Launched by Rev. Leroy Barber, Voices Publishing is a publishing imprint whose mission it is to publish books by writers of faith who are people of color. In April 2019 Voices published Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny by Minister Onleilove Chika Alston, MDiv, MSW, an excerpt from this book is below. Learn more about Voices here.
“Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.” Mark 15:21 (NKJV)
According to the Department of Justice: Nearly 650,000 people are released from state and Federal prison yearly and arrive on the doorsteps of communities nationwide.
If you were to ask most people who were raised in Christian countries to name a Black Biblical character many would mention Simon of Cyrene aka Simon the Niger (Black) or that guy who helped Yahshua carry the cross during the crucifixion, but how much do we know about this brother who was made to help Yahshua at his lowest point, and what can his example teach us about bearing the crosses of formerly incarcerated citizens returning to our communities?
Cyrene is a country on the North coast of Africa that played a crucial role in early Christian history and served as a haven for Jews fleeing trouble in Israel. Actually, according to Thomas Oden, founder of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, anytime the Hebrews were in trouble they fled to Africa. Why was Simon asked to help Yahshua carry his cross? We do not know, but what we do know is that he did help Yahshua with this demonizing task. What many of us do not know is that Simon’s partnership with Yahshua did not end with the crucifixion.
The New Commentary on the Whole Bible editors J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort bring up the interesting possibility that Simeon called Niger who appears in Acts 13:1 is the same person as Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels as the man who helped Jesus carry his cross. We should note that Simeon is a Hebrew name, and Niger is Latin for black, so Simeon aka Simon was an African Jewish man. A further examination of the Greek and Hebrew meanings of the name Simon gives more clues to the African heritage of this character in the gospels.
Simon is a common name, from Hebrew שִׁמְעוֹן Šimʻôn, meaning “listen”. It is also a classical Greek name, deriving from an adjective meaning “flat-nosed”. Many sub-Saharan African people have noses that have been classified as “flat-noses” which some have used in a derogatory way but in my opinion is just physical characteristic such as being tall or short or blond or brunette. Oden even goes as far to say the Apostle Mark and Simon of Cyrene may actually be related as Levite Jews in his work The African Memory of Mark. We read in Acts 11:19-21 about the men from Cyrene and Cyprus who founded the church in Antioch. The Apostle Mark who is known as the Apostle to Africa mentions Simon with his sons Alexander and Rufus and they became prominent members of the early church. It was the Cyrenians who carried the Gospel to Greece.
It appears that though helping Yahshua bear the cross was one moment in a momentous day this had a lasting impact on Simon’s life and ministry. This Black hero of the Bible was changed by helping Yahshua bear the cross which reminds me that as I work to help formerly incarcerated people re-enter our communities, it is I who ends up changed along with my formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters who bear the cross of being marked by our criminal justice system as having a “record” that often prevents them from fully re-joining our communities.
As the former Executive Director of Faith in New York, I worked on a campaign called Live Free a national movement of faith communities dedicated to ending mass incarceration and police brutality through prophetic action as well as state and federal policy changes. In my work, Bishop Darren Ferguson of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, New York is a hero to the formerly incarcerated. Bishop Ferguson helps his brothers and sisters bear the cross of shame that comes with being formerly incarcerated. Bishop Ferguson knows first-hand about bearing the cross of incarceration as he served time in the notorious Sing Sing prison and earned his theology degree from New York Theological Seminary while incarcerated. Upon returning to New York City, he became a youth minister at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
In May 2015, as a leader in the Live Free campaign, he chaired a meeting with high level White House staff urging them to take action to help formerly incarcerated citizens re-enter our communities with dignity. Bishop Ferguson like Simon of Cyrene has God sons and daughters who help him take the Gospel to new communities while standing up for the rights of returning citizens.
Simon of Cyrene bearing the cross of Yahshua makes me proud as an African American woman, but it also challenges me to examine whose cross I am helping bear. I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn one of the seven communities that sends the highest number of people to New York state prisons; and each day we welcome men and women back home from prison. Simon’s example challenges me to help bear the cross of my formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters.
We forget that the cross symbolized that Yahshua was unjustly incarcerated and executed by the Roman Empire, just like many African Americans are unjustly executed by the American Empire through the death penalty. Crucifixion was a mark of deep shame on its victim. The Cross was adopted by the Roman Empire with the intent to suppress and intimidate people was originally reserved for slaves. According to Philippians 2: 8, “He (Yahshua) humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
Bearing the cross of being formerly incarcerated in America means that you may not be able to vote or obtain federal financial aid for college which are just two of the many ways you are denied full citizenship. There is also the shame of being viewed as a criminal long after you have paid your “debt” to society. This shame is especially unfair when we take into account the ways in which Black men and women are unjustly targeted and charged in our criminal system. It is interesting that when Simon was told to help Yahshua bear his cross, he did not ask Yahshua what he did to deserve this punishment, but he just “helped a brotha out” as my young neighbors in Harlem would say.
In our faith communities, do we first question the returning citizen before helping them bear their cross or do we just help them bear their cross? Maybe Simon didn’t question Yahshua about why he was being crucified because he knew that Rome was an unjust empire that had a broken justice system. As we prepare to welcome scores of formerly incarcerated men and women home let us help them bear their crosses like Simon of Cyrene. And let us realize that by doing so it won’t be those bearing the cross that are changed, but it will be us who are changed by walking alongside them. Simon of Cyrene and his sons, like many other countless Africans, played a key role in laying the foundation for the Messianic Movement that would become Christianity.
When we discuss early Christianity in Africa, we should note this is not the same as Western Constantinian Christianity but is a Christianity that was very much connected to the early Messianic Hebrew movement, with many early African Christians keeping the Sabbath and Biblical feast. Black men and women are not new to the faith and the witness of Simon of Cyrene; and Blacks of faith today can teach us a great deal.
So I leave you with these words of Bishop Darren A. Ferguson, Author of How I Became an Angry Black Man, “I live, breathe and fight for my people, and I will live for God, pray to my God and fight with what God has given me. I love the Afrocentricity of the Holy Writ, though heathens sought to obscure it as they attempted to force feed my ancestors a white-washed, watered down gospel. But thanks be to God that the liberation story of Moses resonated with my ancestors more than the misquoted ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters’ that Massa tried to force down my people’s throats. I believe in the power of prayer but am not waiting for anything to fall from heaven. My prayers are merely my recharging station that I may go out and fight the good fight.”