Tulsa, Trauma, and Grace

June 2, 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

During last Sunday’s service, it was a privilege to articulate my theology of grace within a ruptured world. I shared the deeply disturbing story how Frank Lloyd Wright’s first cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones, founded the All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa and how, through his newspaper, he was largely responsible for fomenting the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and sought to entirely erase the horrific event from memory. If it wasn’t for two woman Black writers, one of America’s gravest crimes would never have been remembered. To learn more, go here. https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-women-who-preserved-the-story-of-the-tulsa-race-massacre 

Rev. Marlin Lavanhar had just started serving as senior minister at All Souls in Tulsa when a city commission brought to light in 2001 that up to 300 people were killed, 10,000 left homeless, and over 35 blocks of black businesses and homes were destroyed. This past Sunday, Rev. Lavanhar creatively conveyed the human toll of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the horrifying injustice of it all using cartoons. You can view his sharing from last Sunday’s worship service at All Souls here. https://www.facebook.com/allsoulstulsa/videos/176397617741208. Either watch the entire worship or go to minute 20 for Marlin’s sharing. 

Tulsa wasn’t the only city to have a “Black Wall Street.” Chicago did too, until 1919, and it too was obliterated during riots two years prior to the Tulsa Race Massacre. You can learn more here. https://www.chicagotribune.com/history/ct-1919-chicago-riots-100th-anniversary-20190719-k4dexppvd5c6bkqbfwhgxfiacy-story.html 

How do we navigate trauma in a ruptured world? Where do we find hope? Where is grace? I believe hope comes from the big stories that we develop from the details of our lives, the little details of that bring joy, beauty, and connection with others. When it comes to making sense of trauma, I agree with Dr. Serene Jones: “First, you have to recognize the pain. You have to embrace it for what it is and not be afraid of it, not live in the la la land of, supposing that if you’re a spiritual or faithful person, you’re supposed to be happy all the time. I think the despair that’s so prevalent in our nation right now lives inside of me too. But it’s not until you admit that despair, that you can actually situate it in the context of a grace that says, ‘Yes, that pain is real. And the breaking of lives that is happening is real. And all of it is surrounded by the love of God.’ The language I use for it is that our ultimate destiny is love. At the end of the day, the final word about all this big mess that we’re in, is love.”

I am deeply grateful for the work of Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological School, who is the author of Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World and Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World

I include some thoughts from her below for your reflection, including from an interview in Sojourners Magazine.

In peace and love,


A reflection from Dr. Serene Jones:

The most difficult story, of the many family stories that I tell, is of a discovery I made while a professor teaching at Yale Divinity School. I was listening to a lecture by a candidate for a position in African-American studies, and as the backdrop to his lecture he had pictures of postcards of lynchings. I had seen some of them before, but, much to my shock in the middle of his lecture, a postcard dropped and a picture that was the size of the whole wall of the classroom, and it was a young woman who had been lynched, and at the bottom of the postcard it said, ‘Okemah, Oklahoma, 1911.” And in Okemah, Okla., 1911, my Jones family made up most of the town. I had never heard that this lynching of Laura Nelson and her son had ever happened. It was impossible to avoid the reality that if my family had not participated in it, we would have told the story. I realized that the silence is in many ways, is part of the way that history is reckoned within the context of white supremacy.

It’s absolutely crucial that white communities in the United States stop acting like the legacy of Native American genocide and slavery and the awful sins of the past that still live with us are something that, because our family did things two generations ago, we can hold them at arm’s length and say they did that. But that’s not me. It’s time that we actually tell those stories and admit our own participation in those legacies.

Because of those lynchings in Oklahoma, very important actions were taken with respect to who owned the land, who eventually was able to accumulate money, who got mineral rights and oil rights, which families survived over the long run, and which family legacies completely disappeared.

So here I am today in 2019, an heir of that act. And until we stop being ashamed in a way that says, “I’m so ashamed, I’m not going to talk about it and act as if it didn’t happen” — we should feel shame, but it’s part of the country coming to grips with who we are. Until we can take that step and say that this history is not just about building museums that recognize the history of lynching; we need a museum that tells the story of the lynchers and how they became lynchers, and what happened to white people that could make them into these, brutal, heartless, desperate, and cruel souls that they became.

Grace and sin are probably the two most basic concepts of the Calvinist Protestantism that I was raised with. The first affirmation of that faith is that God creates the whole world and loves the world. And that’s the fundamental disposition of God towards all that exists. Then the second claim is, for reasons mysterious, and often rooted in pride and greed, as creatures of God we turn from that love and we do massively destructive things to ourselves and to the world around us. And sin names that.

In working in predominantly Christian communities, I feel that people have become so afraid of talking about “sin” because unfortunately it’s been equated over time with sexual deeds that are devious or bad in any way. Whereas, in reality, in the Christian tradition, it refers to all of the ways in which we act destructively, and it can refer importantly to whole social systems. We need to talk about the history of chattel slavery as sin, as sin in a forceful and a humongous measure. That kind of language makes it not just a political issue, but a moral and ethical issue that has to do with our very existence as human beings.