Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 9, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

A couple of years ago, on Memorial Day, my family and I took a detour on our way back to Houston from Dallas. We wanted to see the courthouse in Waxahachie, which is the county seat of Ellis County. It appears in the opening shots of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart,  which is set in Waxahachie in the middle of the Great Depression. Places in the Heart is an amazing film about reconciliation, both its presence and its absence, with a decidedly Christian frame around that theme.

As we drove up to the courthouse, I could hear with the ears of my imagination the words of an old hymn that’s familiar to many of us being sung in a slow tempo:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

It’s the first thing on the film’s soundtrack as a series of images appear on the screen — the county courthouse; people leaving a church; folks who are poor and homeless; a long, empty dirt road in the country; rusty hopper cars at the edge of town; and a field of bluebonnets that extend all the way to the distant horizon.

Because it was a holiday, the downtown was mostly deserted. So we just walked around the outside of the courthouse, which the author James A. Michener once described in one of his novels as “a fairy tale palace” and “one of the finest buildings in Texas.”[1] Not surprisingly, we walked past a monument on the grounds of the courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier at the top of it.

As our two boys walked past that monument without much thought about it, my mind drifted back to the opening of Places in the Heart. With the hymn being sung in the background, another powerful image that one sees are two different families, one white and one black, both sitting down to a meal in their respective homes and giving thanks for the food that is set before them. All of them are dressed in their Sunday best, obviously having gone to worship earlier that morning, albeit within the walls of separate, segregated churches.

As the music fades, the next scene shows another white family doing the same thing. It doesn’t take long for the father to be identified as the local sheriff. He gets called away from his Sunday lunch with his wife and their two children to deal with an emergency down at the rail yard. He takes a couple of biscuits with him, putting them in one of the outer pockets of his suit jacket as he rushes out the door.

By the railroad tracks he finds a young African American boy who had somehow found a bottle of liquor and a pistol. They know one another, and have a friendly conversation. The biscuits and liquor are strange shadows on the Lord’s Day of a kind of holy but incomplete and separate communion.

When the young boy, unsteady on his feet, throws the bottle in the air to try to shoot it, he accidentally shoots the sheriff instead, killing him. Within hours, the young boy would be dead too. Armed white men will tie a rope to him and drag his body through town behind a truck before hanging him from a tree. As the African American singer Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, with lyrics by a Jewish teacher:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Today’s psalm is a different song, assuring us that “the Lord stand[s] round about his people” as “the hills stand about Jerusalem.” It goes on to say that “the scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just.”[2] And yet there are moments in history, in the lives of people we love, and in our own experiences when an honest assessment of the facts on the ground makes that hard to believe. So we cling to the words that follow: “Show your goodness, O Lord . . .”[3] And we add our own words to that prayer, even if we don’t feel brave enough to speak them aloud:

Show your goodness, O Lord, because I can’t see it right now, and I need to see it . . . right . . . now.

More than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 have been documented. Distinct from other acts of extrajudicial violence, these murders were part of a campaign to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and to terrorize black Americans.[4] You can learn more about this shadow side of American history at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

I recently traveled there with Rabbi Oren Hayon of Congregation Emanu-El, Pastor Michael Dunn of First Christian Church, and Pastor Duane Larson of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Our four congregations, of course, are the four communities of faith that border the campus of Rice University. There are details about that pilgrimage of lament in an article in today’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. But I want to share a story that’s not in the article, which I have permission to retell.

My colleagues and I flew into Birmingham, then rented a small SUV to drive down to Montgomery. While Rabbi Hayon was getting the keys to our vehicle, Pastor Larson and I were standing behind it. So we had a good view of the license plate after the hatchback door was closed. Actually, there wasn’t a license plate. There wasn’t even an official looking cardboard temporary license “plate” that you might see on a new car. No, it was just a sad, slightly curled piece of heavy card stock that said “Tags Applied For.” Immediately, I turned to Pastor Larson and said, only half-jokingly:

You know we’re going to get pulled over for that.

Well, as we drove into Montgomery in the dark of night, we did.

The blue lights came on, flashing in the rear view mirror, and we made our way to the brightly lit nearby parking lot of Goodwill, with Rabbi Hayon in the driver’s seat. So the African American police officer found himself shining his flashlight onto us four white guys. After he heard that it was a rental car, I leaned forward in the back seat to explain that we were a rabbi and three Christian ministers who had traveled together from Houston to visit the new lynching memorial. I even told him what I had said to my Lutheran colleague, pointing to him in the passenger seat, that we were almost certain to get pulled over. Soon enough, we were on our way again.

Later, while we were still heading to the hotel, Rabbi Hayon broke the silence with words that were initially addressed to me. He said:

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with the police officer, and I couldn’t help but notice how natural it was for you to self-disclose your religious identity. I would never do that.

So that’s what we talked about as we continued down the road in the darkness. For me, explaining who we were was almost involuntary, lowering my own anxiety and sincerely trying to help everyone, including the police officer. However, the truth is that I’ve never really had to worry about what kind of prejudices another human being might secretly harbor. But I need to be a lot more aware of others who do.

The Book of Proverbs says that “the rod of anger will fail.”[5] But what if it doesn’t in this one particular instance while I’m on the receiving end of it? Proverbs also assures me that the Lord pleads the cause of the afflicted at the gate of the city. But what if I’m too far away from the gate of justice in the land of the living?

