***Warning: This article recounts the gruesome 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington.***
In his book The Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown observes one of the ways early Christian wealthy made sense of their largess was by purchasing—or, rather, investing in the finding and preservation of—saint relics. Bones of the apostles, shrouds of the faithful, splinters from the Cross of Christ all provided ways for upper-class Christians to put their monies in service of the Church. Meaningful as these acquisitions were, they came with the added burden of their housing. At first it was a local phenomenon; Christians would choose to come worship in the same space as a relic as opposed to a space without one. But by the fourth century, we have numerous accounts of pilgrimage—eager believers traveling for weeks at a time to be in proximity to holy things. Relics were often associated with miracles seen and unseen, the faithful making the journey often to beg of God a particular intention, believing the intercession of the saint of whom the relic belonged would aid them in their cause.
For many Protestants, this practice is foreign, if not heterodox. Pilgrimage to see a saint’s bones, believing in so doing God would be particularly persuaded to answer a prayer, is at definite odds with traditional Reformation theology. I do not disagree the practice is opposed to the Protestant doctrine, even if the catholic part of my Anglicanism isn’t so convinced, but I notice despite ourselves we still manage to go looking for saints and relics even when we don’t claim to be. While Protestants want to call every believer a saint, we reserve a particular esteem for some of our more public faithful. The usual conference headliners, the bestselling authors, the reality television stars. While we might not call them saints in the Catholic sense, we nonetheless revere them all the same. We’ll stand in line for hours to get a minute of face-time with them . . . send emails asking for their prayers . . . buy their books, their albums, their home furnishings—their relics, if we’re honest about it, because there’s something about owning something that comes from them that we believe transfers to us something of them. There is something about them we want and, I think if we’re honest, that something has to do with what we believe their intimacy with God to be. We are not so distant from our Catholic brothers and sisters asking the Virgin to look favorably upon us. (They just might have chosen a more reliable moral center.)While Protestants want to call every believer a saint, we reserve a particular esteem for some of our more public faithful.
I think about this often in relation to the Magnolia Market. Magnolia Market is the consequence of HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, hosted by Chip and Joanna Gaines. Fixer Upper employs the usual HGTV formula of transforming shabby to chic within 44 minutes plus commercials. What makes Fixer Upper unique is two-fold: Chip and Joanna are hailed by many as an ideal couple, impossibly happy, kind souls—saints. Too, the show’s focus is on specifically beautifying the city of Waco, Texas. Each week, Chip and Joanna take a rundown Waco property and transfigure it into a homeowner’s dream. In their 44 minutes they not only recreate a house, they recreate Waco as a place where people want to live. This is, at least, the tone of the headlines that tend to hail Fixer Upper.
I and my family live in Waco. I went to Baylor for my undergrad and my wife now attends for her PhD. We enjoy, as Brown describes in Cult of the Saints, the consequences of pilgrimage. People travel from all over the country, and in some instances the world, to come to the Magnolia Market. When the Market first opened with a soft launch, it drew 1,000 people in the space of a week, people who were “like pilgrims seeking relics,” the reporter noted. Pilgrims need to sup and sleep, so along with their devotion to Chip and Joanna they bring their money for local businesses. Months after the Market’s opening, pilgrims wait in line for hours to gain entry; hundreds of visitors pour through each day it’s open. (The Market is, of course, closed on Sundays.)
At the end of April, Magnolia Market held a barn raising. They didn’t build a barn, but brought it from Canada. An unnamed man addressed the crowd and told us it would be “a statement on the property,” and “obviously, we couldn’t build something new, we had to restore something old and beautiful and to have everyone be a part of it.”
Everyone is a term you hear a lot when someone talks about Magnolia Market. When Chip and Joanna were named Wacoans of the Year in 2014 by the magazine of the same name, a piece of editorial observation enthused, “When Magnolia does well, everyone does well.”
For those of us who have long known Waco’s association with David Koresh and the lesser-talked about lynching of Jesse Washington, this rings true. One woman I spoke with about her visit to the Market told me, “I am happy for the city of Waco to receive this kind of positive attention. I was at and recruited for Baylor during some difficult years for Baylor and for Waco. I have always liked Waco and am glad to see it grow and develop and am glad for the good things the Gaines’ are doing for the city.”
But then there are the other responses. “I just need to own something Joanna has touched!” a friend overheard once, and I have overheard similar exclamations.
And now I will admit to you something: I am the skeptic. I enter into this discussion wary of Fixer Upper and its ramifications. Prophets, they say, are not welcome in their hometown, and it’s possible I am suspicious of the cult of Chip and Joanna unfairly. It’s possible I am missing where God is at work in and through this Market, that I am cynical and jaded. When I began this article, I thought I knew what it was going to be about. It became something else. Then it became another thing. What I know is that I have no answers for you. I have vignettes. I have observations.
