The march goes on...

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robesonThe Revd Phil Wall, United Reformed Church minister in Pontypridd, discovers the link between American singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, and his new home in South Wales.

The best discussions always seem to take place around the dinner table. And so it was last February when several members of my church broke bread, ate chips and enjoyed a drink together as we discussed the film ‘Selma’ – an excellent retelling of the struggle for civil rights in 1960s America – which we had just been to see.

Watching the true story of people of faith coming together in horrendous conditions to strive for a more just society drew tears, pricked consciences and encouraged us to question what more we could do to speak up against injustice in our time and place.

A few months and many more shared meals later, we are about to host an exhibition on the life and work of Paul Robeson alongside a program of dance and drama, film and lectures, human libraries and concerts (including one with Sir Willard White!) as we hope to challenge the prejudice and discrimination still prevalent in our society while celebrating the creativity of the local community and reminding everyone that they are valued and loved, whoever they are and whatever their story.

If, like me prior to crossing the Severn, you’ve not heard of Paul Robeson, I encourage you to look him up for his story is an incredible one. Son of an escaped slave and Wesleyan minister, athlete, lawyer, actor and international singing sensation, Robeson used his experiences and vast array of gifts in the struggle for ‘peace, dignity and abundance for all’ – words spoken by the great man when he showed his support for the oppressed Welsh miners by singing at the 1958 National Eisteddfod in Porthcawl via a secret transatlantic link.

His passion for equality, freedom and peace was never dampened by geographical boundaries or political persecution.

Robeson’s work paved the way for the likes of John Lewis, Annie Lee Cooper and Martin Luther King Jnr, whose struggles in Selma played a significant role in challenging state-enforced prejudice and persecution.

Much has changed since a few hundred peaceful protestors tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 and yet this year, as we mark 50 years since that infamous journey, we have witnessed racially motivated shootings in North America, more incidents of kidnapping and the abuse of women in Africa, increased persecution of homosexuals in Russia and widespread disregard for the lives of our sisters and brothers fleeing violence and oppression closer to home.

As we enter Black History Month and approach One World Week, may we reaffirm our belief in the God who came to show his love for all creation in the person of Jesus Christ, a man who knew what it was to be homeless, a refugee, and an innocent victim of unjust persecution.

May we seek to follow the path of the messiah who stood up against the prejudices of his day by welcoming children, respecting women, touching lepers and honouring the lives of all he met. And may we remain hopeful of the day when all women, men and children will see themselves and each other as the equally valued, extravagantly loved and eternally cherished children of God.

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