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Slaves of Amistad Meet Jesus

In a touching scene from Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama, Amistad, a group of slaves who mutinied and took over their slave ship are sitting in a New England prison in the year 1839, awaiting trial.

A missionary has come to visit, leaving behind an illustrated Bible.  None of the slaves can speak English, let alone read it, but they can look at the pictures.  One of them, a man named Yamba, becomes intrigued by the Bible, and spends many hours studying the engraved illustrations.

Cinque, the leader of the mutiny, looks over at him and says, “You don’t have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody’s watching but me.”

But Yamba is interested.  He beckons Cinque over, and begins to tell him the story he sees in the pictures.

First, he points to a picture of some Jewish people being attacked by lions.  “Their people have suffered more than ours,” he says.  Yamba flips ahead to a picture of the baby Jesus, crowned with a halo of light: “Then he was born, and everything changed.”

Cinque asks, “Who is he?”

Yamba admits he doesn’t know, but says the child must be very special.  In each picture, Yamba has discovered this man has a halo.  “Everywhere he goes,” says Yamba, “he is followed by the sun.”

Yet, all is not sunny. “Something happened,” he says, pointing at a picture of Jesus in chains, surrounded by soldiers with spears.  “He was captured, accused of some crime.”

Cinque shakes his head, insisting, “He must have done something.”

“Why?” asks Yamba, in a one-word question that captures all the injustice of slavery.  “What did we do?”  Then, with tears in his eyes, he asks Cinque: “Do you want to see how they killed him?”

Cinque reminds Yamba it’s only a story, but he just shakes his head.  Evidently, it’s becoming more real to him than that.  “But look,” he goes on. “That’s not the end of it. His people took his body down from....” There he pauses and draws a cross in the air.  “They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again and he spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky.”

“This is where the soul goes when you die here,” Yamba continues. “This is where we’re going when they kill us.”  The final illustration is one depicting heaven as a place filled with glorious light.  Stroking the picture gently with his fingers, Yamba concludes, “It doesn’t look so bad.”