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Gospel-Centric Remembrance & Reconciliation

Written by Alexander Grant

AU students help pass the torch of remembrance & reconciliation to the next generation

Crumbling wooden boards rot in the morning sunlight, sinking deep into the muddy earth. Frayed and burned rope twists among the broken structure, illuminated only by the weak beams of light piercing through the gaps in the trees. The wreckage of the gallows, once used for violence, now fades into the hungry dirt, mirroring its fading presence in the minds of those distanced from this tragic period in America’s history.

Anderson University students are bridging that gap—most recently with their contributions to the Equal Justice Initiative and an exhibit at the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. They’re doing so by combining the University’s desire to engage civically with Christ’s message of love and compassion.

For the ultimate and eternal change, the cross of Christ must take center stage. Gospel-centered racial reconciliation takes us beyond knowledge to a life-transforming hope of being reconciled to God and one another,” said Anderson University Vice President of Diversity, Community and Inclusion Dr. James Noble. “With the Christocentric power of grace and truth, we become agents of change for the cause of Christ in the world.”

An Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences class took that to heart. The AU students spent last semester creating documentaries focused on the lives of five victims of racial violence in the city of Anderson. It was their contribution to the Equal Justice Initiative—but, more importantly, to “the cause of Christ in the world.

Unearthing Tragic Histories

It started with Reuben Elrod. Elrod, a former enslaved person and dedicated family man, was in his 70s when he was murdered in 1903. Known for his honor and respect, he lived with and cared for his cousins and siblings and placed great value in the importance of family.

The six students researched Elrod’s life, which taught them that remembrance is crucial in helping heal the wounds of racism in America.

“It’s significant, it’s important, it’s weighty and it is a hard conversation. But it is so important to remember,” said Morgan Lane, one of the six students in the Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences’ Com 451 class.

Through the Equal Justice Initiative, these students, Anderson University, and the city of Anderson participated in three distinct ways of honor and remembrance.

The first was through a documentary highlighting the life of Reuben Elrod.

“The overall goal was to tell the story of a victim,” said Anderson University student Adam Edwards. “We actually ended up deciding to go on the route of telling his story, and then explaining how it affects people today. So we interviewed Reuben Elrod’s great, great, great grandson and one of his distant relatives so we could see how that’s affected their family.”

Elrod’s documentary emphasized the significance of family history and the healing power of listening to our ancestors’ stories.

A Journey to Alabama

After producing a documentary on Elrod’s life, the Anderson University students took a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, home to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Reconciliation. Along with AU faculty and staff members, the students filled five jars with dirt from the site of lynchings in Anderson County. Each was labeled with the names of victims of racial violence. The museum serves as the jar’s final resting place.

“It was a moving experience,” said professor Bobby Rettew, who taught the class. “For anybody that has ever heard about the Equal Justice Initiative, or has just been interested to hear the history of slavery and transatlantic human trafficking, I encourage you to make a trip to Montgomery, Alabama. You will not only be moved, but you will be educated. And I hope that you will be empowered.”

Both the faculty and students described the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The staggering number of names and memorials illustrated the need for Christians to embrace a gospel-centric view of reconciliation. And it was a true bonding moment between generations, with the faculty and students sharing a period of understanding and empathy for each other’s struggles, both old and new.

‘We’re not just trying to put a marker in the ground and walk away. We want conversation in the community. That’s the real goal–to have people come together and understand that we need to be a world in which we all thrive.

Dr. Stuart Sprague
Anderson University Professor Emeritus of Religion

“To see the shock on their faces and just to hear the tremble in their voices as the students spoke about it was just really eye-opening for me,” Dr. Noble said. “I think if we’re really going to make a difference, then more young people are going to have to be brought to the table, brought up to the conversation and maybe even go to places like the Legacy Museum to see those things that really happened.”

Art as a Symbol of Remembrance

A local artist from Anderson, Herman Keith, put the finishing touches on the memorial. He created a stunning piece of art using smaller jars of dirt suspended inside a wooden structure resembling a coffin–illustrating the suffering and pain of Black victims of violence. The hanging jars symbolize the practice of lynching while the contained nature of the coffin-style walls evokes a cramped, uncomfortable lack of space or freedom.

The art piece is on tour throughout Anderson County, including a stop at Anderson University. A key partner in the effort is Dr. Stuart Sprague, Anderson University professor emeritus of religion, who discovered the Equal Justice Initiative movement while living in Austin, Texas, with his wife. They wanted to be involved and start a similar project in Anderson and partnered with a program called the Community Remembers Project. The project involves local citizens researching lynching victims in their counties and participating in projects like the soil jars and memorial museums. Also, Dr. Sprague and community members formed the Anderson Area Remembrance and Reconciliation Initiative.

Dr. Sprague is excited to involve the younger generations in remembrance and reconciliation, especially students at Anderson University.

“I mean, that’s what a university is all about: education, learning the history and then having the conversation about our moral responsibility going forward. And there is a new generation of folks coming through the University and being a part of the Anderson community for the long haul. So this is not something that ends, you know, next year in January,” he said.

Dr. Sprague is committed to long-term remembrance and thrilled to partner with students and faculty who will encourage and support him on his mission.

“We’re not just trying to put a marker in the ground and walk away,” Dr. Sprague said. “We want conversation in the community. That’s the real goal–to have people come together and understand that we need to be a world in which we all thrive.”

Gospel-centric remembrance and reconciliation are incredibly important in the process of healing racial divisions and supporting communities, Dr. Noble said. It’s up to every generation to foster community and hold space to reflect and listen with open hearts, open minds and by sharing the love of Christ.

“Change has to come through knowledge,” Dr. Noble said. “The more we understand what has happened in our nation’s past, then the better we can make change today.”