This afternoon I had the honour to represent members of the Presbyterian community in Kingston, past and present. In the mid 19th century a potato blight caused the deaths of more than 1 million Irish. Those who were able attempted to flee. In 1847 over 90,000 journeyed across the Atlantic and some landed in Kingston. But in just a few months over 1400 died in this city due to typhus contracted on the ‘coffin ships’ or in the hastily raised ‘fever sheds’ along the shore into which they were crammed when they arrived. Most were buried in a mass grave on what is now part of Kingston General Hospital. The hospital is preparing for new building which will involve disinterring the remains of these children, women and men (mainly Roman Catholic, quite a few Church of Ireland and some Presbyterian).
As we gathered inn prayer around these unmarked graves here in Kingston, I was conscious of those other unmarked graves that are very much before us this week, of indigenous children who were taken from their families and communities and died at a residential school in Kamloops BC. It is hard for me to fathom what this meant for the children who survived, for the families who never saw their children again and did not have the opportunity even to bury them, and for the communities that had to deal with such loss and anger. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has distributed a statement and a prayer in which we can share, and additional resources for us to consider. The page can be found at https://presbyterian.ca/2021/05/31/pcc-prays-for-the-lives-lost-at-kamloops-indian-residential-school/
Holy One, as we gather here the cry lifted up by the psalmist of old comes to my ears and heart, a cry of so many since …
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22)
As we stand upon this ground, the cries of men, women and children from the year 1847 echo to this day. They were forced to leave behind homeland and community, the suffered hunger and illness, they found themselves abandoned here in this far land, and their cries only grew deeper as they held loved ones dying and even gave up their own last breath.
O God, I believe they are in your eternal arms. And I believe you have shown me in the death of Jesus that such suffering is not your will but rather you are present in the midst of it and hold us through it, that you bring us through life and even life through death. As these earthly remains find a new resting place, I thank you for this assurance for their lives, and for ours.
I also remember some of the last words of our Lord among us … sharing what makes a life ultimately truly human and enduring.
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me … Truly I tell you, just as you do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me. (Matthew 25)
As surely as we mourn the suffering and deaths of these coffin ships and quarantine sheds, and condemn the politics and greed that brought them to these shores exhausted, ill and dying, I thank you for all who did reach out to extend assistance and company in their day. As we look back, we also look around, and I acknowledge the calling I now have to shape my life and community and nation in care of all in need in our time, neighbor and stranger, to support public health care and welcome refugees. As we bring to solemn remembrance those who have gone before, move me into a greater commitment to take up the ways of life for all today, in the way and name of Jesus Christ.
p.s. On pages 72-73 of The Rock and The Sword, one can find reference to the Typhus epidemic in Kingston and the ministry of the Rev. Machar, including the quote ‘I have been much occupied in attending upon the sick and dying … My life is one of toil, but I would not have it otherwise’.