To forgive, not forget

CAMANO ISLAND – Jacob Lienau was 13 years old when the chains were first looped around his wrists.

A wooden yoke, the kind usually reserved for oxen, was fitted around his neck and he was locked in next to another person.

Jacob, his family, and a small group of people were in Annapolis, Md., wearing black T-shirts that read “So Sorry” in white block letters.

The group began to walk. The only sound was the clinking of chains, a haunting reminder of how slaves were once herded along trading routes to auction blocks to be sold like cattle.

Jacob is white.

That’s why he believes he should apologize to blacks for slavery. His race bought and sold slaves.

To this Camano Island farm boy, it’s reason enough.

“How could we?” he cried out into the quiet night. It’s a moment caught on video by his father, Michael Lienau, a documentary filmmaker who is producing a television series about the marches.

The symbols are shocking. They’re meant to be.

Men, women and children in yokes and chains on long marches under hot sun.

The Lienau family has traveled the world for two years, apologizing for slavery, a practice the U.S. government officially ended in 1865.

They don’t have much choice in the matter; they say they have to apologize. God asked Michael Lienau and his wife to, just as he asked them to adopt five children from an Indian reservation in Oregon three years ago.

In 2004, Michael and Shari Lienau and their nine children squeezed into a motor home and drove to the East Coast to shackle themselves in yokes and chains, and to march through former slave ports with a group called the Lifeline Expedition.

The London-based group believes white people must apologize for the Atlantic slave trade.

Slavery spawned an ache that spans generations, said David Pott, Lifeline Expedition’s founder.

When descendents of slaves see whites making an effort to identify with what happened during the era of slavery, Pott said, they remember their pain, pain that’s been long-buried, yet still exists.

Through forgiveness, he said, that pain is eased.

Lifeline marchers include Americans, Europeans and Africans. There are descendents of slave traders and descendents of slaves.

Some marchers apologize.

Others forgive.

They weep. They hug.

Michael Lienau catches it all on camera.

Another group showed up for the march. These people held signs reading “No More White Guilt” and “White Pride Worldwide.”

Jacob, now 14, said he doesn’t understand their anger.

“Why are they so mad at us just for asking forgiveness?” he said. “What harm can be done?”

A lesson in history

The Lienau children attend school at the family’s kitchen table.

Shari Lienau, 44, handles all the day-to-day assignments. Michael Lienau, 46, corrals the children together to learn about disaster preparedness and the environment, topics he frequently addresses in his documentaries.

Most mornings are spent inside, amid textbooks, pencil cases and art projects of the glue and glitter variety.

Afternoons mean riding horses in the pastures, gathering eggs from their chickens and tending the hay and grass for their cattle.

The Lifeline journeys are part of the children’s education, Shari Lienau said.

History textbooks often gloss over issues such as slavery, she said.

“We want to be able to learn history accurately,” she said. “We don’t focus on the atrocities, but we learn about what really happened.”

A photo of slaves in a history textbook first raised questions for Anna, 12. She saw children among a row of chained adults, walking along a slave trade route.

“I always thought it was just adults,” Anna said. “When I saw that picture, I told my dad I wanted to say I was sorry.”

When she marches, Anna explained, she apologizes, to anyone who will listen, on behalf of her nation for enslaving children.

The apologies don’t end there.

Bibi, 11, Joseph, 10, Tatsi, 8, Corina, 7 and Joshua, 5, who are biological siblings, were adopted from an Indian reservation in southern Oregon three years ago.

When they march, they forgive the United States’ treatment of American Indians, they said. Their forgiveness extends to their siblings, Jacob, Anna, 12, Janey, 9 and Estee, 5,

During a family visit to the grave of slaves in Charleston, S.C., Michael Lienau apologized to his daughter, Bibi, for moving American Indians off their land.

“It took me a while to think about it,” Bibi said. “Then I forgave him.”

Janey said she apologized on behalf of the United States to all African slave descendents.

It’s a heavy weight for the narrow shoulders of a 9-year-old girl who spends her afternoons painting with watercolors and practicing staccato hymns on the living room piano.

“I said I was sorry,” she said.

Michael and Shari Lienau insist that each of their children chose to march with Lifeline.

The eldest, Jacob and Anna, traveled with Lifeline in 2005 to make apologies in the Caribbean and in Colombia, one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

Is a country reeling from a drug war an appropriate destination for preteens?

“We travel with local people who know where the dangerous areas are,” Michael Lienau said. “And there are no guarantees in life. We just heard that there’s a flesh-eating disease right here in Seattle.”

Changing the future

Michael Lienau made his name in the documentary film business when, at 20, he was stranded on Mount St. Helens shortly after it erupted. He wasn’t sure he would escape.

In desperation, he looked heavenward.

“That’s where I really surrendered my life to the Lord,” Lienau said. “It was baptism in volcanic ash.”

Two years later, he met Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” which traced Haley’s ancestors to their slavery in colonial America. Later, Lienau made a movie of “Healing America’s Wounds,” a book by John Dawson on race relations. In 2003, Pott asked him to make a documentary on Lifeline’s journeys.

“It seemed like a natural next step,” Lienau said.

Up to this point, the documentary has been entirely self-funded. The family’s savings are exhausted, Lienau said.

The family’s church, Stanwood Foursquare, recently held a fundraiser to help continue Lienau’s work.

Lienau pays the bills with other projects. He films cooking shows, and recently sold the “Personal Survival Kit,” a DVD used by King County to educate its residents about disaster preparedness.

He’s not sure he’ll even make back the thousands he’s spent on the Lifeline project.

“We’d love to have some sponsorship and have this air on a major network,” he said “But it may just end up as a DVD series. We’ll have to see.”

“In the end, we’re doing this for the Lord.”

Jacob and Anna quote Lifeline’s motto, “Healing the past to transform the future,” as naturally as they gently shepherd the younger children around the farm. They say they’re emboldened by their faith.

“I’m getting this courage from God,” Anna said. “I can feel it.”

And they yearn for more.

Jacob and Anna left last week with their father for Africa, where they’ll march in the Gambia and Senegal. The Gambia is home to the “Roots” festival, when thousands of people of African descent visit the country once known as a major portal for the colonial slave trade.

“Africa was hijacked and tortured and raped in the true sense of the words,” said Lamin Sanyang, an official in the Gambia’s Washington, D.C. embassy. “We can only heal our wounds if we talk about the wrongs that have taken place here.”

Michael Lienau believes talking about wrongs is the only answer, the only way to end racial tension. Jesus showed followers how to love one another, he said.

“The only way to bring about racial healing is through repentance and forgiveness,” he said.

Jacob and Anna have earned their own funds for the Africa trip.

Jacob raises cattle in the pastures surrounding their home. He butchers and sells them.

Anna bakes loaf after loaf of banana bread, made possible by a windfall of bananas at a local grocery store. She sells the loaves at church and to families on the island.

“It’s only $5 a loaf, but it adds up,” she said. A marker-drawn thermometer charts her progress. By late April, she’d raised more than $1,000.

To Anna, it’s worth it.

She would pay much more, she said.

To travel.

To look people in their eyes.

To apologize.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@

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