James Chisholm was a priest in tidewater Virginia in the mid 19th century. He did his work in the context of a slave-holding economy. The whole region was subject to the scourges of insect- and water-borne disease. The two most significant of those diseases, yellow fever and malaria 1, were both introduced to the Americas as the result of transatlantic trade, particularly the slave trade. Introduction of those diseases began in Latin America and in the Caribbean with the Spanish conquest and slave trade.
The summer of 1855 brought a virulent yellow fever epidemic to low-lying parts of Virginia, and as the wealthy departed for higher ground, most of their pastors and physicians went along with them. Consider who would have remained – slaves, especially field workers and laborers, the poor, anyone without transport or a place to go. The evacuation of Norfolk would have had a lot in common with the evacuation of New Orleans as Katrina approached.
James Chisholm was the rector of St. John’s, Portsmouth, and was apparently a shy and retiring person with no reputation for particular strength – inwardly or outwardly. Unkind persons would have called him a milquetoast. As the epidemic spread he sent his family away but he elected to stay in Portsmouth to minister to those in need. He distributed food, nursed the sick, and provided what pastoral care he could, up to and including digging graves for those he buried. As the epidemic was winding down, he fell ill and died, exhausted.
The world tends to be surprised when someone they think of as a weakling turns out to be a hero. Is it because there is so little faith in other people, or because no one expects courage in surprising places and people? Yet in the face of almost every crisis we see profound strength of character emerging. Amid the bad or even “normal” behavior of others, the ability of some human beings to love their neighbors sacrificially stands out. We are all created for that kind of love – and at some level almost every human being is capable of it.
Most of us know that old maxim, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” It seems to me that Jesus is telling his disciples something like that when he talks about the collapse of the temple. Even when that great demonstration of God’s power and presence begins to collapse, he says, it’s just the beginning – none of you knows what will happen next or just when, but these disasters are the beginning, rather than the end. Even war and natural disaster are just the start of the coming of a new age. It was certainly true for James Chisholm and his fellow Virginians – the deaths during that epidemic, and during the ones in Memphis and Philadelphia, were openings for new courage and care for the sick and the dying.
The labor of a new age began at September 11th. We saw new beginnings during Katrina five years ago, and in Haiti 20 months ago. The destruction of Irene opened the people of the east coast to something new – and Tom Ely and Bill Love will tell us something about those beginnings in their dioceses, particularly among the poorest and weakest. Andy Doyle can share something about beginnings in the aftermath of fires in a state where the governor still thinks climate change is a fairy tale.
Disaster opens the door – both to human hearts unburdened of old limitations and to social structures that keep some in thrall. We proclaim resurrection as an outcome of torture and execution, as God makes a new thing possible in the face of death and devastation. It is a beginning, however. The beginning doesn’t grow and advance unless human beings choose to join that new construction – and continue choosing to join that path to new life.
We’re going to hear a lot about that kind of beginning this week. The work of liberation theology is rooted in discovering the gifts of the very real, local context, particularly what the wealthier world sees as disaster. Those who live in the midst of that disaster have abundant gifts, strength, and courage, and this theological perspective insists that God is most concerned with the poor, like those Chisholm stayed behind to tend.
We’re also going to be exposed to the current difficulties and conflict in this diocese. You’ll learn more about this diocese on Friday afternoon, but there are several here who can help to fill in some of the background. I urge you to find appropriate ways of engaging the people here, and their leaders, most of whom are afraid of losing something, angry at others, and in a fog about what to do next. A fever has been running through this place for years, yet I also believe we are finding a new beginning. It’s exceedingly tender and tentative, but there are abundant gifts here, and there is hope, and I encourage you to nurture that hope for reconciliation and a renewed vision for the work of the gospel in this place. That work here has been powerful, and it includes remarkable care for the poor, for the rights of indigenous people, and shelter for refugees from violence in Colombia.
This world needs more like James Chisholm, who will tend to the hurting, who will exercise a preferential option for the poor in the face of disaster, who will join God’s new beginning. The world needs more like Carlos Finlay, the Cuban physician who first sorted out the connection between mosquitoes and these imported diseases that have their greatest impact on the poor.
Liberation theology insists on reading the gospel through the eyes of the poor, from the perspective of those the world demeans. The gospel insists we are all united as children of one God, that the actions of one affect others, and that we share a responsibility for the whole of God’s creation. The disease that Chisholm responded to wasn’t only yellow fever. It was the same disease we face – the idea that some have more rights to the blessings of creation than others, that some parts of the world or some people can be used for the benefit of others, that some have an innate privilege over others. Our current challenges, from climate change to global economics to the party politics in the church and outside of it, have the same roots in human self-obsession. Those disasters, however, also contain the seeds of new beginning.
During the coming days we’re going to be invited to reflect on our perspective. Just how do we read the gospel? Is it only for the righteous elder brother, or those with earthly power or expectation, or is the blessing of new life really meant for all people? That doesn’t immediately seem like good news to some – it’s more like news of an earthquake or another war, storm, or disaster. Are we willing to hear it as a new beginning, as birth pangs? Resurrection only comes in the aftermath of death, and sometimes it is the weakest who show us the way.