Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
November 13, 2022
The Promise of Renewal
When I was serving a church in Birmingham, the Equal Justice Initiative opened their National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI as it’s called, is Bryan Stevenson’s law firm that seeks to exonerate wrongfully accused people on death row, fights to free children locked up in adult prisons, and works for prison reform. The National Memorial, and the accompanying museum, seeks to memorialize the thousands of people killed by racial terror lynching in our country, and to educate visitors about the impact and legacy of lynching in our criminal justice system, in our culture, communities, families, and more. EJI has done this work because they believe, “America needs a deeper and broader narrative shift to move from mass incarceration into an era of truth and justice: we need to honestly confront our history.”
In EJI’s offices and at the Legacy Museum, there are jars of soil collected from sites where people were lynched – each jar bearing the name, location, and the date the person was killed. These jars, row after row of them, lined up on gently illuminated wooden shelves from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, are a collective testimony to the sheer horror of this era in American history – each jar representing a life, and another family, another community torn apart and traumatized by racial hatred and violence. Some members of my congregation in Birmingham participated in the soil collection project, going early one Saturday morning to EJI’s offices in Montgomery, to meet with activists from across the country, to get a jar, the name of the person, and the location of their death, so they could travel to collect the soil.
Imagine their surprise, their shock, and their shame, when they, this group from First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, discovered that the young man’s body had been found at the First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa. His name was Henry Burke. And he was 19 years old.
They told me that they went to the church and stood awkwardly outside, not sure if they should let someone know what they were doing. We all knew members of this congregation, knew the pastors, they are us. And so they knocked on the doors, walking all around the building like you do trying to get into a church on a weekday. When they finally found the weekday entrance, they told the person who answered who they were and what they were doing. They asked about Henry Burke – did the church know that this had happened? Was there some connection? What was the story they told about it? The person wasn’t sure. There was some vague recollection, a rumor here or there – but nothing concrete in the historical memory of the congregation. Not a story they told willingly to folks on their doorstep.
So the group thanked the woman, and went to the lawn, and dug up some earth, and filled the big glass jar. Then they prayed, and carried it back to Montgomery, and added it to the exhibit. Henry Burke.
This work of EJI’s is the recovery of historical memory. Their team researches and documents the victims of lynching, and partners with community groups to put up historical markers at locations where the murders took place. This brings the haunted history out into the open, a public commemoration and acknowledgement of the harm done; gives testament to the lives lost, and the courage of the surviving family and community.
People who research trauma tell us that giving voice to painful memories is often a necessary part of the healing process. Traumatic experiences fracture our memory; they get imbedded in our psyche deeper than our thinking, speaking brains can go, way down in our lizard brains, our limbic systems. This leaves us in a constant flux state of fight – flight – or freeze, and can cause painful memories to reemerge when triggered by a sound or smell connected to the trauma – what we know as PTSD.
But, when we speak about the harm we’ve survived, bring truth out of the shadows and shine a light on our wounded places, a path opens up to healing. The past stays past – we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
This is the intention of the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, commemorative markers and soil collection project. Their work is inspired by the truth and reconciliation commissions in South African following the end of apartheid, and in Guatemala at the conclusion of the civil war there. We must name the truth of the past as we’ve experienced it, to honor the memory of those who died, and to ensure that we never repeat it. This remembering enables us to heal.
All of this to say that the words of the prophet Isaiah strike a strange chord for me today. Particularly the promise that the former things shall not be remembered, nor brought to mind.
Isaiah paints a beautiful vision of the world to come, a new heaven and a new earth! The peaceable kingdom! And yet, one of the things that makes us human – that enables us to form lasting relationships, to learn and grow and build community – is our memory. One reason why dementia can be so painful, so difficult. When we forget, it erases our memories of who we are, where we’ve been, and how we are connected.
Why is this erasing of memory part of Isaiah’s vision of the new creation?
The prophet was writing to people who had survived the trauma of exile. He’s writing in Judah, after his people have returned to the home of which they’d dreamed for so long. But they discovered it was not as their parents and grandparents had remembered. Devastated by war, and generations of enslavement, they do not flourish back in their homeland. They eke out a living, barely scraping by. Hence the promise of the day when they will build houses for themselves and live in them – produce food that they themselves will be able to eat. Reminds me of the bitter irony that in the rich, coffee growing regions of Guatemala and Mexico, farmers often drink Nescafe instant coffee, because they cannot afford to drink coffee from the beans they grow.
The prophet offers a vision of human flourishing – people able to build and produce for themselves, without exploitation, with enough for everyone. Safety, health, a life to old age without fear of harm. Peace. Trauma theory aside, perhaps the promise of a clean slate, where the suffering of the past will not need to be remembered or come to mind, is what these families who have returned from exile need to be able to go on.
There was a Presbytery Gathering yesterday, and I had the pleasure of presenting two candidates for ministry on behalf of the CPM so that they might be certified ready to seek a call. One of them wrote in his statement of faith that a central task of the church is that of remembering: remembering who God is, and who we are – remembering that we are loved, and remembering the promises of God; remembering that as we wait for the fullness of the kindom, we are called to the work of forgiveness and healing, justice, and reconciliation. Remembering, after all, is part of what we do each week – remembering the promise of grace at the font. And when we gather at the table, we remember the words and the work of God in Christ; when we break bread together, we physically re-member his broken body, becoming the body of Christ in the world again.
Can you remember when you first learned to ride a bike? All of the different directions you had to pay attention to, the balance, the speed, how to move the pedals, how to brake, how to turn, where to put your hands on the handlebars. But once you got the hang of it, you really didn’t have to think about it anymore. It just became second nature. Your body remembered, so you didn’t have to – now you just hop on and go. Maybe this is the kind of knowing, this deep, embodied knowledge, that the prophet is talking about. We don’t have to work to remember the former things, they don’t even come to mind. Because deep down in our bones, we know the fundamental truth – that God is the ground of our being, whose love holds us no matter what.
As far as I know, there is not yet a marker at that church in Tuscaloosa, bearing the name and story of Henry Burke. Not yet. But he is remembered. And I have to think that this hard work of remembering is what sustains us and carries us forward in this in-between time, as we long for the fulfillment of God’s promises of healing, and wholeness, and peace. And the recovery of historical memory, telling the truth of what has happened to us and others, acknowledging harm done and seeking to repair it, is how we make space for healing now, as we look towards the time when we won’t have to remember anymore – we will just know the truth of God’s love, the abundance of God’s grace, the embrace of the whole holy family.
 Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org