Living the Beatitudes: No Greater Love

October 4, 2017 by

Continuing her series on the Beatitudes, Rebekah Domer writes about the last beatitude, on persecution. Catch up on the rest of her posts here.

Anne Schwerner was one of the spunkiest people I’ve known. But there was a tenderness about her, too – a love honed by grief. Anne was deeply wounded by the brutal murder of her beloved son – and her faith in the goodness of humanity had been shattered.

It all began on a steamy summer night in Meridian, Mississippi in 1964. Tensions were high in America that summer as thousands of civil rights workers – many of them white college students from the north – responded to the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) petition for help in registering black voters in a segregated south.

Mickey Schwerner
Mickey Schwerner

Earlier that year Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, a white Jewish social worker from New York, left his parents and a comfortable home and moved to Meridian with his wife, Rita. Having participated in desegregation efforts in northern states for several years, Mickey now shifted his focus to the ever-increasing activism in the south.

It didn’t take long for him to gain disrepute among southern segregationists. He was an educated northerner whose leadership skills and empathy gave him an immediate rapport with social activists in the south. Like his mother, Anne, Mickey loved people, especially the disenfranchised. It was this quality that endeared him to southern blacks – and incited the rage of white supremacists. In a 1964 testimony, Mickey’s wife, Rita, recalled:

In the first few weeks that Michael and I were in Meridian, we had to change our place of residence three or four times because the Negro families who took us in received intimidating phone calls and became afraid to house us. As we achieved some success in establishing the community center, the threats and intimidation began to increase. By May we received so many phone calls at late hours of the night that in order to get some sleep we were forced to remove our telephone receiver before going to bed.

On June 21, 1964, Mickey and two other civil rights workers – twenty-year-old Andrew Goodman, who had arrived in Mississippi the day before, and Mississippi native James Chaney – were brutally murdered by members of Mississippi’s Ku Klux Klan, who buried the bodies in a remote earthen dam. As FBI agents dredged Mississippi’s swamps in search of the bodies, the world’s attention was drawn to the struggle for civil rights in America’s south.

Newspaper article announcing Mickey Schwerner’ disappearance
A poster announcing the disappearance of the three young men

In New Rochelle, a quiet suburb of New York City, Mickey’s parents received the news of their son’s disappearance in stunned disbelief. Mickey’s father, Nathan (Nat) Schwerner, was a Columbia-trained lawyer who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, and Anne was a high school biology teacher. Claiming to be non-religious, if not atheistic, in their views, the Schwerners were nonetheless people of deep moral conviction.

Their world was shattered when, on August 4, the badly decaying remains of the three civil rights workers were unearthed near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Flipping through the New York Times several days later, my father, a pastor in upstate New York, came across a picture of Carolyn Goodman, upheld by her husband in grief as their son’s body was removed from the plane at Newark Airport. Contacting the National Council of Churches for the families’ addresses, my father was soon on his way to New York City with Bruderhof elder Johann Heinrich Arnold in the hope of expressing the sympathy and solidarity of their church to the grieving parents. Finding the Goodmans away from home, the two moved on to the Schwerner’s home in Pelham, where they knocked on the door. My father recalled, “The Schwerners were under surveillance at the time, but as Mrs. Schwerner came timidly to the door, Pastor Arnold, a tall man, took off his hat and leaned down toward Anne, speaking to her with such humility and love that she opened the door to invite us in.”

Thus began a decades-long friendship between the Schwerners, who were non-religious Jews, and the Bruderhof communities, a fellowship of committed Christians dedicated to the cause of peace and justice.

A march commemorating Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney
A march commemorating Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney

In the ensuing years, Nat and Anne’s visits to the Bruderhof became mutually anticipated events. Sharing their concerns and insights on world events, the Schwerners challenged Bruderhof youth to be aware of current events and become active participants in the worldwide struggle for justice and equality. Their visits were formative for me as a child. Lively debates between the Schwerners and my parents shaped my thinking and, although unbeknownst to them, the Schwerners taught me much about Christ’s teachings.

In his final Beatitude, Jesus promises a reward for those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Defined as “arising from an outraged sense of justice or morality,” righteousness is a virtue that was exemplified by the Schwerner family. They were so pained by the subjugation of blacks in America that they declined publicity offers surrounding the death of their son. The case gained national attention, they said, because their son was white, while the countless lynchings of blacks remained obscured.

Another saying of Jesus comes to mind as I reflect on what it means to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This love was demonstrated by three young men on a dirt road in backwoods Mississippi the night of June 21, 1964, and their witness stands as a challenge to us to this day.

Check back in three weeks for my next post in this series. Comments

About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • Rebekah, I like the way you show that the 2,000-year-old words of Jesus are ever-new by bringing them into modern history.

    Rose Folsom
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These are the words of the beatitude being considered. The question for me and perhaps others is what was meant by the phrase “kingdom of heaven”. Obviously Jesus had something in mind that would provide the people with the hope that even in the face of tremendous persecution all is not lost. In this story, the “kingdom of heaven” appeared to be present in the relationship of the Schwerner’s and the Bruderhof communities. The awareness of the pain endured by the subjugation of blacks affected the Schwerner family greatly and in a profound way focused attention on the continuing persecution of blacks through lynching throughout the South. One more example of the “kingdom of heaven” in action.

    Tom Rowan
  • I guess many know this story from the Gene Hackman movie 'Mississippi Burning' about the investigation. As a mother, I cannot begin to fathom the overwhelming grief of not only losing your child, but to senseless violence. God bless this woman for her strength in overcoming the loss of her son

    Rosalie Gambino
  • Another beautiful blog, Rebekah. There was such hatred in the hearts of men. Only the love of Christ can Squelch the hatred. How blessed are we to have and to know such love. Thanks for your blogs. They are truly an inspiration!!! Love Emily

    Emily Russo