The Saints on Damnation Island

Damnation Island 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

Cindy’s Story: I Am Who I Am

Even those who are outwardly successful often inwardly lack a sense of worth. So it was with my friend Cindy Sproles—novelist, ministry co-founder, conference director and so much more. The sense that we aren’t good enough can be a nagging lie that follows us relentlessly. For Cindy, the turnaround came when she realized her worth is ultimately found in the Great I Am. Here’s Cindy’s story…

I’m nothing special. That’s the lie I fight daily.

I’ve often wondered where that lie originated. My childhood was wonderful. There was never any abuse or brow beating. My folks were super parents, so it befuddles me, where this lie developed.

Maybe it came from being an “almost” only child. Twelve years separated my sweet brother from myself, and he was my hero when I was little. I never understood why my brother felt it necessary to marry and move away.

Perhaps it stemmed from having a multi-talented mom – an innovative, do-it-yourselfer, creative and determined to make things work. It was not uncommon for teachers to ask me to participate in things, so they could utilize Mom’s talents. My skills and abilities weren’t enough to land the honor on my own.

It could have been that, no matter how hard I tried, second place seemed my best. So much so, my high school track coach dubbed me Consistently Second Cindy – something that did nothing for my already floundering self-esteem.

I married in my early twenties, and when my husband divorced me and married another, I once again found myself living up to that title, Consistently Second.

It’s funny what happens to us when the cards are down. We can choose to play or call ourselves out. When I found myself a mom of two babies and divorced, I had to play. Despite the lie that plagued me, I went to my knees and asked God something simple.

“Lord, I’m not asking you to fix this. I’m just asking for the strength to open the blinds each day and see the sun. If I can see you in the day, then I can figure this out.”

Over the next 32 years God continued to give me the strength to open the blinds. He brought me into a relationship with a wonderful husband, who taught me I was worthy of love. He walked with us as we raised a blended family, sorted through the rough patch of one prodigal, and an adult child who hit upon tough times. He guided us with a son with disabilities. You name it, God lassoed us and pulled us through.

Still, with all these blessings, I never felt worthy or special. Was I so self-consumed that I couldn’t see my own self-worth?

I wasn’t self-consumed, I just didn’t believe. Not in God – of course I believed in God, but I didn’t believe Him. And it took a walk in the desert of life to finally make the connection. For a time, it was like God had turned His back on me. I walked through this hot, sandy desert of emptiness. It was as though I could see the oasis in the distance, but one foot was nailed deep into the sand and all I could do was walk in circles, catching a glimpse of relief with each lap.

It took this time of reflection to let go of the lie that was tight in my fist. That’s when the realization took hold and I learned to believe God had made me special and worthy.

I began to seek after my own dreams. Writing was always a love, but nothing I’d considered a passion until a minister friend read some of my work and took the step he knew I’d never take on my own. He signed me up for a writers’ conference and paid for me to attend.

I attended with only a few little pieces I’d written for my children, but once the door opened to the conference, amazing things flooded in. Authors, agents, and publishers took notice. My work was rough, but they saw something. They saw heart. Desire. Passion.

After I returned home, I spent some quiet time with God, having this conversation:

“Lord, you’ve strengthened me through the years. Helped me open the blinds. What do I do with this writing? There’s so much to learn.”

“Then learn.”

“But, what about. . .”

“About what? I’ve strengthened you over the years. Prepared you. You simply have to believe me.”

That day, I believed God had a plan. That He’d gifted me.

Consistently Second Cindy grew into the gifts God had given her and what I found was an amazing success. Not just in my writing and publication, but success within myself.

The question was not, did I believe in Christ, rather it was DID I BELIEVE HIM?

I’ve learned over time that I am who I am. Always worthy. Always special. And though my writing career began later in life, the passion of a loving God solidified a fearful, seemingly unworthy gal into a grateful, truth-seeking woman.

I still have days when the lie creeps up on me, but when I believe the Great I Am, then I am who I am and it’s good.

Cindy Sproles Cindy Sproles