Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Valley of Dry Bones
Installation: wood, latex
Created by Helms Jarrell, 2021
Each tree limb represents the juxtaposition of stories. Stories of abandonment, brokenness, and divestment share the same space as stories of family, resilience, and care. Which story will we take with us? Which story will live on?
Where are the bones from?
There, you’ll find the dust and decay from generations of systemic divestment, economic oppression, segregation, and racism. Watch your feet as you step hesitantly around the fractured spine, mangled from the tight grip of generational eviction and strategic displacement.
You’ll find the remains of ancestors who bore the weight and the exhaust of our extractive economy on their backs and in their lungs. You’ll also witness the strong bones of resilience, wrists, carpals, metacarpals, phalanges still reaching, still gripping, still holding on.
Enderly Park and Myers Park
John Nolen planned Myers Park with long, curving blocks to contain large, stately homes. Nolen planned Enderly Park a little like Myers Park in miniature: long blocks, few cross streets. The scale is different. What about the bones? Are they also different? Is there some bone-deep difference in the four miles from one to the other?
The bones are from a place where long-time disinvestment writhes in the ground. This is a place where house flippers replace Black lives with black siding. It is also a place where business owners, storytellers, comedians, keep holding on. Here, new growth resides next to dry bones. The bones are from a place where after a long lock-up, a man returns to an unfamiliar home. Where do his bones land? From here, is it possible to remember how to breathe free?
You may recognize this place, now that it is the new location of newly renovated offices. What once was a shell of a commercial building now glimmers. To some, it was a blank canvas; to others, a wasteland. How could anyone imagine these bones living? If so, who would live in them? Whose imagination would breathe life into them?
“Prophesy to the bones!” God tells Ezekiel. These limbs used to hear prophetic utterances regularly. The homeowner loves the Scriptures. Reads them constantly. Listens to them on radio. Then one tree fell. Then another, damaging house and risking life. The landscape has been silent since then. What utterance is next?
The pulpit of a historic church had long been silent. Now it is empty, too, just another relic in a building to be razed. The bones have really dried up. No one will purchase the property. The building sits in ruins, less than a century old. Can these bones live again?
written by Greg Jarrell
When the Rockefellers bought out homeowners to begin work on the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, folks living there had the rights to remain until they either decided to move, or until they died. When Liz Montgomery was telling a small group of Myers Park Baptist staff and our theologians/artists in residence this during a recent interview, she recalled one woman who took the deal, but to the Rockefellers’ surprise, lived another fifty years!
That woman was a Black woman whose family had been in Williamsburg for many generations. As visitors strolled by, she would often tell them a bit of lore from the past, including how the family had kept a small cemetery on the land several generations before. Finally the woman passed on, and the team of archaeologists and restorationists took over her property and began their work of returning it to its colonial-era look. They anticipated the job would move quickly, because they had not listened. So, to their surprise they dug up human bones. They job had to slow down. It required further excavation.
The presence of bones and cemeteries suggests the idea of ghosts or hauntings. I’m not referring to superstition or to Hollywood, but to the way old stories linger. The traumas of the past do not stay in the past. They zoom ahead to meet us somewhere down the road, in a future not far off. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggested that ghosts belong to the future, not the past. They point us to something to be done – a further excavation that must take place to heal the wounds that leave behind a haunting.
The story of that Black woman and the old burial site in Williamsburg that necessitated further excavation came to us through the history ministry of First Baptist Church there. For years, they have been sorting through the bones of their place to understand their connections to the past, which are their lifelines to the future. Fragments of notes or meeting minutes; oral histories; a picture stored too long in an attic; names to name, stories to celebrate, wounds to heal.
First Baptist Church Williamsburg, I was surprised to learn, is a historically Black church. I’ve been to many a “First Baptist,” usually a marker of pride in settler mythology. Those places have invariably been racialized as ‘white.’ (Those that aren’t white congregations generally have a modifier. In our own town, First Baptist Church on Oaklawn Avenue is often identified as First Baptist, West, where First Baptist in uptown is just First Baptist. This is the case even though First Baptist, West adopted the name a half-century before First Baptist, white, a story about which I’ve been learning many of the details, and I can’t wait to tell you….)
A lifetime of visiting First Baptist ___(blank)_____ meant that my surprise was not unwarranted, but in this case I was wrong. My colleague Dawn Anthony had gone looking for stories when she learned an interesting detail about Myers Park Baptist. Your beautiful sanctuary’s architect built his design of the building on the structure of First Baptist Church Williamsburg. You know it immediately when you see a picture. The lots and the scale are a little different, but the skeleton looks the same.
“Bones” is one of those metaphors common in architecture and real estate. A realtor will sell you a dilapidated heap of sticks while going on about “good bones.” And it really is quite the splendid metaphor about our connections, isn’t it? One church, founded in 1776 by people groaning under the weight of their oppression like the Israelites, people who had to ‘steal away’ into the hush harbors to worship in truth; another, modeled on it outwardly, founded 170 years later by a group of theological renegades, but whose lives looked in practice more like Pharaoh than Israel. Well, whether you’re Israel wandering the wilderness or Pharaoh’s children seeking liberation, either way, you’ve got further excavation to do.
The metaphor has limits. The work is not the same in Williamsburg as it is in Charlotte. The ghosts are different. Conjuring a different story takes different words. But we’ll all have to, like Ezekiel, “prophesy to the bones.” To give them new life, to bring them rattling back together, with sinews and tendons and flesh will require specificity in naming the wounds that have left our souls parched in a valley of dry bones.
“Making all things new” is our goal. That is the redemptive work of God in the world. “Ghosts hate new things,” Zora Neale Hurston said. The hauntings that constitute the present will flee when we create a new future. Dry bones healed. Old names remembered. And once more, the land will have rest.