Many of my readers will be aware that the Episcopal Church remembers on certain days persons who have been especially noteworthy as models of the faith. Today is the day of Constance and her Companions, the Martyrs of Memphis. It is a day I make note of each year because the Martyrs of Memphis demonstrated their faith, and most of them died, providing health care.
Memphis, Tennessee, was wracked by yellow fever epidemics three times in ten years. The third epidemic occurred in August of 1878. 30,000 citizens – those who had somewhere else to go – fled the city. 20,000 had nowhere to go, and were forced to face the plague. Deaths averaged 200 per day, and before it was over more than 5,000 had died. The city was so depopulated that it lost its charter, and was not reorganized for fourteen years.
There were those who stayed by choice to care for the sick. The Episcopal Church remembers specifically six Episcopal nuns; four Episcopal priests, two of whom were physicians; a third physician; matrons at an Episcopal School for girls; and volunteer nurses and clergy from as far away as New York. However, we also remember that there were laypersons from many of the faith communities in Memphis who stayed: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, and other clergy and lay workers. They stayed to serve the sick, and died for their compassion. In Memphis today this is an ecumenical remembrance, when all faith communities commemorate one another’s honored dead as they remember their own.
In the last decade we’ve seen so much to make the commemoration of the Constance and her Companions more apt and poignant. We have seen cities wracked with expressions of human evil. We have seen images of another city, a sister city on the same river, emptied of people and filled with sickness and death. We have seen the entire region leveled by storm after storm, storms that continued to rage long after the wind and water appeared to have subsided. This year alone we have seen disaster after disaster, from the devastating tornadoes in the Central Plains; to more flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys; to the floods in the Northeast and Midatlantic states from hurricane and tropical storm. And we see colleagues providing care, often at great personal risk, to rescue those who can be saved from disease and dehydration, and from the inertia of isolation and shock. We support them in spirit, with our resources, and for many of us, with our prayers.
The Martyrs of Memphis are a part of the heritage at my hospital and health system. While we are not all Christian, much less Episcopalian, we are all in the tradition of health care. Watching the consequences of these events, we know that risks to the health of our communities are risks to us. We continue to serve, knowing of costs we hope we will never have to face. We serve those who come to us, knowing we are not immune ourselves. There is real courage and commitment in our service, and it is the same commitment shown by the Martyrs of Memphis of all faith backgrounds and of none.
As an Episcopal Chaplain, I consider each of my colleagues in health care to be holy and all of their works to be sacred. The compassion and commitment each of them shows reflects, I believe, the compassion of God. Today, as I honor the Martyrs of Memphis, I honor and pray for them; for each of them witnesses to individual faith at personal risk and cost, and reflects the presence of care here at in my hospital and health system, and in the whole of God’s creation.