As we started our new ministry, the leaders who had lived through the worst of it had different ideas for moving forward. Among the comments I remember:
- Let’s pretend like it never happened.
- Let’s figure out how to punish the ones who caused the trouble.
- Let’s work of getting new members and eventually no one will remember it.
What do we do when our institutional history includes something evil? It’s one thing for a Church to have a congregational split because of theological differences or financial misconduct. But it’s quite another thing when our history includes something so heinous that remembering it brings deep shame. And sometimes it brings denial.
That never could have happened.
It’s important to remember that it did happen. It’s why James Cone wrote The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It’s why Yale changed the name of one of their residence halls from John C. Calhoun (a Vice President of the U.S. and supporter of slavery) to Grace Hopper (a computer scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral.) It’s why Southern states erect historical markers where slave trading markets once stood and lynchings occurred.
It’s why there are holocaust museums. It’s why the Lorraine Motel is a national historic site.
The truth is that sometimes terrible things happened in this country with the approval of good church people. How might we address that history? Forgetting it ever happened isn’t an option if we want to avoid repeating history. Check out these faithful responses to evil:
- Allison Creek Presbyterian Church in York, SC not only didn’t ignore the fact that there was a slave cemetery on their church property, but they have drawn attention to the cemetery and honored the human beings who once worked those fields.
- Salem Presbytery of the PCUSA will remember the excruciating legacy of lynching in North Carolina during their Assembly meeting next week.
- Last week, our current and former Stated Clerks in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. made a pilgrimage to Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska to offer an apology to Native Americans, native Alaskans, and native Hawaiians for banning their indigenous languages and stealing their livelihoods in the 19th Century.
Few of us enjoy reflecting on uncomfortable things. In fact, some of us believe that it’s unnecessary and “too negative.” But the Bible actually requires us to look at the truth – even the terrible truth – because that’s how we turn around and become the people we were created to be.
In these days – especially – we are required to shed a bright light on those secrets and lies that threaten our humanity. It’s how healing happens.
Image of an historical marker in Valdosta, GA reminding us of one of the darkest stories in our American experience. Her name was Mary Page Turner.