May 29, 2006
Memorial Day is not only a time for citizens of the United States to honor veterans. It is also a time that we as Christians can allow our society to turn our minds backwards so that we might be prepared for what lies ahead.
One of the most encouraging parts of church history is when we read of saints who have suffered for their faith, and continued to faithfully follow Jesus. We may know those stories from the Bible, or from the Roman persecutions, from the period of the Reformation, or from the great 19th-century missions expansion. There are other mines, too, for remembrances that will encourage our faith.
One other particularly encouraging to me is to see the faith of my African-American brothers and sisters, even as they labored under the terrible persecution of slavery, sometimes even from those who were members of the same church. This is not simply material for a cultural "Black History" month; this is OUR history as Christians–as sinners saved by grace.
In Betty DeRamus’ book Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad, she recounts the faith of one James Smith. I guess that she recounts it primarily as a human love story; and that it was. I see in it too, a story of God’s love, and of Smith’s love for God.
James Smith was a slave in pre-Civil War Virginia, in the Richmond area. More fundamentally, he was a Christian. At night, he would go and preach the gospel to fellow slaves. His master forbad him from doing this, and even whipped him when Smith continued. Finally, when James Smith would not stop worshipping with and ministering to other slaves, his master took the ultimate retribution–he sold him. James was married, and had 2 children. Selling him was effectively cutting him off from his beloved family.
Smith was purchased by a Georgian plantation owner and sent to Georgia, hundreds of miles away from his family. DeRamus recounts how Smith was met there with a severe lashing of 100 strokes in order to discourage him from that same kind of Gospel ministry which had gotten him sold by his previous master.
What was Smith’s response? We’re told in both the Old & New Testaments to love our enemies. Smith’s response was to pray for his persecutor and tormentor. Smith would do this regularly and out loud. Once, when the overseer heard Smith doing this, he was pierced to the heart. Even slave-holders were not beyond the power of the Holy Spirit. He begged Smith to forgive him. While he didn’t feel that he could free him (for whatever reason) he did say that if Smith escaped, he would not recapture him.
With that encouragement, Smith escaped. He made his way back up to Virigina. There, however, he learned that his wife, too, had been sold. It took Smith 22 years of facing trials before he finally found his wife and was reunited to her. DeRamus recounts this story as a human love story in the most inhumane of circumstances, and that it is. It is also a story of Christian faith, where my brother in Christ James Smith would not be put off by beatings or discouragements from looking for his wife, faithfully fulfilling his covenant to her, praying for his captors, preaching the Gospel, and continuing to follow Jesus in the most horrendous and discouraging of circumstances.
That’s something worth remembering. Stories like James Smith’s encourage us about God’s faithfulness in the past. They may also steel us for the future.