“And I told them, ‘Y’all is nice. You must be Christian people.’ The jailer’s wife told me that she tried to live a Christian life. And I told her I would like for her to read two scriptures in the Bible…”
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was an African-American civil rights activist who served as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She is known popularly for being, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” On several occasions, Mrs. Hamer faced violence and imprisonment for her efforts to register black voters in the segregated south. On one occasion, after she was jailed and brutally beaten, the jailer’s wife and daughter took pity on her and secretly gave her assistance. In the midst of her intense suffering, Mrs. Hamer took this as an opportunity to preach the gospel to her captives:
“I tol’ er to read the 26th Chapter of Proverbs and the 26th Verse [‘Whose hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness shall be showed before the whole congregation’]. She taken it down on a paper. And then I told her to read the [17th] Chapter of Acts and the 26th Verse [‘Hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth’]. And she taken that down. And she never did come back after then”
Mrs. Hamer’s physical pain did not stifle her love of God or her desire for freedom. Even as she suffered for attempting to share freedom through citizenship education, Mrs. Hamer brazenly shared the word of God with her “enemies,” simultaneously praying and acting for conversion in the face of oppression. Death was not a deterrent for this courageous prophet of freedom. Her commitment to speaking truth transcended her own suffering.
If the Civil Rights struggle was a Christian movement, then Mrs. Hamer was its evangelist. Mrs. Hamer took advantage of every opportunity to share the word, from the confines of her jail cell to the lunch counters she sought to desegregate. Her fearless love reminds us of Saint Paul’s own imprisonment for the gospel:
“I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that is has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14, NRSV)
Like Saint Paul before her, Mrs. Hamer preached through protest: sitting, standing, marching, shouting, conversing and singing. Standing against tyranny of unjust voting laws, segregation, and social inequality, she converted Americans by boldly demanding that the United States live up to its national vocation of human freedom and equality. Mrs. Hamer’s perseverance through suffering helped ignite the fervor for truth that was central to the mid-and-late 20th century civil rights movements, as well as inspiration for contemporary efforts to participate in the enactment of God’s good kingdom. For Mrs. Hamer, the commitment to evangelism through social and political action was the driving force behind her courageous struggles.
How does Mrs. Hamer’s life of evangelization and protest witness to Christians today? Mrs. Hamer’s story is a testament and affirmation of the Christian evangelical commission, which calls us to spread the good news to the ends of the earth, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen, but especially those who persecute us. In our contemporary context, we often become reticent or uncomfortable with our evangelical call. We fear disrespecting the beliefs of fellow humans who either affirm another belief system or claim no explicit system of belief. We fear being persecuted for our commitment to the gospel in a society where its radical claims do not make much sense. This commission, however, is central to who we are as a Church. Like Hamer, we are called to preach the gospel even when it is inconvenient.
Mrs. Hamer prompts us to speak the gospel boldly and passionately. At the same time, her story reveals the necessity of honoring those who differ from us as a testament to the truth of Christ’s good word that profoundly transforms us from hatred to love. In ecclesial and public discourse, Mrs. Hamer story calls us to listen and reach out to others across ideological differences. Exhibiting the virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice, along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, Mrs. Hamer challenges us to proclaim the gospel without bending it to our own narrow ideologies and self-interest.
Mrs. Hamer’s life story raises another challenging aspect of our faith: we are called to suffer for the gospel. As my grade 9 confirmation students like to remind me, it is a big deal to ask Christians to suffer for the truth. In light of the abuse of theologies that associate suffering with redemption without nuance, we ought to proceed carefully when making claims about the role of suffering in the Christian life. This deserves a more extensive treatment than I can offer in this blog post. At the same time, Mrs. Hamer illustrates that suffering is sometimes a part of living the faith. For Mrs. Hamer and her fellow civil rights activists – Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and the like – suffering at the hands of the oppressor was an integral aspect of resisting the oppressor. For Christians, suffering for the gospel is not suffering in vain. Rather than suffering for any old thing, Christians as a Church are called by God to draw on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to answer the question: “What is really worth struggling for?”