Reflections on an American Pilgrimage: Can We Hear Their Stories?

February 9, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Matthew 25:31-40

On our road trip through the South in January we visited dozens of museums and monuments, and read countless roadside signs, including, I think, every historic marker.

As we travelled from town to town we didn’t worry about the police, or vigilantes, or the Klan. We didn’t need the Green Book, a directory of safe places for African-Americans to eat and buy gas and stay overnight across the country used last century, until 1966. It even lists places in Minnesota. You may have seen the movie Green Book a couple years ago.

No, it was easy for us – but difficult in other ways.

As we drove we witnessed the impact of historic systems, some of which succeeded and became embedded in our nation’s culture, politics, and economy – and some of which failed. They typically functioned in response to one another:

Enslavement…Emancipation and freedom.

Reconstruction after the Civil War…Jim Crow laws.

Black institutions giving strength to their communities…white terrorism.

Discrimination…Civil Rights movement.

Mass incarceration and police violence…Black Lives Matter.

These streams have flowed through our national consciousness for centuries. None of these historic structures and movements existed in the abstract. They affected real people. There’s nothing impersonal about lynching. Always one person.

On our journey through towns like Charleston and Savannah, Macon and Atlanta, Selma and Montgomery, Meridian and Jackson, we kept seeing names of individuals and reading their stories. Some were repeated again and again: Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr. – names familiar to most of us. But there were others – many more. We read the names of parents and children, pastors and teachers, workers, musicians, and students – people who quietly and daily faced the hard, fierce winds of racism.

As our journey unfolded mile after mile, day after day, we became aware of a rhythm of resistance and resilience rooted in the lives of individuals who lived through – and often suffered and died during – these painful centuries of our nation’s history.

We read inventories of plantation “property” and ads for the sale of enslaved people – lists of real people with names:

Betty    18 years old

Charles                28

Abraham             11

Grace                   50

Rebecca                  5

Billy                     30

Susan       9 months

The names we read and stories we heard all appeared in stark contrast to those we observed as we drove down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia: Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson. Statues, block after block of them. Statues of leaders of the Confederacy, honoring their efforts to keep alive the glorious Lost Cause – the enslavement of human beings in the South.

We may think of history as being defined by the prominent and powerful, but it is experienced by the ordinary and unsung – the people who populate it. To remember their names and hear their stories creates a different narrative altogether for our nation.

When Jesus says that the Final Judgment will be a test of how we respond to individual human need, he’s asking if we can hear their stories and remember their names. He’s asking if we have the courage to get close to those on the underside of history. We cannot offer a hungry person food, after all, or give someone drink, or visit someone in prison, or care for someone who is ill, or welcome a stranger, without getting close to them.

Bryan Stevenson calls it the power of proximity. Stevenson is an attorney based in Montgomery, fighting unjust incarceration. He spoke here at a Westminster Town Hall Forum some years ago. He’s the author of the book Just Mercy and subject of the film by the same name, which I encourage you to see. Proximity requires that we hear the stories of those whose voices have long been silenced. From his own experience of working with men on death row, Stevenson knows that proximity changes us.

For hundreds of years we’ve done everything we can to avoid proximity and let racism keep its vice grip on our national soul. We’ve stood by as history has tried to forget those relegated to the category of “other.” But they cannot remain anonymous and they will not be forgotten if we know their names and say their names and hear their stories – and see their faces.

Our road trip took us to little Newnan, Georgia. The local Presbyterian pastor showed us the town’s controversial art project: 17 enormous photos of people who live there, hung on the exterior of buildings in Newnan. A young Black couple appears in an over-size portrait on a warehouse wall. Gigantic images of two young Muslim women in hijabs stare out from an office building. A two story-tall portrait of a Black girl dressed for church looks out from the front of City Hall. The Presbyterian Church – the only religious building that agreed to participate – hosts huge photos of a Latinx woman and a bearded old white man in overalls. The portraits help remove the label of “other” and affirm the diversity in the community. These are real people. Their names are listed under each photo.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/19/us/newnan-art-georgia-race.html)

In Montgomery, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we stood before walls filled with shelves holding hundreds of large glass jars. Each jar contained soil collected from the site of the killing of a Black person whose name appears on the jar…

Amanda Franks and Mollie Smith, May 11, 1897; Jeff, Alabama

William Walker, July 31, 1910; Axis, Alabama

Anthony Crawford, Oct. 21, 1916; Abbeville, South Carolina

The names are part of a project started by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative to remember with respect those who lost their lives to the violence of hatred in our country. They have documented the lynching deaths of more than 4400 individuals.

In a powerful reclamation of lives that mattered, their names appear on large metal monoliths suspended from the ceiling in a memorial spread over several acres. When you enter the memorial, you stand face to face with each of their names, and the date and location they were killed. As you walk through the memorial the floor slopes down until suddenly you realize you’re soon standing under the names, looking up at them, hanging overhead.

Most locations listed there are in the South, but several hundred are in the north – a reminder that racial hatred and violence are a national reality. This is not a Southern problem; this is America’s problem. We stood before the names of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three black men killed on June 15, 1920, in Duluth. They had been arrested on trumped up charges and put into the city jail.

I was in prison and you visited me, Jesus says. And we reply: When did we see you in prison and visit you?

