After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, economic, social, and racial divisions threatened to tear Memphis apart. A diverse group of community and faith leaders came together and MIFA was created to confront the issues of poverty, hunger, and social division through service.
2020 brought another crisis to Memphis. In a series of blogs, some of our current-day faith leaders have taken time to express their visions and hopes on healing and coming out of the pandemic better and stronger as a community.
“It was a cataclysmic, disastrous, soul stretching year.” This comment was not in reference to 2020-2021. The person speaking was referring to 1968 following the marches, the protests, the social unrest, and the death toll that year. Sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed on the job in February. Sixteen-year-old Larry Payne was killed by MPD officer Leslie Dean Jones in March. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Mrs. Lorrie Bailey, co-owner of the Lorraine Motel, both died in April and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June. The violence, grief, and rage shattered the hope of our nation. How did people move forward? How did they remember what they had in common? How did they heal?
The answer for me is found in Jocelyn Wurzburg, Modeane Thompson, Jeanne Varnell, Happy Jones, and Joyce Blackmon. If you do not know them, just Google the name, Memphis Panel of Women. It is very easy to find them and well worth the search. The path they cut then is still a powerful resource for us in moving forward through these cataclysmic, disastrous, soul stretching times we face today.
What these women did was counter-cultural and counterintuitive for the times.
In a world divided, they chose to see their differences as opportunities, not obstacles.
They gave themselves permission to be curious and not critical about the things that distinguished them from one another. Instead of not seeing, they saw color. While discussions of religion were off-limits to some, they shared the nuances of their different faith traditions openly with one another. Where others denied the existence of bias and prejudice, they spoke truthfully and openly not about the world, but about their own biases and prejudices. Theologian and mystic Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman offered that when a Buddhist and a Christian talk to one another each makes the other better. These women made each other better.
They moved forward better because of their differences not in spite of them. What they shared in common was a willingness to listen and learn with open ears, open hearts, and opens hands. What they shared in common was an appreciation for the gift of difference as strength, not weakness. They shared in common an appreciation for the spice of their unique expressions and experiences. What they shared was a common respect for one another. In the cataclysmic, disastrous, soul stretching year of 1968 these women formed a sacred circle of trust and a mutual bond of acceptance making room for one another and in so doing became the beloved community amidst the chaos.
That alone would have been enough, but the gift of a beloved community is that it always makes room. These women moved forward in making room for others. They invited others to share their stories, raise their difficult issues, appreciate their differences. By making room and listening they heard the voices of those whose needs were left unmet.
In hearing the concerns of others, they used their voices to advocate for those who had not been heard.
This is where they found their own healing. This is how they offered healing in our community.
Their lasting legacy is that they led us forward out of the cataclysmic, disastrous, soul stretching year with a hard-fought hope shaped by their willingness to affirm what was unique in one another, confront what was difficult in themselves, and offer a bond of community that was lasting.
I believe we can follow their example and chose to do the same.
Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols
Organizing Pastor of Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church
MIFA Interfaith Officer
Dr. Nichols is a native of Memphis, TN and proud to have graduated with honors from the historic Booker T. Washington High School and LeMoyne Owen College. Dr. Nichols graduated summa cum laude from the Memphis Theological Seminary and in 2004 she received her Doctor of Ministry degree from the historically black Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA. Dr. Nichols was the first ordained clergy woman to serve as visiting professor at the Gweru Baptist Theological Seminary in Gweru, Zimbabwe South Africa. She travelled as a church planter throughout the provinces of China and participated in a renewal pilgrimage to the Galilee and Jerusalem. She is currently the organizing pastor at Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church. Dr. Nichols has received numerous awards, is a Memphis Leadership Graduate, a member of the NAACP, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Beta Epsilon Omega Chapter. Her writings have been featured in numerous articles and books. Dr. Nichols founded AWay (A More Excellent Way) and is a founding member of MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope). Her deepest passions are teaching, preaching, transformational ministry, and working with others who strive in common practices for the beloved community of God.