’s NOT your church”. The accused sat silent for a moment and responded that they understood that this church belonged to everyone, and that the decision reflected that.
Would the decision had been different if instead we focused on discerning what God wanted for the congregation, instead of our own desires?