It was built in 1482 just a few years before our own Columbus story. It is a massive stone structure on the southern coast of West Africa, one of West Africa’s oldest standing structures. They call it Elmina, Portuguese for “The Mine.” They chose this name because this was where they stored all the gold brought from the mines. They would collect the gold for months, and then the ships would come and transport it back to Europe. But this is only the beginning of Elmina’s story. Over the centuries a more valuable commodity was discovered and stored in the lower chambers of Elmina’s walls. You see, Elmina Castle became a gathering station for the slave trade.
At the height of the trade 30,000 slaves a year passed through Elmina on their way to the Americas. This continued for nearly three hundred years. Even after slavery was outlawed, Elmina was a part of the illegal trade, and the dark windowless storage rooms that once held gold, now held people. Hundreds would be crammed into one small room. They couldn’t lie down, and they would live this way for months at a time. Separated husbands and wives would never see each other again.
As they waited for the ships, most of the people would die in their rooms and would not be removed. Those who survived were taken to a final holding room. I stood in it. Even centuries later it was dark and damp and smelled of mold and mildew. This room was called “the room of no return” because from it the slaves would pass through a very small slit in the side of the castle. It was only large enough for a single person to pass through directly onto the ships.
I have toured Elmina several times and I already knew that it contained an upstairs church. But on one visit, I noticed that the church was located directly above the room of no return. I immediately thought of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” I thought of the position of these two rooms, the house of worship and the place of slavery. The vision statement of my own church is “Passion for God, Compassion for People,” because in addition to his answer to the first question, to love God, he volunteered a second commandment. He said it’s like the first – love people.
This is the irony of Elmina Castle. In just one small section, on the northeast side, those who managed the castle tried to obey the first commandment while grossly violating the second. What happened on the first floor, in the room of no return, nullified the offering in the chapel on the second floor. As God said in Amos 5:
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies (v. 21)
Why did God say this?
“You trample on the poor … You oppress the righteous … You deprive the poor of justice” (vs. 11-12).
Elmina is a graphic illustration of why the first and second commandments go together. They need each other. They define each other. They express each other. Jesus put them together. Passion for God fuels compassion for people. I cannot walk with God without caring for people.