February 3, 2022 Courtney Napier

Bring Them Back Alive

Over the next several months, we’ll be featuring a few original pieces, including several tracking this intriguing project from CG Contributor Greg Jarrell. In this piece, Greg offers a reflection built from the lives of women and mothers who have resisted the machinations of Empire, from Argentina, to ancient Israel, to the 20th century United States.

Bring Them Back Alive: Disappearance, love, and the quest for justice
By Greg Jarrell

This newsletter will avoid sermonizing. But this week, I am publishing a sermon, as it draws directly from the work I’m doing in researching and writing on the history and theology of churches during the Urban Renewal era. The voice of the writing is a little different. I hope you won’t mind.

Below is my homily from the Third Week of Advent, delivered at Beloved Community Charlotte. The Gospel text I am using is printed in Wil Gafney’s incredible new work, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. It originates with Anne Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group. Read the stunning translation here. The Psalm text is Dr. Gafney’s translation. A portion is quoted below.

Advent 3

Psalm 78:1-8

Matthew 1:1-16

“Bring Them Back Alive”

Argentina was ruled by its military from 1976-83, a period there often called the Dirty War. During that period, the Argentine government waged a campaign of terror against its own people. One of the terror strategies of the military junta was the use of right-wing death squads to make people disappear.

Some 30,000 people became desaparecidos during the Dirty War. The actual number is impossible to know, in part because the government kept few records, and made reporting desaparecidos very difficult in order to help conceal their acts of terror against their own people. Most of the disappeared were young adults. They were ripped from home or job, subjected to torture, and had their bodies burned or buried in mass graves or dumped from boats into the country’s rivers.

Resistance to the Dirty War was a terrifying prospect. Resistance could get you disappeared. One of the only acts of resistance, within the first years of this authoritarian regime, was the weekly walk of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. (The Plaza de Mayo was the center of governmental power in Buenos Aires.) These women met one another while searching for their children who had become desaparecidos. They began walking the Plaza weekly on Thursdays. During their walks, they carried posters with enlarged photographs of their children. They pinned photos of their beloveds to themselves. And they wore shawls embroidered with the names of their children, and the date they disappeared.[1]

The mothers continued their protest for years, even beyond the end of the military junta. They used the photographs “represent the knowing and not knowing that is characteristic of disappearance.” Even as a new constitutional government began to unravel the years of repression of the Dirty War, and the press began publishing photos of mass graves, the Mothers kept the focus of their grief and their protest on the photographs. They wanted neither to overwhelm, nor to let go. Instead, Avery Gordon says, “they wanted to force a national confrontation with irrevocable wounds and grief.”[2]

In the last years of their protests, the Mothers embroidered their shawls with the phrase Aparicion con vida – “Bring the back alive.”  The photographs made the powerful suggestion that their subjects had been alive, had been real, and that disappearance was a state of being somewhere between life, in its fullness, and death, in its finality. Gordon suggests that the language we have to make sense of a state between death and life is “haunting.” “Death exists in the past tense, disappearance in the present,” she says.[3] “Even when the dead return to the world of the living, they are always ghostly, they are alive with the force that has prompted their return.”[4]

The force that prompts the return of the dead is the quest for justice. The presence of the disappeared forces a reckoning with what happened, and with who is responsible, and with how what has been taken might be returned, and how the dirty wars and disappearances that constitute so much of human history might be ended.

The text we have read this evening stunned me. In the reading of most sacred texts, humans listen to an ancient document offered through several intermediaries whose presence almost always goes unrecognized. One of those intermediaries is the redactor. Redactors decided, as texts were being shaped into the forms we have today, what got included and what got scrapped. This was not necessarily a scientific job. Nor was it necessarily an individual one. But along the way, a lot of material got left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. And the decisions of what to include and who to include were made in a context, in a set of power relations, and some people disappeared from their important place in the story.

Redactors, and the communities they came from, made those decisions. Sometimes, if you read closely, you can hear the echoes of the redactors. But not always.

One other intermediary, often overlooked in the reading of ancient texts, is the translator. Translation is not a neutral act. Every translation requires complex theological, political, and historical calculations that are present on the page, even when they go unrecognized. To convert a text from one language into another is not a simple act of formal correspondence, rendering each word from the source language into the target one. There are complex decisions about how words worked in the original language, and how they work in the current one, and about what has been left unsaid that needs to be translated back in so that current readers can hear what would otherwise disappear. Deciding what is important enough to translate back into the text, and what is acceptable to leave as desaparecido, are theological and political decisions. To make them is to be in a position of immense power. That power is even greater when it goes unrecognized and unchallenged.

Many people intuit the power of translation, even if they have not thought much about it. Some churches insist on the King James Version of the Bible, despite its Old Testament rendering being a translation of a translation, and despite the changing nature of the English language over the last 400 years. Many evangelical churches read the New International Version, whose translation committee had a particular set theological commitments roughly corresponding to the broad commitments of the American evangelical churches.

The same is true for the New Revised Standard Version, the favored translation of progressive and mainline readers and denominations.

This evening we read the most stunning genealogy I have ever encountered. Through painstaking research and faithful attention, Anne Patrick Ware has written the women back into the text. In the versions of Matthew 1 you have heard before, the women are rendered absent, except for a handful of remarkable women who get a mention: Rahab and Ruth near the beginning, and Mary at the end. The text mentions “the wife of Uriah,” but fails to call Bathsheba by name.

The translator has made a profound decision: Aparicion con vida. Bring them back alive.

And so she does. With what evidence is left, the translator creates little portraits of the women who have been disappeared from the text. Where there is no evidence – no name has survived, she does not just move on. Aparicion con vida. Acknowledge them; make space for them; say their names; where there are no names, leave room for the groans that the Spirit can interpret.

