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1960s

The Chapel and Arthur Harris

The Chapel and Arthur Harris

"The Chapel," as it was simply known, was one of the most beloved spaces in Baptist Memorial Hospital. It was a beautiful place, outlined in burled walnut walls and pews, with a beautifully carved podium standing before a gold cross and stained glass background. It was the place that held the capping services for student nurses, where people slipped in quietly during their breaks to breathe in the quietness, and where hundreds spontaneously gathered following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Doctors met with families to share not-so-good news. Couples united in marriage. It was also where Tommy Lane, director of the Nightingales choir, introduced Gail Robinson, a 19-yr-old Memphis State student beginning a singing career that led directly to the Metropolitan Opera.

Beginning in the 1960s, BMH began holding Religious Emphasis Week services in the hospital Chapel. These noon and evening gatherings were instituted by Dr. Frank S. Groner, administrator, along with Chaplain Charles D. McKnight. Dr. Groner wanted to provide the services for the hospital in general, but also specifically for the nursing students, so as the Director of Student Activities for the School of Nursing, my job was to help with the planning and execution of the details. Outstanding religious speakers from all over the United States were invited for the week, and it was an especially high honor for an employee to be asked to give the opening prayer.

Although the daily noon-time devotionals were open to everyone, they were traditionally only attended by the Caucasian employees. Recognizing with concern that the sessions weren't being attended by all groups of employees, Dr. Groner set up a separate service for the housekeeping and maintenance departments, which were mostly comprised of African Americans. In 1966, in an effort to blend the groups, the first integrated service was set. It was a momentous and highly anticipated occasion, especially because Arthur Harris, a black man, was chosen to give the opening prayer.

Arthur was widely known and well-loved throughout the hospital and beyond, being the Board Room porter and special assistant to Dr. Groner and his staff. Arthur was a very small man who wore a starched white apron and always had a small white cap on his head. His shy graciousness and loving spirit spread to all he met, from patients to CEO, to Board members from three states. His deep devotion to Dr. Groner and the hospital was always evident.

I doubt that anyone present on that occasion will remember the speaker...but they will never forget Arthur's prayer. He stood at the podium, solemnly removed his cap, and after a moment of silence, spoke from his heart.

            This evening, most holy to everlasting Eternal God, we thank you for taking care of us from the earliest of our existence to this present moment.  We find this morning, my Master, the blood running warm in our veins.  Bless every sick home in the United States, my Master.  Look in every hospital.  Bless everyone who's under the sound of my weak voice.  Strengthen them and build them up where they're torn down.

            My Master, look this evening at the administrative staff of this great organization.  We thank you, Master, for this great man that made it possible for us to stand here and return thanks to you.

            I want to thank you, Master, for the food you give us to eat.  I want to thank you for the raiment you give us to put around our feeble frames.  I want to thank you for the good cool breeze blowing upon us; and my Master, look this evening on a friend of mine, someone got somebody sick, my Master.  Give them strength to hold on and go on a little further.  We know you is a doctor in a sickroom, a man who hadn't never lost a patient.  We know you got more medicine in the hem of your garment than every drugstore in town, my Master.  Go with them and stand by them.

            My Master, we want to thank you for your son, Jesus, that hung out on Mount Calvary and died; hung from the sixth to the ninth hour and then went into Joseph's tomb and then got up on the third day and cried, "All power is in my hand."  We want to thank you, my Master.

            And at last, my Master, when your servant done gone the last mile of the way, meet me somewhere in my dying hour and receive my prayer for your Kingdom.

            For Christ's sake...AMEN.*

Yes, the Chapel was the place where you could find God in the midst of the emotional events that occur daily within a hospital. Thank you, Arthur. Your prayer lives on today and has been shared again and again through the years. You impacted many lives, and mine will always be one of them.

*(Prayer transcribed by Mary Ann Faris Thurmond, Director of Student Activities, Baptist Hospital School of Nursing, 1963-1968.)

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