Several years ago, I participated in a “Diversity Event” at work. It was a celebration of the many different cultures represented by the staff in our agency. Many of my co-workers were immigrants or first-generation Americans, hired, in part, because they were bilingual and could more effectively serve our non-English speaking clients. For the event, they created wonderful displays of cultural artifacts and educational materials, presented art, music, and dance from their homelands, and brought fabulous home-cooked dishes to contribute to the potluck lunch. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about my coworkers and their heritage. And yet, I felt somewhat distanced from the celebration. My Slocum family came to Massachusetts in 1630 and the intervening centuries removed any connection I might have had to my European heritage. I felt a bit lost.
(It is interesting to note that I have great grandparents who were German immigrants but their lives were not the ones I heard about as a child. That’s another story. . .)
Some time after that experience, I visited Boston. I walked the Freedom Trail and all the historic sites from its colonial days. And I started wondering whether my ancestors had walked there. Perhaps a Slocum participated in the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Bunker Hill. As I visited the Granary and Copp’s Hill Burying Grounds, I began looking for my family name on the worn headstones. I never found one with the name of Slocum but I started feeling a connection to my ancestors that I had never felt before. I don’t know if they were part of the Colonists’ quest for independence but I do know that they had left England and gone to this new land to start a new life. I remembered stories I had learned as a youth about life in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries and I felt an unseen tether that stretched back through the generations, binding me to my ancestors. I began to feel that my practical, “New England” upbringing started long before I had ever imagined.
Last month, I attended a family wedding in Virginia and had the opportunity to make a day trip up to Gettysburg to visit the Civil War battlefield. I had always heard about General Henry Warner Slocum who had commanded the right flank of the Union army during those three days of fighting. I don’t know how we are related only that it is “distant”. But as I drove on Slocum Drive and wandered around the large statue of him on horseback, I pondered his life and his efforts to reunify the nation. I “googled” him and learned more about his service in the military and later in the US House of Representatives. Stories I knew of the Civil War suddenly became more personal and, again, I could feel the bonds through the generations.
After leaving Slocum Drive, we went to the cemetery near the battlefields. There is a monument there to another ancestor of mine, close to the spot where he gave his famed Gettysburg Address. I have always admired Abraham Lincoln and his accomplishments during such a difficult time in our nation’s history. On this day, however, I took a moment to feel and to honor the familial connection I have to him. I like to imagine that the passion I saw in my mother to create justice and equity in the world came through her Lincoln lineage and will continue on through me to my son and my granddaughter.
We all have stories of ancestors whether we know the details or not. Who do you consider to be your ancestors? Is there a familial relationship or are they people you admire and have adopted as your ancestors? Do you know their names and where they lived or are they nameless, faceless people who still somehow reach through the years to provide that tether to the past? In RE we talk about famous Unitarians and Universalists in history and I like thinking of them as our UU ancestors. Can we hear the voices of our ancestors and do they shape our lives?
The last Sunday of this month, October 28, we will have our annual inter-generational service to remember those who have gone before us. Participants can bring a token or a photograph of a loved one to share with others. Some of you may want to honor someone who you have known well in life and who is dearly missed. But I encourage you to also look a little further back and consider your connection to the past. Who were the people who shaped your world and impacted who you were to become? This is an opportunity to honor them as well and to feel the power of those connections.
As this is an all-ages service, I also encourage families to take the time to talk with your children ahead of time about the service. Spending some time in preparation will allow your children to more fully participate and get more from the experience. Who do they want to remember during the service and what picture or token will they bring? This could also be an opportunity to introduce them to their ancestors. Help them choose a memento to bring that represents these ancestors. Together we will remember and honor all those who have gone before us.
Nancy Slocum, Director of Religious Exploration