Title: A local Easter story
Date: April 24, 2011 (Easter)
Texts: Matt 28:1-10
Author: Isaac Villegas
Let me tell you an Easter story. C.P. Ellis’s father died at the age of forty-eight, which meant that C.P. had to drop out of high school and become the bread winner for his family, for his mom and sister. Without an education, he was in and out of jobs, working hard but always poor. He married young and had four children.
C.P.’s father, before he died, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, so it was only natural that C.P. would follow in his father’s footsteps. In the 1960s, C.P. became the president (“exalted cyclops”) of the Durham chapter of the KKK. He would go to the Durham City Council meetings with his handgun tucked in his belt, in full view, in order to represent the position of the Klan, which meant that he would spew racist diatribes about black people whenever the opportunity presented itself.
At a city council meeting in 1968, C.P. Ellis was being especially disgusting. A black woman, Ann Atwater, was sitting a couple rows behind him. She got to the point that she couldn’t take it anymore, so she reached into her pursed and pulled out a small knife. Her eyes locked onto the Klansman’s neck. She got up from her seat, and started to lung over the two rows between her and Ellis, intending to kill him. But, luckily, Atwater’s friends saw the knife in her hand and pulled her back into her seat and took it away.
A couple years later, Ann Atwater found herself as the co-chair of a citywide committee, responsible for desegregating the schools. At the time, Atwater was one of the most respected black leaders in Durham, especially among the poor. And the co-chair of the committee was one of the respected leaders of the white community, the exalted cyclops C.P. Ellis, the man she had tried to kill.
At the first meeting, Atwater and Ellis pulled into the parking lot at the same time. After Ann got out of her car, C.P. called her over because he said he wanted to show her something. He popped open his truck, unfolded a blanket, and showed her his .32 caliber revolver. “I come prepared,” he said. Ann looked down at the gun, then turned to C.P. and said, “C.P., that’s your God,” as she pointed at his gun. Then she pulled out the large bible she had under her arm (because those were the days when activists showed up to meetings with bibles), and said, “This is mine. We’ll see which one is stronger.”
Ann Atwater’s God did prove stronger than the Klansman and his gun. But God’s strength did not destroy Ellis. When God moves, enemies are not destroyed, they are converted; they are given new life, not death, not destruction, not rejection. When God moves, new life happens, enemies become friends.
As Ann and C.P. sat through meetings together, they found common ground: they were among the poorest people in town, and their children went to some of the worst schools in Durham. To everyone’s shock, they became friends through their work together, and their friendship lasted up until C.P. died several years ago.
I said this was going to be an Easter story. It’s an Easter story because new life happened where death should have had the last word. The hate each had for the other should have led to death—or if not an actual killing, their mutual hate should have led to the many small deaths that make us a little less human, that cut us off from one another, that kill the possibility of friendship and common life, of eating together and fellowship.
On Easter morning, the disciples are invited into a new world even while still living in the midst of the old world. With Christ’s resurrection, a new reality is opened up in the cracks of the old. With the empty tomb, the impossible becomes possible.
For C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, friendship seemed impossible. According to the old order, these two were to treat each other as if the other was a disease that led to death; the one was dead to the other. In this old order, a shroud of death enveloped their interactions, restricting what could be possible. Not only were they willing and able to kill each other, but other people in their communities threatened death if they worked together. Late at night, when C.P. would answer his phone, he would hear unknown voices and, sadly, the voices of old friends; they would threaten to kill him if he continued to work with Ann.
But death would not have the last word. Something happened to both of them, to C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, that shook them free from the shackles of the old, and invited them into a whole new world of possibility. This is an Easter story because new life happened where there should have been death. This is a resurrection story because a power no one could control broke through hardened ways of life and created unheard of possibilities: that a militant black radical and an exalted cyclops of the Klan let their lives become intertwined. Despite what each thought was true about the other, they found themselves converted, transformed, changed. They found themselves becoming family, a sister and brother, members of the family of God.
C.P. Ellis died in 2005. Ann Atwater showed up at the funeral home for the service a little early. She went in and had a seat near the casket. Someone from the funeral home came up to her: Excuse me, he said, I think you’re in the wrong place. This service is for the family of Mr. Claiborne Ellis. Ann let the man know that she was in fact part of the family of Mr. Ellis. Confused and a little irritated, the man asked Ann how exactly she was related to the deceased, who was a white man. “C.P. was my brother,” she said.
For some, the power of resurrection doesn’t quite make sense. C.P. died alone, abandoned by all of his white friends; he was considered a traitor to their way of life. To let God’s resurrection-power flow through you can be taken, by some, as a threat. Because resurrection is a rupture of the old comfortable world we once knew; Easter is a crack in the familiar system. It’s a fracture that reveals a power of life, unbound by our world of vengeance, of paying back evil for evil, violence with violence, hatred with hatred.
Easter is an invitation into this mysterious power, the power of resurrection, of new life, of a future when enemies are converted into friends, not destroyed. We call this mysterious power—this invisible power that changes hearts and minds, this power of endless creation in the midst of destruction—we call this flow of power in our world “God,” the one who creates light in the midst of darkness, the one who forms human bodies from the earth, the one frees slaves from their masters, the one who raised Jesus from the grave.