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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Memphis faith leaders offer ‘A Time to Mourn’ Tyre Nichols, others

Tristan Strickland drove all the way from Michigan to pay his respects at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church for the funeral of Tyre Nichols to begin Feb. 1, 2023. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)
Tristan Strickland drove all the way from Michigan to pay his respects at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church for the funeral of Tyre Nichols to begin Feb. 1, 2023. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

When their friend and colleague was gunned down during a carjacking last summer, several women in ministry started a grief group.

They needed a safe place to bring their sorrow, their fear, their despair over the slaying of Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams, a Memphis minister who had devoted her life to helping youth.

They met for weeks. The longer they met, the more they grieved. The news, like a mighty, river kept pulling them under.

They grieved when a young teacher named Eliza Fletcher was abducted while jogging and then allegedly killed by a man who had avoided arrest the year before because of an untested rape kit.

They grieved when four people were killed and three others injured during an hours-long shooting rampage allegedly carried out by a teenager who had been released early from prison.

They grieved every act of violence that shook their sense of security and community and even their faith.

Now they are grieving again, this time for Tyre Nichols, a young unarmed man who was seen on video being brutally and fatally beaten by officers of the law last month.

The unabating violence around them feels like another pandemic.

”We have realized how much we were mourning beyond Autura’s death,” said Dr. Martha Lyle Ford, director of the Center for Faith and Imagination at Memphis Theological Seminary.

“The violence all around us. The isolation and devastation of Covid. Layer upon layer of grief. The cumulative exhaustion of it all. As clergy and faith leaders, we spend a lot of time absorbing the pain and grief of others. This group helped us acknowledge and process our own grief.”

Now they want to help their fellow ministers, chaplains and other faith leaders express and process their accumulated grief.

The women who formed the grief group last summer are organizing “A Time to Mourn” — a special service of grief and lament at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Church Health Community Room in Crosstown Concourse.

All clergy and faith leaders are welcome.

Ministers who attend the service will be invited to rend pieces of fabric and write prayers of lament on them to form a sort of makeshift “wailing wall.” They also will be encouraged to join smaller grief support groups.

”We’re referring to this as a lament event,” said Rev. Dr. Stephanie Patton, pastor of Oakland Presbyterian Church and a professor at the seminary. “In the Book of Lamentations, it’s the community that grieves, not just individuals. We need to come together to acknowledge and lament our collective and continual grief. A lament is a form of spiritual protest.”

A lament is a complaint in the form of a prayer expressing sorrow, pain or confusion. The Psalms are filled with individual and communal laments of protest.

Clergy and faith leaders grieve with others and for others for a living and as a calling. They lament by helping others process grief, protest its causes and profess faith and hope in its midst.

”We all bring our own perspectives to what is happening, but we all feel the weight of the grief,” said Rev. Dr. Sarita Wilson-Guffin, director of spiritual care for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Wilson-Guffin and Eason-Williams had worked together on My Sister’s Keeper, an initiative by Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare to address health disparities that impact black women.

”We had just been in a meeting together when she was killed,” Wilson-Guffin said. “It’s still so senseless. We’re all still grieving her loss. This event is so needed. It’s a safe space, a form of self-care for those of us who spend all our time caring for others.”

For more information about ‘A Time to Mourn,’ contact Dr. Martha Lyle Ford or Rev. Stephanie Patton

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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