Love In the Hardest Times

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Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day when we celebrate love and the loving relationships in our lives.   We know that if we were to summarize the Bible by highlighting the essential commandments, according to Jesus, they would be Love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself.  Of course, it is far more complex than that and many of us are often challenged by the realities of living out authentic and loving relationships within our families as well as with our desire to sustain a heartfelt connection to the Divine.  February is also black history month which has its origins more than a century ago, through the inspiration of a number of important black leaders. The tradition of national Negro History week  began in 1926 which took place during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Decades later President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Many of us have learned a great deal, even in recent years, about the many important stories that have been left out of the history which any of us learned in school. In learning this history, in having a first-hand glimpse into the racial injustice that still exists in tragic ways across our country in recent years, we have a far better appreciation of the suffering that too many have endured and of how that suffering and struggle continues to be lived out in the lives of too many families of color to this day.  Let us pray, O God of righteousness, we thank you for the Call to Justice which we hear ring out throughout scripture and we give thanks for your Son, Jesus for teaching us to live compassionately and to work for justice and peace in our midst.  Open our minds and our hearts this morning to your Word and to your Love, we pray.  Amen.

          Our passage from the Psalms this morning is a Psalm of Praise, a Psalm of David, in which we hear the speaker praise God, “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.  He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love….” This Psalm, like many, speaks of the yearning for God to bring vindication to those who have done wrong,  and justice for all who are oppressed.

One of the things that has been written about is that among those who were enslaved, a deep faith in God’s justice, in God’s love and mercy, brought great hope to so many who often felt beyond hopeless.  These words, and the stories of Moses leading the Israelites from slavery into Egypt, would have meant a great deal to many whose lives were torn apart by the sin of slavery for hundreds of years in our country. Harriet Tubman, who was one of the most famous of the ‘conductor’s on the Underground Railroad, was a woman of deep faith and came to be known as the Moses of her people.  The words of Jesus in Luke today, what we call the Sermon on the Plain, have been embraced by many peoples over time.  In this Sermon, Jesus offers compassion to the suffering, hope to the oppressed, and a blessing upon the poor and hungry.  Luke’s words are direct and clear and those who have heard these words have found consolation that God has not forgotten them, despite their circumstances or struggles or sense of isolation.  The God of Jesus is One who embraces the lost and the lonely, the sorrowful and those on the margins….and of course, Jesus was saying, we must do the same.

          I recently learned of a book, published in 2005, of love stories uncovered by a journalist named Betty DeRamus.  The book, entitled “Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad,” contains the stories of those who experienced the terrors of slavery and  who struggled against all odds to be reunited with the ones they loved.   The stories are more than a century old, but as one writer noted, “ they still have the power to make listeners’ hearts race, break — or sing.”

One story she included in the book was about a man named John Little, a North Carolina-born runaway slave whose back was scarred by the many beatings he had received and yet, he carried his sick wife on his injured back during their flight to freedom.  Lear Green was an 18-year-old runaway described as “round-featured” and “good-looking,” in the 1857 Baltimore Sun ad offering $150 for her return. Owned by a Fells Point businessman, Green got herself packed into a wooden chest and spent 18 hours inside it as she was shipped north by steamer to meet her fiance, an escaped barber.

The story of James and Fanny Smith, was described as “a Dickensian tale of beatings, imprisonment, and remorse — but most of all, faith.  James Smith’s faith in God wasn’t the “puny, soft-fleshed” type of those whose belief is the equivalent of a Sunday morning stroll,” the author DeRamus writes. “Smith’s faith was muscular enough to fortify him for two decades after he shambled away from his family in chains.  Each night after his labors, the born-again Richmond area slave preached the gospel to fellow slaves, even after his master whipped him for it. Sold away from Fanny and his two children to a slave trader for refusing to stop worshiping with other bondsmen, Smith was purchased by a Georgia cotton grower who ordered his overseer to administer a 100-lash beating to discourage the slave’s stubborn prayerfulness.  When the overseer later overheard Smith praying for his soul, he begged Smith’s forgiveness — and promised not to recapture him if he escaped.  So Smith ran back to Virginia, where he learned his wife had been sold. It took 22 years of jailings, beatings, searching and, yes, praying before he found Fanny in Canada, where she had fled.

The author  DeRamus, who worked as a columnist at the Detroit News, explained that these stories she collected, are “neglected and forgotten aspects of the black experience.” She spent a great deal of time finding, verifying and retelling at least two dozen of these love stories so they would not be forgotten. 

She explained to a reporter that “Slavery was the nation’s most wide-reaching and seismic tragedy. But our understanding of it often is limited. “So-called slavery experiences are portrayed only in the bleakest of forms,” she said.  “Slavery was bleak — but it was also one of the greatest lessons in survival. Escaping slaves and slave couples displayed extraordinary creativity and courage. . . .”Slavery wasn’t just one story,” she says. “It was a million stories.” 

The forced separation of families by slavery over centuries still echoes into our current time.  It is hard to fully appreciate the ways in which this legacy has had serious implications for far too many black families even today. And, in the book, we find that these stories do not all have a happy ending.  James Smith and his wife Fanny, reunited 22 years after being separated, discovered that their children had all been sold and scattered. Still praying, they disappeared into the Canadian wilderness to find their fortunes and to rebuild their love.  Blest are they…

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Sources:  Love Stories That Transcend Bonds Of Slavery, Time, Washington Post, By Donna Britt, February 11, 2005