I stood in a place of sorrow and joy.
My spouse and I were in Columbia, South Carolina, standing in the cemetery of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on a Saturday morning. We were visiting our son, who is a student at the University of South Carolina. Our son would not be awake for several more hours so we had the chance to walk around Trinity’s cemetery, reading the headstones. For history buffs like my beloved and me, each headstone, monument, mausoleum, and marker told a story.
Many of the stories were deeply sorrowful. I lost track of the number of graves of infants and young children. There were graves of women, some who had died young and some who had died old. There were graves of men who had died young and men who had died old. We guessed that the children had died of disease. We wondered if some of the young women had died in childbirth. How had the young men died?
Another story began to unfold when we looked more closely at the headstones on the graves of the young men. One headstone read, “Killed at Boonsboro, Maryland, 1862”; another read, “Killed in Bentonville, North Carolina, 1865.” At the base of each gravestone stood a small, four-side Iron Cross with the letters “CSA” in the middle. As I walked around the graveyard, I noticed more and more CSA-monogrammed iron crosses anchored in the ground. According to a history of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 18 men from that congregation died in the Civil War. 98 Confederate veterans, total, are buried in the church’s graveyard.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral sits directly across the street from the South Carolina State House.
On that particular morning, a small group was assembling in front of the State House. I couldn’t really tell what they were doing, but, it looked like a church gathering to me. There were small white tents, tables, instruments, and colorful banners on stands. From a distance, I could also see that the folks setting up were people of color. I admired the commitment of this small band of folks setting up between the State House and a white marble monument to Confederate soldiers.
As I stood in the midst of the cemetery, music began to play from the direction of the State House. Guitar, bass, vocals echoed off the stone buildings. We were not close enough to distinguish the words to the songs, but, I could hear enough to know in my soul that church was happening in the singing, shouting, praying, and praising.
We continued to walk around the graveyard while the music reverberated around the church and the Capitol grounds. Many poignant juxtapositions tugged at my heart. I thought about the contrast between the grand antebellum Episcopal cathedral and the small group of Jesus followers gathered under temporary tents on the State House steps.
I thought about the stories preserved on the headstones and the stories that were lost because there was no memorial to mark a grave. I thought about the people who would have had the money to buy headstones and the people who had no money for headstones.
I reflected on the meaning of having “CSA” monogrammed on iron crosses in a Christian cemetery. I thought about those particular crosses still standing in a South Carolina graveyard in 2017. I wondered if the congregation had ever talked about removing those crosses. I wondered if Trinity Episcopal Cathedral had any people of color in its congregation.
I was struck by the sorrows of that moment. The sorrow of losing your sons in a bloody, prolonged war. The sorrow of your sons and daughters being sold. The sorrow of burying your child in a tiny grave. The sorrow of burying your child in an unmarked grave. The sorrows of a land scarred by war. The sorrows of not having any land or any place to call your own.
As I stood on that soil so deeply marked by loss, there was also a joyful song being sung. I heard a song of praise wrapping around the headstones. Brown and black-skinned followers of Jesus sang about a mighty God. I marveled that the Christian faith that had once been presented in the American South as “slaves obey your masters” has and had become a place of resistance and liberation.
What does this story have to do with conflict transformation? In conflict transformation work, we often encounter “either-or” kinds of choices. Either we satisfy faction “A” or we satisfy faction “B”. Either we chose one course of action or we chose the other. Either person “A” leaves/changes behavior or person “B” leaves/changes behavior. False binaries dictate the conversation and set people against one another.
In conflict transformation work, we are constantly seeking the “both-and.” We seek the ways forward that transcend false binaries and integrate seemingly opposite positions. “Either-or” separates. “Both-and” unites. “Both-and” creates the space for creative possibilities to arise so that new stories can be told about God’s promising future for God’s joyful people.
The seeking of the “both-and” is sacred work. Only the divine mystery of the Holy Trinity can make what seems to be opposite true at the same time.
Which brings me to Advent. We Christ-followers sing many joyful songs in Advent and Christmas, as well we should. The church has much to celebrate in this season. At the same time, if we listen carefully, we may here a sorrowful note in the familiar Scriptures and Christmas carols. I Wonder As I Wander is a plaintive Appalachian carol that reminds us of Jesus’ ultimate fate.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I…
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
From the very beginnings of her pregnancy, Mary knew the great risks of bearing her most unusual child. And, yet, she said, “Let it be.” I hope this Advent that I have the courage–like Mary–to wait in the “both-and” so that I may hear the sacred stories of sorrow and the holy stories of joy, knowing that both are true.