Abercrombie Murdock was in the habit of branding his slaves, to ensure no one mistook his property for their own. I had, at one time, looked upon Mr. Murdock as a man of high standing, the model of genteel society and pillar of our faith-centered community. It seemed no matter of concern to any of us, I’m ashamed to say, that he could so fervently praise God at church and return home to sell child from mother or stripe the back of a reclaimed runaway. “They aren’t like us. More animal than human,” he’d often say about the slaves.
I stand without excuse for holding Murdock in such high regard except to say I’d similarly been stricken with the diseases of arrogance and ignorance, remedy for which came in the guise of a slave—a man—named Tobias. One of Murdock’s largest males, Tobias worked the cotton fields with nary a word to the embodied, for he spent his days in searing heat singing whispered worship to the heavens.
Murdock’s daughter Clara often walked among the slaves picking crop, sounds of praise propelling the rhythm of work. “Coloreds can’t worship the Lord, can they, Papa?”
“No, Clara, they haven’t the capacity; their hymns are mere mimicry. Coloreds know nothing of the cross of Christ.” Murdock spoke these words in my presence, and I believed them. Until …
The heat of summer scorched man and land alike, leaving both brittle and parched. It was no surprise when the stables went up in a blaze that spread without mercy. Shouts from witnesses set us all running, and I glimpsed the back of Tobias as he raced inside among the flames. Frantic horses emerged and I found myself rushing in to help free the last of them.
Navigating a maze of fire, I joined Tobias at a stall where a magnificent stallion reared and kicked. Tobias slid in around the horse, and I followed on the opposite side, guiding the beast from behind. We yelled above the roaring inferno and pushed until the animal ran for the door, his flailing and hungry flames felling beams that blocked our escape. Standing together in the stall, heat and smoke closing in, we circled, looking for a way out. Three sides offered no hope of liberation; the fourth, a substantial exterior wall upon which we pounded uselessly. Splintering wood cracked and snapped, sending fiery chunks raining down upon us, tearing clothing, scorching skin. We were trapped.
With the realization of imminent mortality setting in, I pulled a kerchief to cover my mouth and nose. Tobias, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, lowered himself through growing haze and sat, patting out patches of burning hay around him.
“What are you doing, boy?” I coughed. “We’ve got to find a way out!”
Tobias laid a large fist to the wall, proving once again its superior construction. As my panic grew, I heard words of Amazing Grace from Tobias.
Anger flashed in me. “Stop singing! I shall not die with your mockery in my ears!”
His voiced pierced the growing darkness. “What we got now ‘sides praise?”
“And what do you know of God, slave?!!”
Tobias’ shadowy figure rose. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
In the presence of perceived blasphemy, I shoved the big man and he stumbled backward, his foot splitting a piece of board low on the wall. We exchanged a quick look and dropped to our backs, kicking wildly until a small section opened. Without words, Tobias rose and pushed me through into night air. Gulping to flush my burning lungs of soot, I turned and continued pounding from outside, but it was too late. Rescuers dragged me from the crumbling structure, smoke billowing from the hole, sealing Tobias’ fate.
Once retrieved, Tobias’ body was placed on the ground, laying bare his marked area. Murdock branded his human property in the hind quarters, like the rest of his cattle. Conflicted about the hulking heap that gave his life to save mine, I surveyed Tobias’ smattering of burns, including one that clearly covered Murdock’s mark. The cross of Christ appeared on slave flesh—the mark of Jesus concealing the brand of man, and leaving no question in my mind … Tobias belonged to God.
[Galations 2:20 KJV]
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