Sunday, October 2, 2022 | Trey Comstock
Centenary UMC in Memphis, Tennessee has deep roots both in the Memphis community and in the struggle for Civil Rights. The church first opened its doors over 150 years serving recently freed slaves in Memphis, and in the 1960s, through its pastor, Rev. James Lawson, and the community of activists that built up around him, helped move forward the cause of racial equality. I had a chance to visit there this week as a part of a continuing education trip researching how churches can be involved in making the world a better place. Rev. Lawson’s ministry often focused on training and equipping young activists, so the Civil Rights work of the church remains a part of its living memory and its current identity.
The church not only opened their doors to us, but some of these long-time members with connections back to the Civil Rights movement took the time to tell us their stories. We heard from Clara Ester, who grew up at Centenary and is how a United Methodist Deaconess serving in Alabama. She dove deep into Rev. Lawson and the church’s activism in the 1960s and became involved in the Sanitation Work’s Strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis for his fateful visit in April of 1968. Clara marched, protested, cooked food for the families of the Sanitation Workers, and even dropped out of college to continue her work in Civil Rights. She told the vivid story of being in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, on April 4, 1968, of seeing the bullet strike Dr. King, of rushing to his side and loosening his clothes to try and help him breathe, and of bottling up that experience for decades. Rather than derailing her commitment to making the world a better place, the trauma of the moment galvanized her to continue the work.
Our time with them wasn’t all story telling though. We asked the next logical question, “What can we do now? How do we keep moving the world forward?” Their response was deceptively simple, “Keep telling the story!” Keep telling each new generation how we got here, where we came from, and how far there still is to go. Their advice specifically spoke to pushing Civil Rights forward. If the younger generation don’t know what it was like and what it took to get to where we are, they won’t know what it will take to continue the fight. This resonated powerfully with me – about the fight for racial equality and about the broader fight to continue our Christian witness in the world.
Paul gives Timothy a similar message here in the opener of 2 Timothy. This letter presents as a farewell address, and like Jesus in John’s portrayal of the Last Supper, Paul wants to communicate to the next generation as much of what they’ll need to know as possible. Timothy certainly fits the bill of being the younger generation. He seems to be one of the first generation of kids to be raised in the church with Christian older family members. He’s the original children’s sermon, kids’ Sunday School, and Youth Group kid. They raised Timothy right, but now, Timothy gets the role of doing the raising and passing along the story. He may not have known a day, where there weren’t churches. He might have been too young to know personally what that stage of the struggle looked like.
Paul seems to know that hard times remain ahead. The historical record proves him 100% right. The worst of the Roman persecutions, the period that produces the must martyrs, didn’t happen in Paul’s lifetime. He saw his own hard times for sure – persecution, shipwreck, imprisonment, and death, but all of that didn’t end with his generation. Timothy and the churches that he led would know the same pain and on a bigger scale as would several more generations of early Christians. Paul knew that the suffering wasn’t over and wanted Timothy to know that suffering was not a reason for shame but a sign that they were pushing God’s Kingdom forward. Telling the story was going to be hard but needed to happen to spread the Good News. Praise God that Timothy, his generation, and every subsequent generation did exactly that.
Part of why the challenge from the leaders at Centenary UMC stung me is that I can’t shake the question of have we done our part? Do we know that we too carry a story? Do we fight to make sure it gets told? The folks at Centenary have and continue to. They tell of how God’s people can come together and carve out a better life for African Americans. They tell of how a church stayed rooted in their community and continue to transform the lives and opportunities for their African American brothers and sisters. Paul and Timothy certainly did. They told the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, of the presence of the Holy Spirit, of the transforming power of God’s grace, and of how anyone, regardless of race, status, nationality, or previous life circumstance would be a part of it. We inherited all that story and so much more. It got to us because of the sacrifices of untold generations. Are we proclaiming it as boldly?
I don’t have a definite answer. However, I look at the headlines of a church and a faith in crisis, churches closing, religious participation declining, whole generations turning away, and I wonder. We can always blame kids these days with their anything goes attitude, cell phones, and “spiritual but not religious” values, but that always feels like taking the easy way out. I’m sure glad that Paul didn’t see Roman society circa 50 AD as unredeemable. I’m sure glad that Clara didn’t look at American society circa 1968 as unredeemable. Why don’t people think we matter as much as we used to?
I don’t think we’ve done enough to tell our story. The United Methodist Church got really used to people coming to us. We assumed that they’d keep coming because that’s just what people did. At some point, they stopped. If we want to reverse that trend, we need to hear from Paul and from Clara, learn what our story is, and proclaim at every opportunity to a world that needs to hear it.