The Martyrs of Memphis
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.”1
So wrote Sister Constance, whom we remember today along with other Episcopal religious and priests who perished in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were six of the over five thousand people who died between August and October.
At a time when so much of the city’s population was fleeing—fleeing according to the wishes of the civil authorities—these sisters and priests came to the city, into danger, into a “scene of desolation and death.” Over the course of just under a month, this corps of sisters and priests worked themselves to exhaustion nursing the sick, caring for orphans, coordinating and disbursing donations, and celebrating mass.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
“How long, O Lord?” How long shall the news be of disaster? Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and violence. More and more of it all. Mass shootings repeatedly, this week larger in Las Vegas. As in an Orlando nightclub and at the Boston marathon, a place of celebration turned into chaos.[i]
The psalmist prays with groans and wails. With memories and hearts broken again, we join in:
“How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart day after day?” How long and how much more?
More trauma—feeling threatened and our ability to cope overwhelmed.
Sometimes when we call out prayers for help, the situation seems to grow worse. We get more upset, questioning, “Where is God?”
After more loss, with life feeling out of control, God becomes visible. With Job, Old Testament prophets, and the psalmist, we can be angry. “If only you had been here sooner, the situation wouldn’t have gotten out of hand, with so much hurt. Pick us up. Get us out.” We want to be rescued and healed, swim to safety, for life to be resolved and back to normal. Yet healing is a slow work, not usually quick or simple, not neat and tidy.