There's something defiantly joyful about the location of the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention — like they have taken that spot back from the evil it once was (i.e., a hotel for slave traders and traffickers in human misery) and transformed it into something that benefits the very community it used to destroy.
But I can't help but wonder what it means to inhabit a building on that kind of land. In this story, the repercussions are long-lasting and terrible, but there is an end to them, because of the works of good people.
If a ghost story can be optimistic, this one is.
THE SUNDAY SCHOOL PUBLISHING BOARD OF THE NATIONAL BAPTIST CONVENTION, USA, INCORPORATED
Cities scar and bruise like people do. A wound opens and tissue builds around it when an interstate slices through a neighborhood. Folks will worry the loss of a beloved church like they worry the tender spot where a tooth has gone missing.
And then, in some cities, there are spots where the routine evil done there can make a place feel gangrenous. You turn your head from it. You catch your breath in your throat. You deliberately stop knowing what went on there. It was something that happened a long time ago. Something that doesn't matter anymore.
And you make your way past it like that city block is the shadow at the far end of a dark hallway. You will yourself to not look. You will yourself to not see. You close your eyes and dash past and feel like you have just avoided having to know something about how the world works that you can't explain.
Such was the case for the old hotel at the corner of Cedar and North Cherry. Patrons would complain about the loud cries and moans and wails. Other patrons would complain about the spectral men who stood outside their doors, engaged in casual discussion about selling people using words polite people now kept quiet.
In the 1920s, $300,000 was both a lot to pay for that building and not nearly enough. But part of the reason the building was even within reach of the Sunday School Publishing Board was that the hotel could never figure out a way to overcome the unique challenges of that spot.
The Sunday School Publishing Board, however, does have a way.
There are always two employees — one man and one woman — who have been specially trained and whose job it is to deal with the past still bleeding into the present.
Everyone else is reminded regularly to lift the two employees up in their prayers.
The job is difficult, because all who come are helped.
When it is as simple as squatting down low in the dark basement and holding out your hand to a scared child who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his mama, the job is merely heartbreaking. When the spirit is angry and trapped and disgusted that the only help for him comes from the likes of you, it takes a very particular kind of person to stand there and wait for the abuse to stop, and to come back again and again until the man will accept your help.
And the ghosts who end up in the Sunday School Publishing Board building are often still very traumatized. Some women cannot be approached by the male employee. Any help they get must come from the soft voice of another woman. Some men cannot come forward for a woman, cannot talk to a woman they don't know, even after all this time. Some want to stay and get even. Some cannot leave until they've relayed a message to a loved one.
"Those break my heart," my informant told me. "Who knows how long it's been since they've seen that other person? One hundred and sixty years? One hundred and seventy? And they don't even know that if they'd just be on their way they'd be reunited with that person. I am always so sorry they've wasted so much time, but praise Jesus that their suffering is about to be over."
"Do you really think that?" I asked.
"No," she said, "Certainly not in every case. But I will say this: when that was my job, one thing I learned is that I can't know what God's judgment will be. I have my opinions, of course. But I know God is merciful beyond understanding, so it's not my job to do anything more or less than fill my heart with compassion and then use that to help these folks get on to the next thing. I have faith I will see most of them again, and they won't be suffering, and they won't be scared, and they will be whole through Jesus. I couldn't have done it if I didn't know that's the truth."
"Do you think there will come a time when no one needs to do your job?" I asked.
"Yes, yes I do," she said. "We're needed less now than we were when I was working, and I was needed far less than my predecessor. But we're just one place in one city. I often wonder if anyone is doing this same work in other places. I hope so. I cannot bear to think otherwise."