Gathered around the baptismal font, right before questions are asked and promises are made, parents are instructed to “name this child.” Only then does the sacrament of Holy Baptism progress. As the child inches closer to being anointed with chrism and bathed in the waters of baptism, this call and response happens between priest and people.
Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
The parents and Godparents respond, “I will, with God’s help.”
The celebrant continues, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Again, “I will, with God’s help.”
The picture painted in your mind is probably one of a beautiful nave, with a marble font, and light streaming through stained glass windows. But, what if, as a parent, you could not “name this child” because the world you lived in did not even acknowledge your marriage, let alone the full humanity of your child?
In the description of Harriet Tubman’s proposed feast day, it is written,
“Slave births were recorded under property, not as persons with names; but we know that Harriet Ross was born sometime during 1820 on a Maryland Chesapeake Bay plantation, and was the sixth of eleven children born to Ben Ross and Harriet Green. Although her parents were loving and they enjoyed a cheerful family life inside their cabin, they lived in fear of the children being sold off at any time” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2018, p. 174).
I literally took a sharp intake of breath when I was reminded how the births of children born into slavery were recorded. And then again when I thought about the sacrament of baptism as we understand it in the Episcopal Church, specifically the assumption that children “belong” to their parents first. Through the process of baptism, we literally hand them over to the priest, thereby symbolically handing them to God. Of course, through this process we understand that the baptized die to self and are reborn to God.
So, what about a situation in which the parents are not even allowed to “name their child”? How do we feel knowing Harriet’s parents could never stand by a baptismal font making promises to raise her in the Christian faith because they lived every day with the very real terror that she could be sold away from them at any time? How do we reconcile this concept of the importance of baptism as a foundational sacrament when for Harriet Tubman, her life of ministry and service was not to be confined to a formal sacramental act? Because of the nature of racism she would rise to sainthood without that formal, indissoluble bond to God.
She would come to know Jesus, in part, because of her visions. And yet, we are reminded that her visions came with a price: terrible headaches or migraines. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this physical pain in her body, Tubman was led and inspired by the Holy Spirit to become a conduit for freedom. Tubman’s faith compelled her to risk her life for the freedom of enslaved children of God. From 1851 to 1861 she made at least 19 trips to Maryland and back to Canada, bringing more than 300 enslaved individuals to freedom. “Moses,” as Harriet Tubman came to be known, was a physically slight person and a moral giant. She put her life at risk to help others; the bounty for her capture was $40,000. Truly, Harriet Tubman earned her sainthood with her first trip across the border.
Just as we should not romanticize baptism, we should also not forget that Harriet’s work brought scars and pain to her mortal body. Author Cole Arthur Riley reminds us that as Christians, we must live in our bodies and yet, for many African-Americans, this adage can be truly painful. She writes,
“I refuse to live a disembodied life. Even as I survive the violence of white supremacy, the judgment of white intellectualism, the pain of a body that is chronically ill, the memory of a body that has endured abuse, I refuse to abandon my body. It contains more beauty, more mystery than I am able to articulate. And in befriending and honoring it, I communicate belief in my inherent dignity.”
We can only guess that Harriet Tubman might have experienced the befriending and honoring of her body. We can only guess that she knew of her body’s inherent dignity. However, we can be sure that the work of the Holy Spirit was alive and well in our freedom saint as her body and soul fought for freedom for others.