This Good Friday: Is COVID-19 the only pandemic about which we need to pray?
Good Friday came early for me this year.
As much as the current coronavirus pandemic most certainly has brought worldwide suffering and has had me on my knees in prayer, the Good Friday experience of which I write actually happened on the first Sunday in Lent and had nothing to do with the virus.
On March 1, I attended the soil collection ceremony for George Ward, who was lynched in Terre Haute in February of 1901. Ward was one of more than 4,400 black men and women who were lynched in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.
According to the Terre Haute Facing Injustice Project, who sponsored the soil collection event, Ward was a suspect in the shooting death of a 20-year-old female school teacher. He was lynched by an angry mob that would not wait for a trial. Instead, the mob broke into the jail, violently beat Ward and hanged his body from a Wabash River bridge. The crowd then burned his body on the river’s west bank.
The soil collection ceremony took place on the north end of Fairbanks Park near where these events took place 119 years ago. It was part of a national campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and creating a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.
I was touched by the presence of so many of Ward’s descendants at the event. They had traveled from as far away as California, Boston, and Detroit. Not surprisingly, many, if not most, of Ward’s descendants scattered after the lynching.
George Ward’s great-grandson and a former Terre Haute resident, Terry Ward, shared his hurt. How could anyone do such a terrible thing to another person? He acknowledged the pain involved for everyone. “His case was never tried in a court of law … and the woman who died never got due process. Justice was not done.” Terry Ward said.
I was touched by the fact that the family members themselves, in preparation for the event, collected soil from the west side of the Wabash River where Ward’s body was burned. The soil was used to fill three memorial jars. Like participants in procession to receive Holy Communion, we were invited to come forward, take a scoop of that soil and place some in each of the three memorial jars.
Since the event, one jar has been placed in the Vigo County Historical Museum, one was sent to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and one was given to the Ward family. I heard a family member say that finally, they could lay George to rest.
And I was touched by the walk across the Wabash River Bridge, symbolic of that taken by the mob that carried George Ward to the place where his body was burned. Our journey also put me in touch with encampments of homeless persons along the banks of the Wabash — a site I never see when driving over this bridge.
This national initiative is called the Community Remembrance Project of the Equal Justice Initiative and is based in Montgomery, Alabama. Providence Associate Jeanne Rewa, one of the volunteer coordinators for Terre Haute’s efforts, suggested that remembering can help communities create a path toward healing and reconciliation, and toward the building up of just communities.
Theologian and teacher Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser has written, “In bringing to clarity the very indignity that befalls someone we restore that person’s dignity.”
Every Good Friday, we remember another man who suffered a painful death at the hands of an angry mob. We know that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have shown us a path to healing and reconciliation, to the establishment of communities of love, mercy, and justice.
Pouring soil into a jar seems like such a small effort in the face of the racial injustices that still rage across the world like their own kind of pandemic. But it seems to me that Good Friday reminds us that the impossible is possible if we believe if we are determined to work toward healing and reconciliation for the sake of building up just communities.
A Provident God did not abandon his only beloved one nor will the Holy One abandon us. I hope George Ward believed that. His descendants now know that they are not alone in their sorrow for their loved one. His dignity has been restored.
“May these atrocities never happen again.” Terry Ward said.
May these atrocities never happen again. Let us not abandon each other.
To learn more about the Terre Haute Facing Injustice project, click here.
Supporters of the project through collaboration and/or donations: The Interfaith Council of the Wabash Valley, NAACP Branch #3068, Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, The Terre Haute Human Relations Commission, Vigo County Historical Society.