I’ve been catching up on last year’s Pulitzer prize winning pieces. One of these has been Underground Railroad - by Coleman Whitehead. The story follows one slave woman, Cora, on her flight from the South on all of her stops on the Underground Railroad. Throughout are striking vignettes, one of which has returned to my mind over and over again. There was in this book a vignette about the oldest slave on the plantation, being about 50 years old. No one knew for sure, because he didn’t know his birthday, but he used this in a way. He chose his own birthday, and sent the whole working population there on the plantation into a celebration frenzy. He would wake up one day during the year, pronounce it his birthday, and everyone would fall in line to make preparations for that night. He always made the proclamation when it seemed moral was particularly low - when there seemed to be nothing to celebrate. He insisted on celebration.
A hallelujah. Not a dismissal of suffering, but a healing balm for that which is ongoing. Hallelujah’s balm. How is the act of singing “hallelujah” healing? It is healing in its assertion that no wound is too great to remove God’s presence from us. No matter what, God remains with us, and for us. In defiance of all that would have us despair, we continue on.
Sue recently traveled to South Carolina and brought back this beautiful prayer: “O God give me clean hands, clean words, and clean thoughts. Help me to stand for the hard right against the easy wrong. Save me from habits that harm. Teach me to work as hard and play as fair in thy sight alone as if all the world saw. Forgive me when I am unkind and help me to forgive those who are unkind to me. Keep me ready to help others at some cost to myself. Send me chances to do a little good every day, and to grow more like Christ. Amen.”
“Keep me ready to help others at some cost to myself.” Why did Paul say what he did? What happened? Obviously not advocating for a moral conscription here - slavery is just wrong - nor can we use this letter to tell one who suffers that everything is fine, that anyone should, like Onesimus should just put up with his circumstance of slavery and suffering. What it does show is the need for hallelujahs, because all roads to freedom in this world are long.
Tomorrow being Memorial Day - a celebration in its own right, I thought it would be helpful to learn more about it’s origins. Apparently it was originally Decoration Day, born out of the long road of the Civil War.
As the Civil War neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Not far from where Sue’s Gullah prayer originated. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack near the city’s Citadel, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease or exposure, and were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand.
Then, three weeks after the Confederate surrender, an unusual procession entered the former camp: On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 recently freed slaves, accompanied by regiments of the “U.S. Colored Troops” (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. The group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.” I can’t help but think of our historic free black burial ground here in our own cemetery. Tomorrow’s holiday, and our own cemetery, are reminders that good struggle happened behind, and just as they were not alone then, we are not alone now, as we go on.
Returning to the Underground Railroad, the most striking part was the final chapter in the book. The woman Cora had been from Georgia, to South Carolina, to free Indiana. But even there in Indiana, her farm was raided by white supremacists, and what did she do? Singing glory hallelujah, she goes on, to the west. Even after freed from slavery, she still struggled. The more I become acquainted with this, America’s sin, the more I learn in hopes we can love better and avoid anything similar - the more I realize that, like for Cora, the need to press on continuously.
Tyehimba Jess wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, Olio, about the black minstrel experience in the early half of the 20th century. It was not a negation or equivocation of suffering. Like Pauls’ letter, present throughout this work is the awareness that while struggles are behind, more struggles are ahead. And yet, somehow, we are still able to sing “hallelujah” in the midst of it all. Hallelujah as if fist to the air, proclaiming in spite of all struggle, God is still with me! God stays and is present in the midst of overcoming, and in the midst of strife. God is with us, always. This is what Jess calls the “balm” of hallelujah, what Paul calls in his latest and most personal letter to Philemon, “union with Christ” - what we say is “God with us.” I am not alone, no, not even now! And I will go on, yes, even now. So let us, as Jess says, “split our mouths to song… (and) bind the air with hallelujah’s bond.”
Photo by Brad Barmore on Unsplash