by the Rev. Scott Walters
We’ve known about the power of secrets since we were children, haven’t we? There was something thrilling about cupping a hand to my mouth and delivering a message just to the ear of a trusted friend, whether the subject was who had a crush on whom or who had cooties or what secret place we should meet in to exchange even more secrets when school was over.
And the power of secrets does not lessen in adulthood. The stakes occasionally just get higher. A newspaper reporter’s livelihood might depend on being first to that big scoop. Sharing a stock tip is fine unless it’s based on information you’re not supposed to profit from.
Insider trading can land you in jail.
We know about the power of secrets.
The problem with this power is that it tends to separate us. The few of us in the know feel a little superior to the ignorant masses up on the jungle gym or down on the trading floor. Or we can grow a little paranoid protecting trade secrets from competitors or an embarrassment from our neighbors.
I’m coming to believe that history’s secrets have a power over our lives that’s just as real. What happens today always arises in some part from what happened yesterday, whether we remember yesterday or not. Often it is the crisis of some present moment that causes us to dig into the past, whether personal or communal, to make sense our lives right now.
Many of you know about the remarkable work of Tim Huebner and his Rhodes College students in researching the slave market that Nathan Bedford Forrest once ran on the northeast corner of the Calvary block. The market’s existence was a secret lost to history until Tim’s discovery. But the consequences of the buying and selling of human beings in Memphis are not limited to the 19th century. And we believe that telling a fuller version of the truth will help to free us, if only a little, from this dark chapter in our past.
As surely all of Memphis knows by now, April 4 will be the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel, just blocks from Calvary Episcopal Church. As the project of creating a second historical marker (see Tim Huebner’s article on p. 3) proceeded, we realized that unveiling it on April 4 would be poignant and faithful to Dr. King’s life and even to his nonviolent method for change.
Dr. King’s direct action campaigns—be they walks, sit-ins, boycotts, etc.—were based on the notion that there were forces of injustice in the world that would not change as long as they remained secret.
When the truth of Jim Crow segregation was shown for what it was, especially in magazines, newspapers, and the evening news, public opinion began to shift.
Erecting a sign that tells the truth about what happened on our block did not require of us anything like the bravery of the people who walked from Selma to Montgomery or of those who met the police dogs and fire hoses of Bull Connor’s forces in Birmingham. But our project does share and honor their conviction that reconciliation and change will not happen as long as we allow some secrets to go untold.
At noon on April 4, we will offer a service of remembrance and reconciliation at Calvary. The Rev. Dorothy Wells, rector of St. George’s, Germantown, has worked and studied racial reconciliation and has joined the Calvary clergy and staff in the planning of this service.
At the heart of the liturgy will be the reading of the names of as many enslaved people as we are able to find. Tim’s research has already identified over 70. Our prayer is that we can honor the dignity of these human beings, as our baptismal covenant requires of us, even as we confess that their dignity was denied and cruelly diminished when they were sold as chattel only steps away from the Calvary pulpit.
As Dorothy and Tim and Kristin Lensch and the Calvary clergy sat in my office to begin planning the service, I think we’d all agree that the Spirit was in that place. We quickly saw that this liturgy would not be about publicity or photo ops. It would be about Calvary Church saying our prayers together, confessing the truth about our past, and asking God to help us bring about the healing and reconciliation to which we know as Christians we are called.
“You shall know the truth,” Jesus said in John, chapter 8, “and the truth shall set you free.” In the end, I pray that we will be a little freer in the present, because one of our past’s darker secrets will be confessed with prayer and singing and much hopefulness on April 4.