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A Personal Odyssey In Discovery of Jesus
Rev. Dr. Paula Whatley Matabane

Too many people think there are no Africans, no black people in the Bible. I hear some African Americans turning off to Christianity saying, "It's the white man's religion." For so long, we saw nothing but pictures of white people in our Bibles and Sunday school books. Then there's another group that turns off to truth saying, "What difference does it make what color biblical peoples were?" After being exposed to the truth, I decided to produce a film unearthing black biblical history for reconciliation on the issue of race and the Bible. This meant going to Israel, a place I had no interest in because I thought it was a white country of Jews and Arabs at war. How shocked I was to find so many black people and so much black history there!

Witnessing this black presence immediately gave me a more intimate and personal connection to the place where Jesus walked. It brought deeper connections between my spirituality and my identity. The church I grew up in was a warm community, a place to belong, but it never consciously addressed issues of our identity, culture or history as a people. No one ever said that we, too, were there in Palestine even if the Sunday school pictures left us out. I left the church in the early 1970s in search of social justice and cultural integrity.

After my return to God and church, it was imperative for me to make a film about ancient connections between black people and Christianity. The audience must go on location where our religion started to see for themselves who is there. Were Palestinian Jews really European whites? Were my African ancestors there? I wanted the audience to connect intimately with the images we saw in Israel and tie them to what they were learning in Bible study and Sunday school. The film allows you to feel, experience and identify with the Holy Land through the eyes of black residents, current and ancient, versus a racially sanitized tourism voice.

I recognized that some black Christians would resist a film on the black presence in the Bible that encourages them to experience the diversity of the origin of their religion. Yet every Muslim strives to make at least one trip to Mecca which is a highly multiracial experience attesting to the universal appeal of Islam. It allows Muslims to make personal connections to their religion. Christians talk about a personal relationship with Jesus but many African American Christians stay physically disconnected with no desire to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is related to disinterest in the highly multiracial face of Christianity today and in ancient times. We seem content looking at white people in our Bibles or as Jesus in Hollywood films. The underlying premise is that any blacks in the Bible were slaves which reinforces the main lie that American slavery was justified because Africans were always slaves. This leads to Christianity as "the white man's religion" and many African Americans turned off. Finding the black presence leads to seeing the vast multiracial appeal and universalism in Christianity. We revitalize our faith and find liberation in the truth (John 8:3).

To make an authentic, historically accurate film, I went with a film crew from Howard University and two biblical scholars to Israel. We were assisted by the African Hebrew community in Israel in finding living evidence of black people in biblical history. Blacks lived there before Jesus, during Jesus' time and many live there now, not as recent immigrants but as descendants of ancient communities like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

I was amazed to learn that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world. Since the fourth century, they have had a chapel in the most holy church in Jerusalem--the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Tour guides in Jerusalem will deny the Ethiopians' existence. Our film goes to the Ethiopian chapel to meet monks and nuns holding vigil over the place where Jesus was buried. We juxtapose the Ethiopians to mainstream images of Africans as godless heathens saved by slavery.

We went down to the Gaza road despite political unrest because it leads to Africa and it is where the Ethiopian finance minister was baptized (Acts 8:27ff). Israel is so close to Africa thus raising questions of what Jesus might have looked like. It is not an accident that God sent Mary and Joseph into Africa and not into Europe to hide the baby Jesus from King Herod (Matthew 2:13). By looking at artwork, we remind people that Egypt is in Africa and that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. The ancient history of Palestine and its geographical features make it part of Northeast Africa.

Going to Israel made it unequivocally clear to me that Christianity is not the white man's religion in its origins. A very diverse and multi-ethnic community is at its base including black people. Monuments celebrating biblical history like Simon of Cyrene the African who carried the cross to Calvary for Jesus also celebrates black history. The historical truth about Jesus and black people in the Holy Land is as awesome as the truth about Jesus as the liberator of our enslaved forebears.

I have shown this film to numerous church audiences. They applaud it for breaking down the facts visually, showing that the Bible speaks to black people and about our history. One prison inmate proclaimed that had he known this history earlier he would have led his life differently. People come away from the film feeling like they have walked where Jesus walked with pride and dignity in their cultural heritage. After seeing this film, a lot of people say they are motivated to read more and make the trip for themselves. Affirming personal identity in one's faith is inspiring and liberating.

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