A mob showed up that night at the Duluth City Jail, removed the three men and marched them to their death. An estimated 10,000 Minnesotans gathered and cheered the lynching. This coming June 15, Bryan Stevenson will speak in Duluth to commemorate their deaths. Organizers are calling for at least 10,000 people to show up again, this time to honor the lives of the three men. Beth and I will be there and invite you to join us.

A month ago, we joined worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Freed and enslaved African-Americans established the church in 1818. As the oldest AME congregation in the South it became known as Mother Emanuel. South Carolina white folks closed the church in 1834 and destroyed the building. We learned the reason why on a plaque outside the entrance.

It told the story of Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who managed to buy his freedom at the age of 32. He had been a member of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, a second-class member, relegated to the balcony with other African-Americans. They left to join the founding of Emanuel AME in 1818.

Vesey, a skilled carpenter and literate man, married an enslaved woman and had a family with her. He wanted to purchase freedom for his wife and children, but their “owner” refused to sell. Vesey grew increasingly frustrated at the outrageous, sinful practice of enslavement, and began to organize a rebellion. Biblical liberation stories that he heard in church inspired him. According to some reports several thousand enslaved African-Americans – who outnumbered whites in South Carolina – were prepared to join the fight. But the plan was discovered and Vesey and others were arrested and quickly executed.

After the failed rebellion Mother Emanuel Church – deemed a threat by South Carolina whites – was demolished and not reestablished until the end of the Civil War. Today, next to the plaque honoring the memory of Denmark Vesey, is another plaque that says “Love is stronger than hate.” It lists the nine Mother Emanuel members killed by a white supremacist on June 17, 2015, at the end of a Wednesday evening Bible study in the sanctuary. It was not a coincidence that Mother Emanuel was the subject of another racist attack. Their names – Clementa, Sharonda, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Tywanza, Daniel, and Myra – are posted next to Denmark Vesey. They will not be forgotten, as Mother Emanuel continues its hopeful and audacious witness to life.

Resilience. And resistance.

When we were in Montgomery we walked to a new statue of Rosa Parks, placed at the street corner where she got on the bus and refused to yield her seat and launched the Montgomery boycott. We noticed four other historic markers with names on them. One of them was for Claudette Colvin.

Nine months before 42-year-old Parks was arrested as part of a planned effort by the local NAACP, 15-year-old Colvin had done the same thing, but on her own volition. She got on the bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman when directed to do so by the bus driver. The courageous teenager was arrested and jailed for her actions. Claudette Colvin. How many of us know her name and story? She and three others – not Rosa Parks – were part of the lawsuit that led to the eventual Supreme Court decision desegregating public transit.

Everywhere we went we heard stories like that – young people stepping up and making a difference, as they are doing today. When 13-year old Hezekiah Watkins in Jackson, Mississippi, learned the Freedom Riders were coming to town he defied his mother’s strict orders and went down to the Bus Depot to watch them arrive.

That day, May 24, 1961, Hezekiah, not yet in high school, was swept up by the police and arrested. They sent him to notorious Parchman State Prison, among the adults. He was released after several days, but by then he had become a foot soldier in the movement. Hezekiah Watkins was arrested 109 more times. I met him in Jackson as he told his story to a group of middle school students. “I was your age when that happened,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

The narratives of enslavement and Emancipation, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, lynching and discrimination, Civil Rights and mass incarceration all are part of the same web in our nation’s history, all part of the story of deeply rooted racism in America.

In every era, African-Americans have resisted and shown resilience, refusing to let the white-controlled system overwhelm their voices. Can we hear their stories? Can we get close? Can we see their faces?

When did we see you hungry or thirsty?

When did we see you enslaved and work for your freedom?

When did we see you a stranger?

When did we see you hunted and assist your escape?

When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?

When did we see you pushed around and mistreated and step up to help you?

“Truly, I tell you,” Jesus says in Matthew 25. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Racial justice will remain as elusive as ever in this land until we can hear the stories of those left out of the dominant narrative – the very ones with whom Jesus identifies.

This is our work, yours and mine, the work of the church.

Jesus has already shown us how to do it: it starts with getting close, and listening.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Alanna Tyler

Gracious God, you have made us your own and called us to worship. We come with grateful hearts for your love that seeks us out, mercy that never comes to an end, and grace upon grace upon grace.

Creator of all, we pray for people around the globe. Lead all who exercise power to do so with humility and justice. Give leaders the courage to break down systems of violence. We especially ask you to protect the most vulnerable.

We lift up to you our nation where bitter divisions were in full view again this past week. Even as our politics is broken, make our hearts steady. Restore our imaginations and prepare us to meet our responsibilities in public life of:

…providing food and water for all who are hungry and thirsty,

…welcoming strangers,

…offering care to those who are sick; and

…upholding the humanity of those who are incarcerated.

All children are a precious gift. We rejoice this morning with the parents and grandparents of a new baby girl. May we support this family as they raise this gift from you

Faithful God, you promised to embrace us when we are mourning. Bring into your care all who are mourning the death of a loved one.

Make your presence known to all among us who will undergo surgery and medical treatment this week. Lift anxiety from all who are waiting for a diagnosis or to learn whether treatment received has been effective.

Holy Spirit, sit with us in our discomfort as we reckon with our history of racial injustice. Help us to glean wisdom from the stories of resilience, resistance and audacious hope. Sustain us with glimpses of the wholeness you make possible.

All these things we present in Jesus name. And we join our voices in saying the prayer Jesus taught us: “Our Father…”

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