Old Donation: How an Enslaved Woman Named Rachal Inspired Us to Do Justice in the Community
By Dan Ries
Seventy of us at Old Donation Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, completed Sacred Ground, and many were troubled by what we learned. We wondered, “How can we empower our grief to further the Beloved Community?” We decided first to tell the truth about Old Donation, founded in 1637 as Lynnhaven Parish.
We learned that some parishioners held enslaved people to produce tobacco and that the parish owned enslaved people who supported its operation. We learned about Rachal, a young woman sold away by the vestry to raise money to purchase additional enslaved people.
During the colonial years, many parishioners were active in Princess Anne County court proceedings—settling disputes and estates, and punishing enslaved people who ran away and people accused of miscegenation and other crimes. The punishments exacted were harsh, including lashes and execution by hanging.
While some refer to colonial and antebellum times as the golden years, those times were like ours today, not so golden—doing some good (the parish arranged for care of orphans and the destitute, established a school for orphaned children, and shared the word of God with the people), but falling too far short of the Beloved Community.
Old Donation established our Becoming Beloved Community Commission in 2021 to publicly acknowledge our history and work for justice alongside the local African American community. We listened to Black leaders to discern how we might begin to repair the breach caused by our historical participation in slavery.
We established an endowed scholarship in honor of Rachal at Norfolk State University, a local historically Black college. We hosted the Norfolk State choir at Old Donation, and in turn they invited our rector, the Rev. Robert Randall, to give the invocation and benediction at commencement.
We attended community social justice events. At one, we heard Dr. Antipas Harris, of the Urban Renewal Center in Norfolk, describe his ministry with people experiencing homelessness and community re-entry from incarceration and with children from underserved neighborhoods.
We offered a resource we have—a bus. We now provide transportation for people living in the shelter run by the Urban Renewal Center (URC) to attend community events; for children in public housing and underserved neighborhoods to attend the free URC arts program for instruction in dance, theater, visual and culinary arts; and to move furniture and belongings for people transitioning from the shelter into new homes.
We will continue to move into the community beyond our familiar boundaries. Morning Star Baptist Church, founded by sharecroppers, has invited us to attend their services and record their video history, and we have invited them to worship with us at Old Donation.
Sacred Ground inspired us to learn about local Black history, to tell the truth, and seek to do justice and love mercy. We have only just begun.
Dan Ries has been an active member of Old Donation for 22 years. He’s a member of the Becoming Beloved Community Commission, a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia Repairers Task Force, and serves as one of several facilitators for the Diocese Racial Healing Workshop.