The members of a modest church in an old suburb of Baltimore remember each Memorial Day weekend what many across this divided republic have either forgotten or never understood: Thousands of Americans have died to save democracy, guarantee freedom and preserve our union of states.
The country is foolishly at war with itself again; enormous numbers of people believe lies and abide the encroachment of civil rights and democratic principles by regressive extremists who trade in bigotry, demagoguery and conspiracy theories. Supporters of a crass insurrectionist ransacked the U.S. Capitol; he vows to pardon them if he becomes president again.
If you’re not profoundly troubled by all this, you’re not paying attention.
But, away from all the ugly and self-destructive tribalism, you can still find people awash in awe of American history — when, for instance, a great president and an army of believers fought to end a violent rebellion and save a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Those words, from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, adorn a wall of Lansdowne Christian Church, a shingled structure with twin bell towers at Clyde and Baltimore avenues in a section of the community once known as Joshua.
It was Charles W. Hull, a proud veteran of the Civil War, who gave the land for the church just a year or two into the 20th Century.
Hull fought for the Union and, after the war, became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union veterans. He was also a real estate developer. Hull and his wife, Mary, stipulated that the church must be dedicated to the Grand Army of the Republic, with the additional requirement that the congregation hold a special Sunday service every May in honor of Civil War veterans.
And that is precisely what has happened since, with patriotic songs instead of hymns, a banquet and gathering on picnic grounds for members of the GAR and those who served in support of Union troops with the Women’s Relief Corps.
The tradition has continued through generations and through changes in the church. It was dedicated as Hull Memorial Christian Church in 1904, with both Methodist and Episcopalian affiliations, but has been Lansdowne Christian Church and home for Disciples of Christ through most of its history. It’s a simple, wood-frame church full of warm light and adorned with stained glass windows that memorialize the GAR and the Women’s Relief Corps. In 1977, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places because it is the only church dedicated to the GAR.
That organization once claimed hundreds of thousands of members and had considerable influence in the long-gone Republican Party of the 19th Century, when it became the anti-slavery “party of Lincoln.” The GAR was racially integrated; it pushed for voting rights for Black Americans and government support of veterans of the wars that followed. Its leadership had a lot to do with the establishment of Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day. The GAR dissolved in 1956, after the last Civil War veteran died.
But the tradition on Clyde Avenue continues, and this Sunday at 10 am there will be another service remembering those who fought for the country. “It is a joyful but solemn way to celebrate Memorial Day and the GAR with the reverence they both deserve,” says Scott Murphy-Neilson, who lives in Virginia but attended the church while growing up in Lansdowne. The Neilson family has been deeply involved in the congregation over the years, even as the number of worshippers declined.
A few years ago, when monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals started coming down, Murphy-Neilson reflected on the unique nature of his boyhood church. To give the annual service a boost, he coordinated an essay contest, with the winning entry to be read at the Sunday service. It’s called the Hull Memorial Prize, with an award of $1,000.
The inaugural winner is Matt Gresick, a history teacher and public education advocate who lives in Catonsville. In a draft of the essay he is expected to read, Gresick contrasts Hull’s righteous patriotism with the immorality of those who broke away and formed the Confederacy. It’s important that we own up to that legacy, he says. It echoes loudly in 2023.
Those who led the South into secession and war, Gresick writes, “desired to live off of the enslavement of others to provide wealth for the few. [They] wanted to preserve a way of life that promoted fear, hate and racism for their own benefit [and they] judged humanity by the color of their skin versus the content of their character.
“I remember their legacy and I am ashamed,” Gresick writes. “I remember their legacy and I do not deny their sin. I remember their legacy and it fuels me to be a better man, a better citizen, and a better Christian.”
He quotes James Baldwin: “To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”
Some Republicans would today ban such talk from classrooms. A teacher might be sanctioned for saying these things.
But this is the teacher’s job, and a lesson for us all.
“Let us commit ourselves to the work of building a more just and peaceful world,” Gresick writes, “one where the sacrifices of the fallen will never be forgotten.