By Steven Norris

Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

When I was a boy, I used to spend an extended period each summer with my Mamaw at her farmhouse in rural Mississippi. The family owned and operated what seemed to my boyhood perspective a vast orchard of peach, apple, and pear trees. Along with the harvest from a large vegetable garden, they supplied a half dozen produce stands peppered around town.

If you walked through the back yard, past the orchard’s edge, and around the old fence, however, you would find the remnants of an old chicken house. By the time I was sweating away summer days wandering around the property, the chicken house was empty, save for a mess of old junk that didn’t have a home elsewhere on the property.

I remember an old VW Beetle with a busted out windshield. I remember some rusted farm equipment. I remember aluminum cans, pocked with holes from Papaw’s pump-action .22 rifle. Just recently, however, I vaguely remembered a headstone that I thought I had seen there.

After a quick phone call, my dad confirmed the memory. It had belonged to my great-great-grandfather. Under my family name, etched deep into the marble, was the inscription, “Confederate Soldier.” Of all the stories my family told, I can recall none that recounted this time in our family history.

As I thought about it, I couldn’t shake the thought that my family were pretty successful farmers from Mississippi. The likelihood that they were slave-owners is very high, though my dad stated, “I don’t know for sure. That was not a conversation I ever had with them.”

It would make sense of the earth-shaking experience I remember as a boy when Mamaw had a man and his sons do yard work for her. It was the first and only time that I heard the N-word cross her lips. I was scandalized. This woman was the godliest person I knew. In my mind, her commitment to Christ was unquestioned, but she was a product of her time and upbringing.

Silence. This is how my family dealt with this part of our history. Most of the generation that might have known the story are now gone, so I may never hear their perspective firsthand. 

But this I know: there can be no freedom until we are willing to face the truth. Those are Jesus’ words, not mine. As we have learned from efforts in South Africa and Rwanda: there can be no reconciliation and long-term healing until we are willing to both speak and hear the truth. 

In this historical moment, that is the commitment I can make – to un-learn and re-learn the “white-washed” history I grew up with in school. To take an unflinching look in the mirror of my family, my culture, my church, and my own heart. I can commit to make truth the first stop on our collective road to freedom, healing, and reconciliation.