by Sojourner White—

Growing up with the name “Sojourner” is a lifelong ice-breaker. People say: “What a beautiful name! What does it mean?” Or “I love your name. Where have I heard it before?” I’ve come to embrace their questions.

I’ll tell you what I tell them. My namesake, Sojourner Truth, was a U.S. abolitionist and wom­en’s rights activist who reclaimed her freedom after slavery and dedicated her life to improving the quality of life for her people and all women. Every year on March 10, the ELCA commemo­rates Sojourner Truth as a re­newer of society. She was the first black woman to win back her son, Peter, who had been sold illegally to a white man. Sometimes I tell people that Sojourner could not read or write. But what many people don’t know about Sojourn­er is her devotion to God. God changed the direction of her jour­ney, just as God led me to mine.

Though born a slave and given the name Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner did not let her circum­stances kill her faith. Starting at the age of 9, she was sold multiple times to violent, white slave own­ers and their sons. She was beaten for not speaking English correctly. Her first child was stillborn and a product of rape by one of her slave masters. She was forbidden to be with the man she loved because they were owned by different plan­tation owners, and thus, their chil­dren could not be shared property. She was verbally promised her freedom before legal emancipa­tion, but that promise was cruelly rescinded. Three of her children were sold away from her.

Nevertheless, Sojourner persisted and escaped to free­dom. She began working as a free woman and attended worship services at a church. There she befriended religious abolitionists and became closer to God. With encouragement from her new­found religious community, she pursued preaching. She felt spir­itually compelled to change her name from Isabella to Sojourner in the mid-1800s. She wandered the rest of her days, preaching the abolition of slavery and advocat­ing for full rights for women.

When I was 8, I was not thrilled to learn this history. I resented being named after Sojourner Truth. Why would my mom give me such a diffi­cult name? It was never on any keychains in gift shops. Hardly anyone could pronounce it cor­rectly. I despised roll call because a classmate would always yell “Truth” after the teacher said my name, making all the other stu­dents look at me and laugh.

During African-based liba­tions—where my community honors the sacrifice of ancient, historical ancestors by saying their names aloud, pouring water on a plant to replenish the Earth, and speaking the word, Ashe, to show agreement—I always felt obligated to say, “Sojourner Truth.” For an introverted kid, the legacy bestowed upon me felt more of a burden than an honor.

It wasn’t until a 5th-grade trip to Sojourner’s grave in Bat­tle Creek, Michigan, that things became clearer. My mom told me that Battle Creek was not only the city where Sojourner died but the place where I was thought into existence. As a girl, my mom spent one week each summer in Battle Creek. During one visit, my mom told her Great Aunt Willa Mae that she was bored. My mom’s great-aunt handed her a book, The Autobiography of Sojourner Truth, and told her to read it. It changed the life my mother would live.

Sojourner White is a fourth generation Lutheran,Fulbright Scholar and member of The Table in Milwaukee. She combines her love of food, writing and travel on her blog

This article is excerpted from the March  2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.