This is such an opportunity for all of us. Don’t you feel a sense of righteousness, just by walking through church doors when we worship together—Black and White people, united in Christ? We are doing what Jesus calls us to do—to grow in wisdom and to learn to love each other better. We do that, by praying and singing together, and catching up on each others lives.
Sharing our personal stories is the main way we come to love each other better. We can’t love each other, if we don’t know each other and we can’t know each other unless we know something about each others’ lives—what has made us who we are.
Martin Luther King Jr. said once, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” We are made by our own histories, of course, but we are also shaped by each others’ histories once we know them, and embrace them.
In an effort to get us started sharing the histories that have made us, I thought I would share with you one of my own stories about growing up in Richmond, Virginia.
Back when I was small, and even not-so-small, the main department store in town was Miller and Rhoads. I found out last week, there was one at Barracks Rhoads in Charlottesville, but I am talking about the flagship Miller and Rhoads, again, in Richmond. It was six stories high, that store. I say department store, but it was far grander than what we have become familiar with. You went to the Miller and Rhoads in Richmond, not just to buy socks or a tube of mascara. You put on your Sunday best, and you planned on making a day of it.
The building was elegant; marble floors and pillars. If you got hungry, you dined, and I do mean dined, at the Miller and Rhodes Tea Room—think white linen table cloths, china table ware. The tea room’s specialties were crust-less club sandwiches and chocolate silk pie. That’s what fashionable, hatted women ate as they sipped their iced teas and chatted with friends. I wasn’t so fashionable and I doubt I ever wore a hat in that tea room, but I went there once or twice with my mother when I was small. As a teen I went there with friends occasionally so that we could practice being grownups.
My own earliest memory of Miller and Rhoads, was visiting Santa Claus. In fact, there’s a black and white photo of me in a picture album in my basement—I’m sitting on Santa’s lap. I am wearing a dress with poofy shoulders, white ankle socks and black paten shoes with straps. You know what I am talking about. That’s some of what I remember about Miller and Rhoads.
John Harris, though, has different memories. John Harris is a black person. He was a high school friend. Like me, he also grew up in Richmond. He shared with me one of HIS memories of Miller and Rhoads. He told me, “I must have been five years old. My mother and I were shopping. She was holding my hand. I was thirsty, and I saw a water fountain nearby. I pulled loose of my mother’s hand, ran to the water fountain and had my fill. When I turned around, my mother was standing over me, furious. She slapped me, and hard.” John had drunk from a whites’ only water fountain.
Although John never told me this, I am 100 % positive that neither John nor his mother ever saw the inside of Miller and Rhoads’ tea room, and I am guessing that John never sat on Santa’s knee.
John and I were the same age, we lived in the same city, visited the same department store, but we have two very different histories. Again, we are not makers of history, so much as we are made by history. It is those histories that have helped make John and me who we are.
Now here’s something to marvel at. I have no recollection at all, of segregation as it existed when I was small, at Miller and Rhoads, or at any of the other stores in Richmond. I only know from magazine articles and history books and listening to other peoples’ recollections that there were “Whites only” and “Colored only” signs scattered all over Richmond.
Why is it that I have no memory of that? I think mainly it’s because my mother never had to point out those signs to me, like John’s mother had to point them out to him. I could drink from either water fountain without incident. Miller and Rhoads was MY store, and Richmond was MY city in a way that Miller and Rhoads was not John Harris’ store and Richmond was not John Harris’ city. I was a resident, John was made to feel like a visitor, and a not-so-welcome visitor at that.
Happily, that ugly part of Richmond’s past is behind us. It took a movement, the civil rights movement, dialogue and compassionate listening on both sides, to bring the city together, but it happened. No more whites only, colored only signs.
And now I want to talk some about the statue controversy in Charlottesville. Bet you didn’t see that coming!
If you had asked me a year ago, what I thought about the Stonewall Jackson statue in downtown Charlottesville, I would have said, “There’s a statue of Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville?” I’ve lived in Charlottesville 10 years now. I’ve probably walked by that statue at least a half dozen times. However, like the “Whites only,” and “Blacks only” signs in Richmond, the statue never registered with me. A year ago, I WAS familiar with the statue of Robert E. Lee. Frankly, though, before all the controversy, I was neither impressed by it, nor disturbed by it. It was, you know, just there.
But the statues definitely disturb some people, and now that I have had a chance to prayerfully consider those statues, they disturb me, too. They disturb me and others because they speak to, and honor some ugly periods in our history that we thought were behind us—I’m talking about the Civil War; AND the Jim Crow era of the 1920’s—because that is, in fact, when those statues were erected, in the 1920’s.
When people in Charlottesville claimed that the statues were offensive, The City of Charlottesville involved itself in compassionate listening, listening to personal stories. Then, after considerable deliberation, the city council decided that the statues must go. And yet, the controversy is not over. The state of Virginia has laws that protect statues, say some. Charlottesville, though, maintains that the state law applies to towns and cities that erected statues beginning in 1997, and has no application to the statues like those of Lee and Jackson which were erected in the early 1900’s. . The next hearing for this case is set for August 30.
Where are we in all of this? Are we for or against the statues removal?
I attended a family reunion this past week, in Wintergreen. Seventeen of us at that mountain retreat. One of my cousins asked me what I would be preaching on this weekend. Even though she is from Kentucky, she had heard of the statue controversy. When I told them, “Statues,” she asked me, “Why in the world, Gay Lee, are you preaching on that? Isn’t that way controversial and political?”
My response was, “Yes, it is, but our political stances are informed by our faith.” I ought to have that line silkscreened on a tee-shirt, or something, I am saying it so much lately.
How DOES our faith inform us? There are so many scripture passages that speak to this, that I couldn’t decide which one to choose for today. A lot have to do with loving each other, as God love us—A lot have to do with us, as children of God and therefore brothers and sisters and members of one human family. A lot have to do with justice—Let justice roll down like water.
I decided on the Romans 12 passage, though. Back in Paul’s day, the Gentiles Christians in Rome wanted to hold on to their Gentile traditions and practices, and the Jewish Christians in Rome wanted to hold on to their Jewish traditions and practices. They were deceiving themselves in thinking they could do that and still be one church. Paul advises them, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” In other words, in this passage Paul reminds them as he reminds us, that some of our histories and traditions are best left in the past. We are being perpetually transformed as we consider God’s word—as we continue to discern God’s will for us. So, to my mind, anyway, the statues must go. They are divisive and they are emblematic of a past that is ugly and hurtful.
I want to end this sermon by returning to Miller and Rhoads—which I did actually, winter break freshman year in college. I was buying Christmas presents for family and friends along with what seemed like hundreds, maybe thousands of other shoppers. No joke. I was trying to create a path for myself through all those swarming, tangled bodies, when--a hand firmly grasped my shoulder. It startled me. I turned. John Harris!
No church bells peeled, no angels descended, but it was a special, some might say a spiritual moment. John and I hugged. Then we stood among all those busy shoppers and caught up on each others lives. That IS what we are after—It is God’s will for us--mutual love and understanding--in church, in Charlottesville, in Scottsville, in Esmont, in our world. Amen