1,146. That’s how many little shiny metal disks are spread throughout sections 16 and 17 in Alta Vista Cemetery. 1,146.
Folks have known, of course, that there were a few unmarked graves of African-Americans way back in the back of the cemetery, but everyone guessed there would be a hundred or so. When the city brought in a ground-penetrating radar unit to survey the area, imagine their surprise when they saw 1,146 graves there, beneath the ground, resting where they have for so long.
Some of them have been there since around 1872 when Alta Vista was opened. This being the case, there are several former slaves buried there, way back in the back. Hundreds more were buried there over the decades until probably the 50s or 60s, when the insights of the Civil Rights Movement finally put a stop (at least in theory) to outright segregation.
Barbara Brooks, a city council, person first mentioned this as I sat next to her on a panel. We were part of a conversation with the mayor, city council, police chief, sheriff, and other pastors, hoping to help build momentum with a conversation around race, community, and trust. I had never met her until then, but the image she laid out caught my heart that evening as she stood and shared the story of working with a group of citizens to find a way to honor these brothers and sisters who were tucked away way back in the back.
She came over to Grace last week to visit, and she took Alan, Cynthia and me out to Alta Vista and showed us their graves. The four of us walked around talking some, and silent at some times, looking down at our feet and noticing the metal disks. Each of them has a number. They’re not in any order, but we found number 1,122. That was the highest we saw.
Sections 16 and 17 are now shaded by these wonderful old oaks. It is peaceful there. Most of the rest of the cemetery has no trees at all, but it’s like a garden there with the 1,146. It’s ironic that the section way back in the back, out of sight, has now become the most beautiful part of the cemetery. That happens sometimes with the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it: spaces of alienation and rejection are transformed into places of peace and beauty. Sounds like a glimpse of the resurrection to me.
1,146. I keep saying that number, because I don’t to forget it.
Now, there is a group of folks from churches, city government, neighborhood support, and schools who are trying to come together to do something extraordinary: listen to the voices of people long forgotten.
We don’t know who was buried there, because it wasn’t mandatory to keep records back near 1872. And, we’re not sure that anyone would have kept records for “that section” anyway. But we want to know who they are. We want to hear them. We want to know their stories, if we can. We need to honor them…any way we can.
So, see if you can see how this might connect with today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke’s account. “In a certain city there was a judge,” and the judge keeps seeing this widow. She comes over and over to plead her case. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. And he refused for a while. But then, as Jesus tells the story, something shifts.
“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” the judge says, “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” On one hand, I feel relief for her. At least she’s being heart. But, on the other hand, it’s more than a bit patronizing, isn’t it. Sort of like when our children keep coming to us to ask for something and we finally just roll our eyes and sigh and say, “Fine! Whatever. Just do it. You’re not going to leave me alone until you do it, so just go ahead and do what you want.”
Not exactly the fullness of justice one might want, but at least she’s heard, on one hand.
It was the persistence of her voice crying out that caught my heart. This woman coming day after day to plead her case for her self-worth, for her dignity, for her humanity.
The text goes on to present an image of God’s mercy that is so powerful: “And the Lord says, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”
You see, that question is meant for us.
“Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”
The earliest grave there would be 144 years old. I’ve been thinking about this person all week. This unknown person, this unheard person, buried way in the back…who is now being discovered! We know he or she is there! We can imagine what their life would have been like! Grace Church was about 45 years old by the time this person was buried, to give us a helpful orientation point.
There are so many things in our lives that we would like to keep buried—way back in the back. Maybe there are things about ourselves that we want buried. Maybe there are truths about our families. Maybe there are things about our society and culture that we would rather not face. Maybe the work to overcome some biases we have is just inconvenient, so we would rather bury it and keep moving. Maybe we try to keep these things tucked way down, out of sight, out of mind.
But they’re never out of heart, are they?
Sometimes, it’s very hard to name difficult truths out loud. Sometimes naming things out loud hurts, because maybe we realize we’ve been holding on to some position just out of pure spite or tribal loyalty. We don’t want to name a difficult truth out loud, because that means we’re going to have to say we were wrong, mistaken, maybe even fooled. And that we need to change course. Or that we need to make amends. Or that we need to ask forgiveness. Or that we maybe we need to stop blaming ourselves. It’s complex, isn’t it?
Naming the truth out loud isn’t about blame or guilt or shame. It’s really not about those things. Our ego tells us that it is, and that’s often why we stop shy of being vulnerable and honestly saying how we’re afraid, confused, angry, frustrated, lonely…
But difficult truths need to be told.
“yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice…”
“will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”
We do our best to keep so many things buried—pressed way down so no one can see them or so we don’t have to deal with them. But they’re there. Beneath the surface but not gone.
And here’s an image for us to consider: what if the Gospel of Christ—that truth of God that says that healing and wholeness is not only possible but also promised to us!—this Gospel that offers light in the darkness and peace in times of violence and hope in times of pain and sorrow—this Gospel is like a ground-penetrating radar that sweeps over the smooth and rough places of our lives, those spaces way back in the back, bringing to light those things that we need to name order to find healing and wholeness—not out of blame, guilt, or shame, but out of honesty, compassion, forgiveness, and healing.
It’s like that image of the Spirit that hovered over the waters of chaos and brought forth life and order and the possibility of growth. This same Spirit of Christ continues to do that: blow through our lives, calling us to step away from our frustrations and anger to rest more and more in God’s dream and vision for us as beloved children.
I think Bob Dylan describes it very well:
Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea ?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free ?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
St. Luke 18:1-8
Proper 24, Year C
October 16, 2016