The waiter returned, our credit card receipt in hand. “Your name’s Abernathy.”
“Yes,” I replied.
She looked at me for a long moment, then asked a question I’ve heard before. “You related to Ralph?”
O’er many years, many times, many people have asked me whether I am related to the Reverend Dr. Ralph Abernathy, civil rights activist, chief colleague and friend of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many times, in reply, I’ve told a story…
Spring 1974. My senior year at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri. Dr. Abernathy had delivered a lecture, really, a sermon on race relations. A reception followed. Because of my surname, the dean of students invited me to attend. During the course of the evening, Dr. Abernathy asked about my family and wanted to speak to my father. It was after 10 o’clock; long past my parents’ bedtime. My father, awakened from sleep, was not amused that a joker had called professing to be the Ralph Abernathy. Dr. Abernathy began to recount his family history. Some of the names were familiar to my father, which convinced him that it wasn’t a prank and led to their recognition that they might be related distantly.
Oft asked about my name, I have told this story about Ralph Abernathy, who, “to prove” his identity to my father, told his story.
We humans are creatures of story. Telling our stories is a fundamental act of remembrance through which we reflect on the past from whence we have come, realize in the present where we stand, and reach for the future where we hope to be. Sometimes individual stories combine forming a larger tale; a parable of a people, providing communal definition and direction.
The people Israel, liberated form Egyptian slavery, followed Moses for forty years in the wilderness. At journey’s end, Moses commanded them, in thanksgiving, to offer first fruits of the harvest and to remember: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor who went down to Egypt.” In reciting the Jacob-story, their story, they, as a people, defined anew from whence they had come and where they were going, who they were and to whom they belonged.
Jesus remembered. As his people, centuries before, trekked through the desert, before embarking on his ministry, he entered the wilderness for forty days of testing. Jesus confronted diabolos, the devil; the personification of all that would hinder his obedience to God; whether envious tempters or skeptical naysayers or even his own self-doubt. To each and to all, Jesus said, “No,” reciting the words of scripture; the sacred story of his people, his story of himself, through which he renewed his awareness of who he was and to whom he belonged, who he was and whose he was.
We have entered the wilderness of Lent. This forty-day season of soulful self-examination when we, led by God’s Spirit, confront all that hinders us from following Jesus. This season when we, in that challenge, are called to remember and retell our sacred Christian story. So, at journey’s end, at Easter, we, metaphorically and literally, may rise renewed, remembering, re-membering – that is, consciously re-joining our constituent parts of – from whence we have come and where we are going, who we are and whose we are.
My father, given his hunger to assimilate in America (and his fear, already difficult as a black man, that he might not), chose not to remember and retell his story. Thus, only after a long time, well into my adulthood, did I learn that Abernathy was the name of my father’s maternal grandfather. The name of my father’s father, my paternal grandfather, a native of Santiago de Cuba, was Pedro Silva.
I don’t know, I cannot know who I’d be or what I’d be doing had I, at my beginning, known that. (At the least, I might have taken Spanish in high school, not French!)
Yet, knowing this now, I understand why I’ve had a lifelong longing for acceptance and acknowledgement. Why I’ve always yearned to find a place to belong. Why, from time to time, I feel so out of place. And why reunions and reconciliations of any kind bring tears to my eyes.
Knowing this particularity of my God-given, birth-borne heritage, I see more clearly who I am and how I am and can be re-membered.
This is my story. What’s yours?
Moses speaks to the people (c. 1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)
The Temptation of Christ (1872), Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916)