Devotional: Time to continue the work

Published 4:55 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

Barbara Johns has gotten some special attention recently as her statue was slated to be added to the U.S. Capitol, and her story was referenced by both Gov. Youngkin and A.G. Miyares in recent speeches. Both Youngkin and Miyares touted her exceptional character and heroism. They celebrated her achievement in instigating the Moton School walkout. While history is always more complicated, the fact is that she was pivotal in that moment of local crisis and should be honored for that. What prompted me to comment today is how we use figures in the past to shape how people see us today. 

Would Youngkin or Miyares have valued Johns’ actions as heroic back in the 50’s? Not to pick on them – would I have? There are certain values and essential dignities that I take for granted today that might have been harder to realize or appreciate in a different time. For all of the MLK Jr. references that come out every Black History Month, he was not a very popular person at the time, especially in his later life. Now, his words are wonderful fodder for sound bites from all over the political spectrum. Leading positive change is less about drawing examples from the past and more about creating that example today. That is what Barbara Johns means to me: she saw something that needed to be done in her time and she did it. She saw a needed change and walked to meet it.

It is tempting for people of faith to do the same thing with our figures, even the most treasured. I love talking about Jesus, learning about Jesus, thinking about Jesus, and telling stories about Jesus. He is a hero and Savior to me, but if my life is not changing the world around me today, what’s the point? Should I be drawing on the past to make me feel better about who I am today (I am a follower of Jesus!), or should I be focused more on how that example, that presence, that Spirit is actively at work in this community? To use history as a shield or buffer against making change would be a tragic dishonesty both to that memory of a hero and to my call of be an agent of godly work in the world now. As someone who uses words professionally, it is convenient to hold the status quo while quoting from and referencing past change agents in the Kingdom of God. Simply talking about Jesus will never make me live for Jesus and will never make the world look more like he would want.

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If we want to see a better world (and I think we all do), we will need to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and who sacrificed to lead into God’s heart, but we should never leave it to the memory of them and expect anything to get better today. Memorials to cherish heroes of loving and faithful change are great. We should remember. But the best way to honor them is to continue the work. 

Rev. Dr. Peter Smith is the pastor for Farmville Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at