Constance died at the age of thirty-three. A Yellow Fever epidemic swept through the city of Memphis in 1878. At one point, seventy people were dying each day from the disease. Eventually, the population was so diminished that the city lost its municipal charter.
Residents swarmed the train station to escape. In their panic, the jostling crowds crushed the life from at least two people. Along with her fellow Anglican Sisters of St. Mary, Constance stayed behind to tend the sick and the dying.
We know today that mosquitos carry Yellow Fever. But in 1878 the prevailing opinion was that the disease spread through human contact. No one wanted to touch, or even to breathe the same air as, infected individuals.
Fear was so great that undertakers had to be forced by the police to remove corpses from now empty houses. Constance found children fending for themselves in one disease-stricken home. The Canfield Asylum—an orphanage mainly for black children—lost its management, so the Sisters took charge.
Along with Constance, the fever took Sister Ruth, Sister Thecla, and Sister Francis. Together with others who traveled to Memphis to provide aid and to offer comfort, these women are often referred to as the Martyrs of Memphis.
Many of us understandably associate the word “martyr” with persecution. For instance, early Christians refused to show devotion to Rome’s Emperor, so they endured terrible suffering and harrowing deaths. That’s why some would define martyrdom as dying for the faith.
While I don’t quarrel with that definition, I urge you to consider adjusting it slightly. Martyrs are those who die in the midst of living for the faith. In other words, placing our emphasis on the living instead of the dying will broaden our understanding of martyrdom. Martyrs live in the way of Christ, and that way transforms the meaning of death.
The way of Jesus is the way of love. And Jesus could not have been clearer about what that would look like. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) Following the way of Jesus involves giving our lives away for the sake of others.
Jesus frames this differently elsewhere. He says that you have to lose your life to have a life. As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
As you may know, our English word “martyr” derives from a Greek word that also means “to witness.” Or better, to give or be a witness to something. A Christian martyr’s life embodies the way of love taught and exemplified by Jesus. What we do is what we believe.
James was getting at this same idea when he said, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17) And he was explicit about the works he had in mind. James directs us to recognize and to surrender our economic and social privilege.
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4)
Contempt for or indifference to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry contradicts the example Jesus set for us. And sympathy does not go far enough. To follow Jesus is to do something about it.
James puts it like this:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:15-16)
Jesus himself never taught us to ask why someone is hungry or lonely or hurting. He just told us that if we know how to look, we will find him in the outcast and in the downtrodden. And that when we serve them we serve him.
To use Jesus’s familiar words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
The Martyrs of Memphis faced a horrifying crisis. They responded with remarkable selflessness and stunning courage.
And yet, we will appreciate their actions most fully when we recognize that they were acting from deeply engrained habit. By serving the people of Memphis in time of great misery, they were continuing to walk in the way that had become essential to their very being.
Constance and her companions stepped into the world every day listening for the needs of others and responding to those needs. That’s how Jesus taught them, taught all of us, to live. He taught us the way of love. When we walk that way, we give our lives away for the sake of those in need.
We don’t have to wait for a deadly epidemic to follow the example of the Martyrs of Memphis. The shabbily dressed, the hungry, and the homeless wander our streets every day. Addicts are dying. The sick go without proper medical care.
Following Constance begins with hearing these needs and recognizing them as Jesus’s call to give our lives away in response. That is the way of ordinary martyrs like you and me. That is the way of love.