The Bible is not the only document that leaves out the women, excepting a few. American history regularly does this as well. In Charlotte, you can see how layers of forgetting and disappearance stack on top of one another. Here’s it works here – which is roughly parallel to how it works elsewhere.

If you drive around the heart of Charlotte at any point, you likely use the small freeway loop around downtown, commonly known as I-277. The section north of downtown, from Independence to Interstate 77, is called the Brookshire Freeway. The section south of downtown, from Independence to Wilkinson Boulevard, is called the John Belk Freeway.

The Brookshire Freeway is named for Stanford Brookshire, who was mayor in the 1960’s, and who was significant in the planning and placement of the freeway, among many other things. He was a Christian, a member of Myers Park United Methodist Church.

John Belk was the mayor in the 1970’s. He was instrumental in the placement and expansion of the freeway that bears his name.

Both of those freeways were built, in large part, with federal highway funds. They were placed on land that was vacated through federally-funded Urban Renewal projects.

Which means that they are covering something up. Freeways are not “natural” elements of urban environments, in the way that smaller-scale built spaces tend to cluster together in urban spaces. Freeways are the result of master planning and massive amounts of engineering and land acquisition. They always cover something that was there before. Or, they excavate what was there, and then ship the excavated dirt elsewhere. Freeways create, in some sense, desaparecidos – people and places who by administrative cruelty get wiped from the story of a place. One task of historians and activists and culture-bearers is to hold to the mantra of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – Aparicion con vida. Bring them back alive. Say their names.

Before Mayor Belk’s name was forced onto the expressway – indeed, before the expressway – the neighborhood that lived there was called “Brooklyn.” It was the cultural and economic center of Black life in Charlotte. If you read in the accounts of Brooklyn in the newspaper from the 1960s, you’ll see that the first homeowners forced to sell their Brooklyn home so that Mayor Brookshire and Mayor Belk could have their expressways were Mr. and Mrs. Sam Anderson. They lived at 625 E. 2nd Street.

“Mrs. [husband’s name]” was a convention of public naming in the more intensely patriarchal 1960’s, obscuring the name and the story of women around the country. In this case, the Charlotte Observer’s reporting hid the name Hazeline North Riddick Anderson. She was the actual owner of the house. Sam Anderson was a beloved child of God, worthy of honor and a full account of his story. But Hazeline’s name was on the deed.

From that house, when she was only 15 years old, she was already working as an insurance agent. She and her nine siblings and their parents were building a community in Brooklyn that could celebrate the triumph and the brilliance of Black life in Charlotte. They were resisting Jim Crow, practicing mutual aid in a society bent on their destruction. When Hazeline’s mother died, 11 years following her father, she left the house to Hazeline.

Hazeline’s mother had a name. It was Annie Carson. She was born in Mecklenburg County around 1860. She was enslaved. She was also a faithful Christian, apparently from an early age, when she would have been singing for freedom in the hush harbors outside the city limits. When an AME Zion missionary came through town only a couple of weeks after the end of Civil War, Annie Carson was there. She was young, but Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church counted her among its founding members. Annie married Abram North, a political operative who pushed for liberation against the coming specter of Jim Crow.

They are part of one lineage of faithful women who birthed churches and Christians in Charlotte. Other Christians – Brookshire, Belk, the men of the Redevelopment Commission – turned the Carson/North’s neighborhood into desaparecido. But North name survives, though the house does not. So do the North descendants, and their legacy of faithfulness. It is right here in the place where we sit, nearer than most of us have imagined.

This is the third week of Advent. The candle we light this week is called “love.” As Cornel West often says, “justice is what love looks like in public.” The most minimal step we might make in the city of Charlotte – and in every place around this country – is this: aparicion con vida. Bring them back alive. Do the justice of telling the truth. As one of those Argentinian mothers said, “We don’t want the names of the victims. We know who they are…. They [the institutions and perpetrators] have to explain what they don’t want to explain.”[5]

For the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, their slogan was not a denial of death, but the reckoning that love requires. “Aparicion con vida” meant ending the conditions that produced disappearance, the only way to provide a hospitable memory for the desaparecidos.”[6]

And so it is for us. What justice demands, which is to say, what love demands, is the sort of reckoning that can tell the truth of our history, or our story. And not only to tell the truth, but even to rejoice in truth so told, whatever the cost. Thus we might become the people that today’s Psalm speaks of:

78:7 Then they will put their confidence in God

And not forget the works of God, but will keep her commandments.

78:8 And not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation,

A generation whose heart was not steadfast.

And whose spirit was not faithful to God.

A Brief Announcement: I’m happy to report that I received a Pastoral Study Grant from the Louisville Institute, which will help to fund and support this ongoing work. From January-March, I will have a little more time to step up the intensity of my writing. I’m hoping to have a strong draft ready by the end of that period. Now to find a publisher….

What I’ve been watching: “Listening to Kenny G” the new documentary out on HBO Max. I wrote an essay about the film that will be published soon. Allow me to take one for the team on this – skip Kenny G, enjoy a holiday film instead.

One Final Note: December 8 was the Feast Day of St. John Coltrane in the African Orthodox Church. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was recorded on Dec. 9, 1964. Here is a terrific article on the St. John Coltrane congregation in San Francisco. And, it is always the right time to take a listen to the original.

[1] My accounting of this history leans heavily on Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 63-135. This paragraph draws from pp. 108-109.
[2] Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 110.
[3] Ibid., 113.
[4] Ibid., 112.
[5] Gordon, Ghostly Matters, p. 115.
[6] Ibid., p. 115.

This was originally published in from Greg Jarrell’s newsletter, Trespasses of the Holy, on Substack.

Share with a friend