Ancestors and the Earth

Religions for the Earth recently held a weekend conference in New York City at Union Theological Seminary. The purpose was to make people aware that climate change and our environment are social justice issues. The conference concluded with a multifaith service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Fortunately, I was able to attend and witness people from different religious and spiritual traditions all over the world voice the importance of acting now to reverse the effects of climate change.

The music throughout the program was beautiful. There was something special about sitting in a religious service with so many people who attended The People’s Climate March earlier in the day. Almost 90 minutes into the service, someone spoke who directed our attention to the North Pole. His name was Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq.

Anagaangaq, frequently referred to as “Uncle” (because his name means “the man who looks like his uncle”), is an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland. He talked about how much the ice has melted and that his elders wanted him to come deliver us a message of hope. Anagaangaq said,

The only hope, the way the old people tell it… Only by melting the ice in the heart of man, will man have a chance to change and begin using his knowledge wisely. That is the only hope. That you and me and everyone one of us begin to use our vast knowledge wisely…

After he shared his message, Anagaangaq picked up his Quilaut, a traditional Eskimo wind drum for which he is the carrier of in his lineage, and began to call his ancestors by chanting in his native language. It was at this moment that I began to weep. I wept because according to Anagaangaq, the “big ice” in Greenland was more than five kilometers in width when he was born and now it is only two. I wept because of the beauty and pain I felt in his ancestral call. And I wept because I felt that part of the reason we have disregarded our planet is due to the lack of connection to our ancestors.

In the Yoruba spiritual tradition of Ifa, showing reverence for one’s ancestors is a key component of the practice. A common way of connecting with the ancestral realm is offering a prayer with water known as libations. A libation prayer can be done by pouring water in a bowl, plant or outside in nature while speaking the names of loved ones who are deceased. It is how we honor and pay homage to those who have gone before us. We believe the wisdom of our ancestors is available to guide us in our day-to-day lives if we are open to receive it.

As I wept during Anagaangaq’s ancestral call, I wondered, “Are the ancestors weeping for us too? Are they crying over our disregard for human life with the number of wars and violence we continually perpetuate? Do they cry over racial profiling and the senseless loss of life like Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri? Do they shed tears for the rampant intolerance, oppression, and poverty around the globe?”

When Anagaangaq finished his call, I remembered a Yoruba proverb, “The ancestors say if a child falls, he looks forward. If an elder falls, he looks back. Let us look back so we can go forward.” I looked around the sanctuary and remembered lessons from my time in interfaith seminary. We were taught that our belief in the illusion of separation is the root of many of the world’s problems and challenges.

The Fall Equinox came the day after the multifaith service. This is a time of year during which I set an intention of how I can be more responsible in honoring the Earth. For guidance, I poured libations to honor my ancestors and was prompted to follow the wisdom of the same Yoruba proverb. I chose to be like an elder and look back to the personal vow of ministry I took at my ordination:

  • I vow to support the healing of the earth and her people.
  • I commit to a life of spiritual growth and wellness.
  • I dedicate my life to be an advocate for love and understanding.

After reading and saying my vow out loud I realized the way forward is to give more love in action through sacred service. I am grateful to Anagaangaq and the Ancestors for the reminder. My prayer is that I always remember and never forget.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “Ancestors and the Earth

  1. What a lovely sentiment, DeShannon. Indeed the ancestors speak from and for the earth. Wonderful to have your voice in this forum.

  2. Thanks DeShannon for this great reflection on the ceremonies at St. John the Divine and events leading up. Sadly I had to watch these events from a distance as I was involved in the youth contingent and organizing with them, even though my heart was really with the faith contingents. As someone who also works with ancestors and spirits in his own practice, I’m curious what your experience was with the larger Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith communities around some of these potentially sensitive issues?

    I ask in part because it has been my experience that often enviro movements like to hold up native communities and point to their Earth honoring practices–much like the example of Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq you discuss here–but there is a fundamental disconnect between how these indigenous communities view other-than-human beings and the rest of the Earth community. Did you feel that the Religions of the Earth conference, and the other interfaith spaces, was a space where practices like ancestor worship, offering to Orishas, or spirit invocation was possible?

    I have a friend who recently wrote a great piece about his experience with ancestor healing work, where he suggested that part of the solution to climate issues has to do with rebuilding broken ancestor bonds and appeasing angry spirits, but my experience has been that these ideas tend to get ignored or chuckled at in many mainstream religious circles not already open to such possibilities. Would love to hear more about your take based on your own experiences in these spaces. Thanks for sharing your personal insights, and really enjoyed your post.

    1. Hi Chris. Thank you for your comments and questions.

      The Interfaith circles I move in consist of more than Abrahamic faith communities. So in my experience many people I come across are receptive to learning how they can make personal connections with their ancestors. It seems like its becoming more common to honor the role of Ancestors during this time of year. And I believe people are comfortable exploring this bond because they realize it doesn’t need to be locked into a particular spiritual or religious tradition.

      If you are interested in seeing the service at St. John the Divine follow this link: . Scroll down to the bottom of the page. The very last video is the worship service. Angaangaq begins speaking at 1:24:40.

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