In a recent issue of a magazine published by the National Parks Conservation Association mention is made of the establishment of a national monument in memory of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley in Mississippi. Of course, Emmett Till was a 14-year old Black person from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Sumner, Mississippi when he was seized by several white men, tortured, murdered, and buried in the Tallahatchie River. The reader was urged to say the names of Emmitt and his mother as a way of remembering who they were and what they mean in one of the darker episodes of this country.
With the passage of time it occurred to me that a new generation might not know who Emmett Till was. I was then reminded of the passage in the book of Joshua that tells of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River. After they had crossed the river, Joshua has each of the tribes take a stone and build a kind of cairn. He then addresses the people with these words, “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ Then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord…. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever’” (Joshua 4:6 ff.). That place is known as Gilgal.
In 1998 Had the privilege of accompanying a group of young people and a few adults took embarked on a mission study trip that took them to stops in southeastern Oklahoma and north Texas. One of the stops was at an old stone structure, known as the oldest church building in Oklahoma just west of Idabel, Oklahoma, known as Wheelock. Beside that stone building is a large chiseled monument that tells a fascinating and important story. Beneath the image of Rev. Alfred Wright at the top of the stone monument are the words from Genesis 22:8: “Jehovah Jireh – The Lord Will Provide.” Wright was a missionary to the Choctaws and founder of the Wheelock Mission. The Genesis passage refers to the faith of those Native American who were driven from homes in the South and Southeastern United States to parts unknown. Their trust was that “the Lord will provide.”
The story was, no doubt, met by those young people with a giant yawn, and yet, they had at least been exposed to a story that they did not know beforehand. The group went on to visit other sites, including Austin College in Sherman, Texas where one of the young persons eventually decided to go.
In a country where old buildings are torn down and land is unearthed to put up more buildings, historical markers, monuments, and memorials are important reminders of significant persons and events from our past. They trigger the imagination and broaden our perspective.
A good number of years ago there was a documentary about life in the former East Germany. Some young people were taken to a large church. One of them asked, “Who is that guy on the cross?” It’s hard for many of us to imagine anyone not being familiar with at least the broad outlines of the Christian story.
“When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’”, will we tell them our stories? Will we be ready to tell THE Story? Will we be able to tell them something about how your church was started? Will we be able to share what stories those stained glass windows depict? Will we tell them what we mean by “the Reformed tradition”? Will we tell them the significance of Gilgal? Will they see themselves as part of that biblical story and tradition?
Will WE be able to tell them “in time to come what those stones mean”?
The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to:
PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.