Grace and Truth: A word from pastors
At a Durham (N.C.) city council meeting in 1968, with his handgun tucked into his belt for all to see, C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, was spewing his usual racist diatribes. A black woman, Ann Atwater, was sitting a couple rows behind him. Her eyes locked onto the Klansman’s neck, and with a small knife in her hand she started to lunge toward Ellis, intending to kill him. Fortunately, Atwater’s friends saw the knife in her hand and pulled her back into her seat. A couple years later, Ann Atwater found herself as the co-chair of a citywide committee for desegregating the schools. At the time, Atwater was an admired black leader in Durham. The other co-chair of the committee was a respected leader of the white community, none other than C.P. Ellis, the man Atwater had tried to kill. At the first meeting, after Atwater got out of her car, Ellis called her over to his. He wanted to show her something, he said. Ellis popped open his truck, unfolded a blanket, and showed her his .32 caliber revolver. “I come prepared,” he said. Ann looked down at the gun, then turned to C.P. and said, “C.P., that’s your God,” as she pointed at his gun. She pulled out the large Bible from under her arm (because in those days activists showed up to meetings with Bibles), and said, “This is mine. We’ll see which one is stronger.” As Ellis and Atwater sat through meetings, they found common ground: They were among the poorest people in town, and their children went to some of the worst schools in Durham. To everyone’s shock, they became friends through their work in the community. This is an Easter story because new life happened where death should have had the last word. The hate each person had for the other should have led to death—if not an actual killing, their mutual hate should have led to the many small deaths that make us a little less human: the ways we kill the possibility of friendship and common life. On that first Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples were invited into a new world. With Christ’s resurrection, a new reality was opened up in the cracks of the old. With the empty tomb, the impossible became reality. For C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, friendship seemed impossible. According to the old social order, these two people were to treat each other as a disease that led to death. Not only were they willing and able to kill each other, but other people in their communities threatened death if they worked together. When C.P. answered the phone late at night, he listened as old friends threatened to kill him if he continued to work with Atwater. But death would not have the last word. This is an Easter story because new life happened where there should have been death. This is a resurrection story because a power no one could control broke through hardened ways of life and created unheard of possibilities: that a militant, black radical and an Exalted Cyclops let their lives be mixed together. They found themselves becoming kin, members of the family of God. C.P. Ellis died in 2005, abandoned by his white friends; he was considered a traitor to their Southern way of life. When he let God’s resurrection flow through his life, Ellis became a threat to the old, comfortable world of white power. That’s what Easter does to us as we live amidst the powers of this world. Easter is a rupture in the system, a crack in the establishment’s foundation. Easter is a fissure that reveals a power of life, unbounded by our world of vengeance. Easter is an invitation into the mysterious power of resurrection, of new life. Resurrection opens our eyes to an invisible power that changes hearts and minds, a power of endless creation in the midst of destruction, a flow of eternal life and love in our world that we call “God”: the One who creates light in the midst of darkness, the One who frees slaves from their masters, the One who raised Jesus from the grave. Note: To learn more about the story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, see Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (UNC press, 2007). Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church.
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