During a life-changing trip to Nigeria and Ghana in November 2016, I visited three African tribes known for observing sabbath long before Christian missionaries came to Africa: the Igbo, Sefwi, and Ashanti. All three of these groups lost people to the transatlantic slave trade. All three of these groups honored Saturday as a day of rest with such seriousness that anyone caught working on Saturday could be banished from the village. I was invited to visit these communities to teach their women scripture-based empowerment and to learn more about their culture for a book I was working on. In 2012, I began to observe sabbath, and as an African American woman and faith-based community organizer, I can honestly say sabbath saved my life.
After five years of professional faith-based community organizing in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, I had hit a wall. Stress-based allergies began to exhaust my immune system, and I was unsettled by the success-driven culture that equated busyness with ministry. I was doing meaningful work with wonderful people, but I knew something had to change. During this time, I began to learn about tribes in Africa deemed “lost tribes of Israel” due to their history, migration routes, and traditions. Prior to colonialism, these groups held Saturday as a holy day when no work could take place.
As an African American woman and faith-based community organizer, I can honestly say sabbath saved my life.
As I researched tribes—such as the Igbo, Ashanti, Ga-Adangme, Sefwi, Lemba, and more—I learned that in Ghana, the Ashanti called their God the “Saturday God” and the god of the white colonialist the “Sunday God.” As I continued to research my own family’s history, I found that we were taken from Nigeria to toil on the Alston plantations of North and South Carolina. The Alstons are one of the largest slave-holding families in American history. Part of the trauma of slavery is teaching each generation to work and toil twice as hard as white people to get half the benefits. This was the lesson my family and millions of other Africans (many who came from sabbath-keeping tribes) were given: work nonstop because your value is only in what you can produce.
In 2012, I prayed, studied, and fasted and came to the conviction that I should keep sabbath. Scripture and my culture confirmed it. Ironically, when I began to keep sabbath, I became more productive and powerful as a faith-based community organizer. My allergies subsided, and my work moved from being faith-based to faith-rooted—springing from the grace I experienced resting in the presence of Abba. As a daughter of slaves, sabbath is a revolutionary act. Many Christians sadly think sabbath is bondage to the “law.” But this theological belief came from white men who never had to toil under the burden of slavery. Sabbath was created because our Creator did not give us an identity rooted in what we produce but an identity rooted in who we were created to be: bearers of Yahweh’s image.
My work moved from being faith-based to faith-rooted—springing from the grace I experienced resting in the presence of Abba.
Let’s reflect on the sabbath, putting ourselves into the sandals of a newly freed Hebrew slave who did not have any control over their work schedule in Egypt. For a newly freed slave, a day of no work would sound like freedom—not bondage. Now, let’s reflect again on the sabbath, putting ourselves into the sandals of a newly captured Sefwi slave from Ghana whose people held Saturday as a sacred day of rest. For this newly enslaved person, not keeping sabbath on Saturday (though some slaves got Sunday off, tribes from Ghana held Saturday rest in particular as sacred) would sound like bondage—not the freedom of grace.
The LORD said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” (Exod. 31:12-17)
There is a connection between constant work and death—physical death, spiritual death, and even relational death as we do not have time for friends and family. Though the verses from Exodus sound harsh, does Yahweh put sabbath-breakers to death, or are their deaths the result of nonstop work?
Sabbath is a sign that the Creator sanctifies us—not our work or what we can produce. We are not saved, valued, or significant because of what we do. Yes, justice work is commanded by scripture, but so is rest so that we can heal and connect with the Most High God and one another. Sabbath is a divine pause that allows us to be refreshed by the ruach (spirit) to impact our world not through striving and busyness but through the transforming power of justice, love, and compassion. Long before Christian missionaries came to Africa, my ancestors knew this.
Sabbath is a sign that the Creator sanctifies us—not our work or what we can produce.
For me sabbath is an act of resistance against white supremacy and capitalism. It has connected me in a deeper way to the Creator, my neighbor, and myself. Let us follow the path of true grace, finding rest for our souls.
Note: Before beginning the call and response, ask the eldest people in the room for permission to proceed. This is done in West Africa to honor the elders among us.
Ago is pronounced “ah-GOOO” and means “Listen” or “Attention” in Twi, the major language of Ghana.
Ame is pronounced “ah-MAY” and means “I am [we are] listening” in Twi.
Yesu is Twi for “Jesus.”
Ase (or ashe), from the Yoruba àse, is a West African philosophical concept through which the Yoruba community of Nigeria conceive the power to make things happen and produce change.
ELDER: Ago! We welcome Shabbat and call all who are weary to come to Yesu, the slain but risen King, and receive rest.
We know that sabbath rest was even something needed by you, our Creator, when we read: “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”*
If you, Creator of the heavens and earth, need sabbath, how much more your creation?
ALL: Ame! We hear, and we will rest by resisting the culture of exploitation.
ELDER: Ago! Calling all who are anxious, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
Come enter the beautiful rest of our Abba.
Enter the Creator’s jubilee of rest.
Enter into God’s love and shalom.
ALL: Ame! We will enter in and welcome shalom into our hearts, homes, and communities.
ELDER: Ago! Yahweh, help us to know that our value comes not from our activity but from our identity, which is rooted in you.
Help us not to overwork to fill a void in our identity but to root our identity in you.
ALL: Ame! Yahweh, we need your help. Renew our minds so that we value relationships more than we value profit.
ELDER: Ago! Yahweh, we need your ruach (spirit) to dwell in us to give us the wisdom to pause.
Help us to see the divinity in rest.
Help us to see the divinity in community.
Help us to see the divinity in our neighbors and ourselves.
ALL: Ame! With the help of Yahweh and God’s Spirit, we will pause to take care of our bodies, hearts, and minds.
ELDER: Ago! Yahweh, forgive us for valuing work over worship, profits over people, and the temporary over the eternal.
Help us to divinely pause, trusting that you will hold our jobs, ministries, households, and communities while we rest.
ALL: Ame! Yahweh, forgive us and help us to value what and who you value.
ELDER: Ago! Yahweh, bless those who cannot take sabbath because they are enslaved, exploited, or emergency responders.
Be with all those from Ghana, from India, from America, and beyond who are entering your sabbath rest.
Help us to remember that sabbath is a privilege to which we all do not have access,
But that a day is coming when your kingdom will reign on earth and all will be able to enter your rest.
ALL: Ame! Yahweh, we pray your kingdom comes soon so that shalom and justice can reign on earth.
ELDER: Ago! May Yahweh make our rest sweet and our shalom complete. Ashe!
Note: After this litany, share a meal of bread and wine (or grape juice) as the breaking of bread and drinking of wine is done during sabbath by Jewish and Hebrew communities around the world. For Christians, the sharing of bread and wine on Shabbat is the foundation of Communion.
“Rhythm and Balance: A Litany for Anchoring and Energizing Justice Work with Sabbath, Contemplation, and Community” by Onleilove Chika Alston from Rally: Communal Prayers for Lovers of Jesus and Justice edited and compiled by Britney Winn Lee. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of Fresh Air Books, an imprint of Upper Room Books. UpperRoomBooks.com.