Meet Pam Toffey: Bridging the gap between us and the communion of saints

“I’m a mutt,” she said with a huge smile on her face. “I’ve done the research, and have found that I am a little bit of everything, and I am embracing that.” 

Years ago, Pam Toffey was in a car accident which left her quite a bit of recovery time. While she was recovering, Pam jumped into the world of genealogy. “My father is 92, I wanted to know his stories, and I didn’t know any from my mother’s history. Now I am the family genealogist.” 

I sat down for coffee with Pam to learn about her, her ancestors, and how her spirituality has shaped since becoming interested in genealogy. With sites like Ancestry.com and the 23-and-me at home DNA kits, finding more about where you come from and who you come from, bridges the gap between us and the communion of saints.

“Every time I found something in my ancestry, I got more excited and kept exploring,” she said. The thing she was the most excited to explore – her great-great-great-great grandfather, the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church, whose feast day is celebrated on February 13.

However, this wasn’t new information for Pam. She heard throughout her childhood and adulthood that she came from a long line of powerful and dominant Black men. 

Her grandfather, Julian Abele, the first Black architect at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, designed the west campus of Duke University, and the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (yes, those steps made famous in the movie Rocky), among many other accomplishments. But her grandfather never saw his completed work at Duke. “He was denied accommodations to see his work, because of the Jim Crow laws,” she said. 

While those stories of accomplishments and discrimination were shared with Pam, the true story behind her grandfather, and her fourth-great grandfather, was that of their gentleness. When researching more about Absalom Jones, the thing that stuck out to Pam the most was Absalom Jones’ dedication to the commandment to love.

“He moved through life as an example. He loved and helped people no matter who they were,” Pam said. “He and Richard Allen were walking their truth [when they walked out of St. George’s Methodist Church and started the Free African Society].” 

Richard Allen (Left) and Absalom Jones (Right), The Mitchell Collection of African-American History

“He testified before congress about the freeing of slaves, and helped to free individuals, then found (or helped to find) them jobs as freed men. He didn’t allow people to talk all over him. He never lashed out, and he was strong.” This, for Pam, has helped her discover and embrace who she is, and the history from which she comes. 

Her genealogy research into the extended family of Absalom Jones was stopped short due to the fact that familial information for slaves weren’t necessarily kept. “I knew he had siblings before he was sold off… I probably have a huge family,” Pam said. 

Pam did find the fifth-great-grandson of Absalom Jones’ owner, through Ancestry.com, and exchanged some emails with him. Although they have lost touch recently.

Genealogy has taught Pam about not only herself and her family, but about people and society in general. In fact, Pam’s interracial family was technically illegal until the 1960s. “Everyone has suffered, triumphed, and loved,” Pam said.

Finding more about her ancestry has helped Pam embrace who she is. “I’m Black and White, and a little this and a little that,” she said. “Everyone is a little bit of everything, [and] this is my story to tell.”

Genealogy helps to learn about the stories of our past in hopes to comprehend a bit about of present and our future. It bridges the gap between the communion of saints and our lives today, and offers us a part of the larger story of who we are.

“I feel closer to God and my ancestors because I have learned of their sufferings and triumphs,” she said. “[My ancestors taught me to] do your best, all the time, and do everything gently and with love. I carry their blood in me, somewhere, and now they are in my life. The more I research them, the more I am with them.” 

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