Today it’s the upscale Roosevelt Island, but in the 19th century, this little patch of land in New York City’s East River was a two-mile stretch of unthinkable cruelty. Blackwell’s Island, as it was known then, was a conveniently isolated place to warehouse the city’s undesirables. The island’s own natural rock provided the material needed for the construction of two prisons, a lunatic asylum, a charity hospital, an almshouse and a work house, among other scattered buildings.
Over the years, thousands of people populated these institutions: criminals, prostitutes, the disabled, the old and feeble, the mentally ill. Men, women, teens, adolescents, children and babies all lived there. And far too often they died there as well—from disease, starvation, ill treatment, the cold, suicide.
Do you ever think about such people? Do you ever wonder who they were and what their lives were like? I do. I think about them a lot. Kind of like a scientist on an archeological dig, I imagine tunneling through time and finding layer upon layer of nameless, faceless people who were outcasts when they were alive and quickly forgotten after death. Lost to obscurity, some might say. Just lost, as though they never were.
In her book, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn relates a vignette that made me pause in my reading. Picture this: In an enclosed pavilion by the river bank, a pastor is conducting a baptismal service for some of the babies born in the maternity hospital on the Almshouse grounds. The mothers and babies, along with the pastor, are gathered around the baptismal font. It’s a summer evening and a gentle breeze from the river is floating in through the open windows. With the cool and refreshing air washing over them, the pastor and women stand “clutching their Bibles, earnestly praying.”*
Who knows but maybe in this moment—holding their babies and their Bibles and feeling the breeze on their skin—they’re almost glad to be alive. And maybe too, though they know they are society’s castoffs, in this moment they can believe that the God to whom they pray is both able to see them and is listening to their prayers.
The pastor, Reverend William Glenny French, ministered to the people on Blackwell’s Island from 1872 to 1895. Day after day, Pastor French walked the length of the island, visiting the sick, the poor, the imprisoned. Sometimes he handed out oranges and candy bought with his own money. He conducted worship services, he held the hands of the dying, he prayed with those who came to him for whatever encouragement he could offer. He initiated the baptismal services to let those young mothers know they were neither forsaken nor forgotten. He also created and worked tirelessly on expanding a few libraries on the islands, since those who were literate were always begging for books.
Something tells me that some of those folks had minds that were eager to be fed, souls that were longing to be nourished, hearts that yearned for kindness, even love. Something tells me they were human, created in the image of God.
Jesus told his disciples that when he was hungry, they fed him; when he was sick, they took care of him; when he was in prison, they visited him. The disciples were puzzled. When? they asked. When did we serve you in this way?
Jesus responded that when they served the very least of his followers, they were serving him. **
Some would call a man like William French a saint. He was. And part of his goodness was in knowing that he wasn’t the lone saint on Blackwell’s Island. He knew that Christ Himself lived in the hearts of the believers who, for whatever reason, found themselves there.
While the rest of New York might have seen these people as worthless outcasts, nameless creatures coasting the downward slope toward a pauper’s grave and oblivion, Pastor French saw them for what they were: people with souls of eternal worth, people loved by the God who created them, men and women who were destined to one day be the pillars of heaven, joined to Christ the cornerstone.
I suppose I think so often of long-ago lives because I know that I too will eventually be lost among those layers of time. I’ll be forgotten, as though I were never here. Maybe you realize that about yourself as well. And it seems a pretty pitiful outcome to all the years of striving. But the thing is, we will be forgotten by people, but not by God. Never by God.
The world’s story and God’s story have two very different endings. We may be lost to history, but not to eternity. You, me, the saints of Blackwell’s Island—the Lord lifts us up from all the forgotten places and makes of us the very stuff of forever.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.”
Isaiah 49:15-16, NASB
* Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018), p. 176.
** Matthew 25:34-40