Our lives are like movies that we don’t script

But often we can catch a glimpse of their trajectory and rejoice!

Have you ever felt like some moments in your life were scenes from a movie? Often they are transcendent, pivotal moments we do not preplan or create, but they seem to just happen out of nowhere. However, these sudden, surprising, and profound experiences and our subsequent reflections on them help us to weave the other “scenes” of our lives together. They help us make sense of our segmented story and to synthesize our experiences so we can resynthesize, fuse, and reintegrate the moments and tell our stories. Well, I have just returned back to Santa Barbara from Nigeria where I experienced one of those life moments because in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, I met a real African king!

But I need go back a few months to tell you the story. I have been following the rise to success of the movie 12 Years a Slave for many months now. Even before the film came out for the first time in Santa Barbara, Gwendolyn Friday of the Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Series and I premiered the film at the S.B.’s Paseo Nuevo theater. We invited a group of Santa Barbara residents to the premiere, and after viewing the film, we asked the audience to stay and discuss their response to the film. We also had a panel discussion with a guest speaker from International Justice Mission (IJM), which is an organization on the global frontlines, fighting against modern-day slavery. Just one week before our premiere, IJM “freed” 15 women in India who were being held as modern-day slaves, making thread. If you look down right now at the garments you are wearing, you could be wearing clothes that contain some of those “slave” produced threads.

Another purpose of our event was to give voice to many people’s emotional and deeper intergenerational traumatic wounds from experiences of violence, rape, slavery, and abuses of the distant past. This happened: One African-American woman ran out of the movie before it even ended, saying, “I just can’t watch this; it is too painful! Others were just plan angry and upset. One European-American woman said, “We need to rub our collective noses in this — this is real, and this is still with us today.”

12 Years a Slave went on to win Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards. However, two weeks before the awards, I had opportunities to meet the film’s executive producer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen. At his interview at UCSB, John Ridley, who also wrote the screenplay, became very emotional and shed tears when talking about the scene where Patsy is beaten. John said, “I still can’t watch that scene.” Different experiences in our lives can trigger deep emotional responses. So back to the king.

I had traveled to Nigeria to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the digging of a well that is still in operation today and the building of a school by Pastor David Babcock. This well and school marked the first Christian mission work in Nigeria for my faith community, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Akivah Northern (left) at the century-old David Babcock well with Barbara Babcock (second from right).

Currently, there are hundreds of hospitals, schools, and churches throughout Nigeria, including a university that boasts a student population of 10,000 and a medical, nursing, and law school and which was recently voted one of the top private universities in Africa. After a full day of celebrations, including visiting the original well with Barbara Babcock, the granddaughter of David Babcock, we visited the Royal Place of the Ooni of Ife, one of eight palaces of His Imperial Majesty, Oba Okunade Sijuade, where I had a pivotal life experience.

After Dr. Ted Wilson, the worldwide president of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church spoke at the palace, for some reason, I decided to approach the king to speak with him. In my mind, the compelling reason was to thank you for all the complimentary things he said about the health works of the church in Nigeria. That was what I thought I was going to say. So I walked slowly toward the king’s throne, and a man stopped me. You still cannot just speak with a king uninvited. The man said, “Would you like to speak with the king?” So there I was at the foot of the throne of a real African king, perhaps a descendent of the great Benin civilization. I introduced myself and prepared to thank him. I said, “I am Akivah Northern … I am … ” when suddenly something deep within me welled up like a spring of uncontrollable emotions, and I felt the pain and presence of the North American slaves inside me, and I started to cry uncontrollably from a very deep place in my lower gut. As I wept at the foot of the throne, I said to king, “Do you know what happened to us after we left … it was awful … . ” I am still not sure what else I said nor how long I spoke, because it seemed to me like a transcendent out-of-body experience.

The king greeted my emotional traumas. I felt great compassion and grace coming from him. I cannot remember his exact words, but they were comforting and compassionate, and before I knew it I was weeping in the arms of a Nigeria woman, who said, “It’s okay — God helped you … . and now YOU ARE HOME NOW!”

Yes, I was home now. Some of us had made it back, and we all can tell our stories. That experience healed an ancient wound that had been lodged very deep down inside me. I believe that moment had been prepared for a lifetime by the love of God, which is eternal and which heals all wounds — today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s.

Our souls speak not in the naked facts of mathematics or the abstract propositions of systematic theology;

They speak the images and emotions of story. —John Eldredge

Stories are the fundamental structures of life

But deep stories transcend life and time and space and heal old wounds we hold onto. —AN


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