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lessons learned in ‘grueling but healing’ work on Memphis Lynching Sites

Memphis couple “showed us what a community looks like”

Rev. Randall Mullins and his wife, Sharon Pavelda, with the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, stand in front of the Ell Persons historic maker. The couple launched the project in 2016, with help from retired professors Tom Carlson and Margaret Vandiver, and retired oceanographer George Grider. Their goal is to locate and memorialize the site of every post-Civil War lynching in Shelby County. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

About 50 family, friends and fans gathered at Caritas Village one day last week to say goodbye to Rev. Randall Mullins and his wife, Sharon Pavelda. They are moving to the Seattle area.

“This isn’t a funeral,” Sharon, a licensed “death midwife,” reminded everyone with her characteristic comforting directness. “We’re not dying. We’re just moving.”

Randall, a United Church of Christ minister and cancer survivor, smiled and pressed his palms together prayerfully and playfully. Everyone laughed and the party was on.

It was a fitting time and way to honor a couple who spent the last decade of this city’s second century bringing people together to commiserate and commemorate.

Last week marked the city’s 200th birthday. It also marked the anniversary of the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons – the first to be memorialized by the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis.

David Waters

Randall and Sharon launched the project early in 2016, with help from retired professors Tom Carlson and Margaret Vandiver, and retired oceanographer George Grider.

Their goal is to locate and memorialize the site of every post-Civil War lynching in Shelby County.

The project was inspired by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which is seeking to identify the location of every lynching in the South from 1877-1950.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” Stevenson said when he spoke in Memphis in 2015.

Randall and Sharon were there. That work became their ministry. They have been joined by hundreds of others from the National Park Service to the local NAACP, retired business leaders and high school students, preachers and politicians, activists and academics.

“Randall and Sharon have a style of leadership that opens the way for people with a wide range of diverse experiences and viewpoints to work together effectively and creatively,” said Dr. Margaret Vandiver, a historian and retired University of Memphis professor whose research has informed the project.

So far, project members have identified the sites of 36 lynchings and placed historical markers where two occurred – Lee Walker in 1893 and Persons in 1917. More markers are planned.

“I didn’t know how much I needed this work. To face up to the horrors of racial violence in our collective history is essential to the health of our community,” said Mullins, who grew up in Memphis, left in the 1970s to attend seminary in California, and returned in 2010 to be near his son.

“It has been grueling work but also healing work,” said Pavelda, who married Mullins in 2003 and moved here with him from the Seattle area. “It certainly wasn’t what we came here to do, but our lives have never gone according to plan.”

Sharon Pavelda shows a picture of the actual site where Ell Persons was lynched in 1917. The location is near the banks of the Wolf River several hundred yards to the northwest of the direction she’s facing. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Thursday’s farewell was held at Caritas, the first place Randall and Sharon went when they came to Memphis in 2010. They heard it was a nice place and went there for lunch.

Caritas has become a community center in the Binghampton neighborhood. During their time in Memphis, the couple has become part of a growing community of people who are working to remember and reconcile the city’s racist history.

“Randall and Sharon showed me what community looks like,” said Phyllis Aluko, Shelby County’s new public defender who joined Thursday’s farewell party.

Aluko is a board member of the local NAACP, which was formed as a result of the 1917 lynching of Persons. She also helped lead the effort to memorialize the site of the 1866 Memphis Massacre.

Randall and Sharon didn’t move to Memphis to bring together white and black activists and academics, preachers and politicians for a common reconciling cause.

They intended to start some sort of “ministry of land” on a Mullins family farm about 70 miles away in Mississippi.

When that didn’t work out, Randall made plans to become a hospice chaplain and minister to the dying.

Sharon and a friend opened a shop in Cooper-Young called The Purple Door, where she offered her services as a drama therapist and death midwife.

Both of them planned to spend the next several years visiting hospitals and nursing homes, comforting and counseling people who were sick and dying.

Instead, their own lives also became their ministry – to themselves and to others.

At Thursday’s farewell, Randall carried around a dry erase board to clarify whatever words he spoke that sounded garbled.

When he needed to make a longer point, Sharon stood by and “reiterated.”

A little more than a year after the couple moved to Memphis, Randall began losing sensation in and control of his tongue.

 At first, physicians thought he had a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

They ruled that out and decided he had something called 12th nerve palsy, or paralysis of the tongue, which is not fatal.

A few months later, they determined that Randall had a rare form of tongue cancer.

In 2012, surgeons removed the lanky preacher’s cancerous tongue. They also took out his hyoid bone, a tiny horseshoe-shape bone that allows humans to articulate a wide variety of sounds.

In the process, Randall and Sharon engaged in small acts of death-defying faith.

They talked openly and publicly, playfully and prayerfully about their experiences.

They asked friends to help them name Randall’s feeding tube. The winner: Fidel Gastro.

They wore bright yellow robes and neon green socks and danced in waiting rooms and exam rooms.

“There’s just something about the joy of socks,” Sharon often said.

“In some ways, all that fear has been a gift,” Randall said. “We let ourselves be touched by God, and especially by other people.”

Their response to fear and death is part of their ministry.

“Memphis is a more inclusive, historically accurate city thanks to Randall,” said Rev. Laura Gettys, past board chair of the Lynching Sites Project and interim dean at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

“And Sharon, with her creativity and performative worships around such challenging issues of death and mortality has made this city a more open and whole place.”

The invitation to Thursday’s farewell included this instruction: Dress flamboyantly.

No one had to tell Randall or Sharon. He wore a bright tie-dyed T-shirt and a fedora. She wore a colorful boa.

During their time in Memphis, the couple has become as well known for their playful good humor as their prayerful deep faith.

Their marriage, in sickness and in health, also is their ministry.

“Randall and Sharon have modeled what it means to live with Christian love in Memphis,” said Dr. Tim Huebner, a Rhodes College history professor who joined Thursday’s festivities.

“They know that only confronting the horrific aspects of our past can we build trust and foster healing in our community.  They have truly strived to be ‘repairers of the breach.'”

They’re also trying to be good grandparents. Living here has given them more quality time with their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

They’re returning to the Seattle area to spend more quality time with their daughter, son-in-law and two other grandchildren.

“We’re just flipping the script,” Sharon told the well-wishers Thursday. “We’ve been spending part of the summer there. We will not be spending part of the summer here. We’ll be back in the fall.”

Sharon said they will miss the big oaks of Midtown and the broad community of faith, but they won’t miss the heat, which has been hard on Randall’s lungs.

Randall is still battling cancer.

“I do have some cancer in my lungs, but so far it is slow growing and of a rare type that can take years to produce disabling symptoms,” he said in an email Friday. “I do have less energy than I had a year ago so I need to slow down some.”

That’s the plan. But they both know their plans are apt to change.

“Someone asked me, ‘Are you weak enough to be a leader?’ I have seen how this journey with cancer has helped me slow down and trust more than I otherwise would have. Overall, I have always struggled with being too driven. So the cancer has been and continues to be a good teacher for me. Learning to live with more weakness has been a gift in my life.”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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