That was our collective reflection on the eve of our seeing the lynching memorial. It was an unanticipated but helpful prelude. There are so many articles that describe the visual impact of the memorial that I won’t try to do that here. I’ll only mention a few of the words that are part of a statement of purpose on a wall on the inside:

For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.

For me, the words of African American theologian James Cone also came to mind. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he reflects on the death and resurrection of Jesus, together with the violent murders of these African Americans, and says:

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross. . . .

It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.[6]

 

In Places in the Heart, the sheriff’s widow soon finds herself and her two children teetering on the edge of losing everything. And those who mistakenly thought that she’d be happy about the lynching don’t come rushing to her aide. Eventually, she welcomes into her household an African American named Moses, who knows about farming, and a blind man whose extended family no longer wished to be responsible for him. These unlikely companions, each of them, including the children, at a different place on the margins of society, can only survive together. So they create a community that is nothing less than a true reflection of God’s coming kingdom.

The last scene of the movie takes place inside the white church. In the half-filled pews, the congregation can be heard singing the final refrain of “Blessed Assurance.” After the people sit down, the minister reads the famous words of St. Paul about love in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. During that, a man and a woman whose marriage has been strained discretely hold hands. The unspoken gesture of forgiveness brings with it a physical sigh of relief.

Later the minister recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. While he’s speaking, the camera follows each member of the congregation passing the bread and wine to the person beside them. What you don’t notice right away is that the pews are now completely filled. All sorts and conditions of people from the town are there, saints and sinners alike.

And the last thing you see is the sheriff’s widow receiving communion from her children. She passes the silver tray that holds the individual cups of wine to the person beside her, whom we’re surprised to see is her husband. He does the same, passing the tray to the young boy who had shot him. And then you see the boy looking directly into the eyes of the sheriff and saying to him, “The peace of God.”

Robert Benton is the man wrote and directed Places in the Heart, and he was born in Waxahachie. He wanted no other ending to the film and once said this about it:

There are certain things images can explain and words cannot. There is something in the image of the man who has been killed handing the communion plate to the boy who killed him that seems very moving to me in ways I cannot explain.

I had the ending before I ever finished the screenplay . . .[7]

As that final scene of his movie suggests, there are some things that get sorted out in this life and lots more that only get sorted out in the life to come. Nevertheless, sometimes we’re granted a glimpse on earth of things that we believe will only be seen in heaven. The sinfulness of the world seems to keep them beyond our reach.

An example of heaven reaching to earth comes from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He’s also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even the same water fountain.[8]

I hope each of us gets a glimpse of that today. There’s room for us all at this Table. By coming to it week after week, I hope we’ll receive whatever courage we need to look at ourselves and the world around us not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And I hope, more and more, this household will resemble the household of the sheriff’s widow. That’s what the household of God looks like, a place where the doors of the church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One.

We are all related through his blood.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James A. Michener, Texas: A Novel (Dial Press: New York, 2014) 1088. Here is the full quote that describes the county courthouse in Waxahachie:

[James Riley] Gordon had built a fairy-tale palace ten stories high, replete with battlements and turrets and spires and soaring clock towers and miniature castles high in the air. It was a bejeweled treasure, yet it was also a sturdy, massive court of judgments, one of the finest buildings in Texas.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:2-3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:4.

BACK TO POST That statistic about documented lynchings of African Americans was highlighted at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was grateful to learn that Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I was raised, isn’t represented by a steel monument at the memorial. However, “other acts of extrajudicial violence” that fall outside the scope of the memorial did take place in the only documented lynching in Forsyth County. Henry Swaim was a white tenant on the farm of Harrison and Ernestina Reid, and he was lynched in 1884 by “a crowd of between seventy-five and one hundred men, many of whom were masked.”

The only reason that I read about this story is because I was checking to see if there really was no documented lynching of an African American in Forsyth County. The surprising discovery is that Harrison Reid is my first cousin, five generations removed. His wife Ernestina was murdered on May 5, 1884, but whispered three times the name of Henry Swaim as the identity of her attacker before she died.

“Swinging into Eternity” offers a thorough account of what happened in this sordid affair and points out that the circumvention of due process was in no way “justice.” It is worth taking a moment to click on the original newspaper report here or within the account linked above about the lynching of this 25 year old man. He pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When someone did and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what that word meant. When he then sputtered out this prayer on his own, repeating it over and over, Swaim was ridiculed by the crowd, a crowd that I’m sure was mostly filled with Christian men:

Oh Lord take me from this world once more!
Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more!
I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!

Swaim was hanged improperly, so he died of strangulation and, therefore, didn’t die immediately. The rope that was holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.

BACK TO POST Proverbs 22:8.

BACK TO POST James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2011) xviii, 161-162.

BACK TO POST Robert Benton, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in “How Endings Have Affected Two Recent Movies,” New York Times, October 8, 1984.

BACK TO POST Michael Curry tells this story about his parents in a YouTube video called “Eucharist” from June 6, 2014.

One thought on “Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

  1. Neil,
    This is so wonderful I have no words, just like the end of Places in the Heart.
    You have brought heaven and earth together in communion infused in every part of this.

    Like

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