The Market is both smaller and larger than you expect it to be. There is a particular aesthetic to the Magnolia Market that one could describe as Christian women’s conference. You know it, as the former Supreme Court justice quipped, when you see it. “Reclaimed” modifies the description of most objects, “salvaged,” many others. To not put too fine a point on it, items for purchase are presented as icons of salvation. The work of Fixer Upper, with its emphasis on beautifying a community, extends to the very decorative elements that make a house a home. A set of “reclaimed wood trays,” retailing for $48, is vague about where the wood is reclaimed from. What had to die, one wonders, for this expensive platter to come into being? Moreover, the product description warns purchasers reclaimed wood will make each tray unique. Unique, in so far as the wood might look a bit different with each iteration, but still uniform in its measurements, design, and vibe. There is a consistency to these relics that promise, however implicit, a consistency to our lives.
I was at the Market on an off-day, before things really picked up, and didn’t have to wait in line. A kind young woman greeted me at the door and ushered me in the industrial but homey space. Upon entering, there’s a guestbook to your right; it details the many faithful who have made sojourn here. (The inscriptions are many and bring to mind one I saw on a private Fixer Upper Facebook group I surreptitiously joined in research for this essay. “I love Joanna!” the poster declared. “I’ve never had a true idol or someone I admired and aspired to be like in every way (besides my parents) until her. She is truly a blessing!”) Beyond the guestbook is a garden of fake flowers. These relics, when not reclaimed, when not salvaged, are made first to never die. “Death, be not proud,” the plastic tulips intone. And this is, with frequent repetition, what the store is like. Innocuous, except when the aesthetic is pushed. It’s hard not to notice the fake cotton blossoms retailing $9 a stalk. It’s harder to not notice the sudden interjection of French words, particularly Creole in flavor, that conjure images of the antebellum South. The whole vibe of the Market is the past, but no one seems to be able to tell you exactly which past is being referenced. There’s a nostalgia here, but unanchored, and outside the Market, along the grounds where the garden sprawls, is a shop called Seed and Supply, which too brings to mind what some might call a simpler time and others might call the plantation era. I then can’t help but notice how the only people of color I see are working, not shopping, and I scan the hundred-plus faces in the crowd weighing $37 glass vases and $20 coffee mugs and find no one to amend this assessment.
There are two places in the Market you can purchase inspirational wording. Print, wood, and metal; the metal wall expressions declare various mantras: fresh, home, family, inspire. What exactly is supposed to happen by mounting the word fresh to a wall in your kitchen is anyone’s guess, but it is an icon, too, of something hoped for. I’m unconvinced that it will improve your cooking, let alone that mounting the word inspire above your writing desk will do much good either, but there’s a decided Protestant sensibility about this. In the absence of traditional pictorial icons that would inspire us to contemplation about God and the world God has made and ordered, we, people of the Scriptures, people who love the Word for its words, place them in our homes as a way to try to muster some of that same contemplative practice, even if but for a moment, even if we’re not exactly sure what it will do. Among the words I find most nonsensical is vintage. What, one wonders, does declaring the oldness of something get us? I wonder this when I spy a patron wearing a T-shirt proudly declaring, “Make America great again!” I don’t believe for a moment anything about Chip or Joanna or what they believe personally can be extrapolated from this scene, but the image smarts. There is an insatiable appetite both for things and for days gone by in this one intersection, in this store, and the subtle praise for the traditional over the modern pulsates. We are going to buy our way back to something, and it’s hard not to see how that has something to do with how out of hand saint cults became.
In my last turn about the Market, I observed, too, the Protestant ethic of modesty. Reclaimed wood trays and rustic metal mantras afford a certain deniability of wealth. They are well made but look well used, easily downplayed as something that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill. Of course, you can’t look too closely at this show of modesty without seeing its obvious cracks: We pay small fortunes to look like we’re poor homesteaders, play-acting a life. Marie Antoinette famously constructed an entire peasant farm that she could visit on a whim and pretend to not be royal. The problem, among many, was that she would always be royal. The problem, among many, is that we still pay $48 for reclaimed wood trays. In both instances, what is there to show for it?
On May 15, 1916, an African-American farmhand named Jesse Washington was lynched in Waco.
Washington had been accused of the rape and murder of his white employer’s wife, Lucy Fryer, despite there being no eyewitnesses of the alleged crime. Washington, who was illiterate, signed a statement provided for him by the sheriff confessing to the crime and indicating where the murder weapon might be. The story goes that Washington was tried in Waco in a courtroom overflowing with white locals demanding blood. Washington pled guilty and, within four minutes of jury deliberation, was sentenced to death. When the sentence was pronounced, locals stormed the court officials and dragged the teenager outside where they chained him and dragged him to city hall, along the way stabbing and beating him, until they brought him to a bonfire they had already prepared under a tree. They covered his body with oil, strung him up, and before lighting him on fire allowed members of the crowd to cut off his fingers and toes as souvenirs. For two hours they raised and lowered his body into the flames and when the fire was extinguished, invited observers to collect his bones. Children collected his teeth and sold them to members of the crowd. Among the witnesses were the mayor, the chief of police, and the sheriff who had collected Washington’s confession. The sheriff instructed his deputies not to stop the lynching and no arrests were made. At its peak, the crowd of lynchers numbered 15,000 men, women, and children.
Fred Gildersleeve, a photographer, captured the events allegedly at the urging of the mayor. These images were made into postcards that were sold and sent to relatives in neighboring cities by Waco residents, though Gildersleeve was eventually persuaded to stop selling them out of local fear of associating Waco exclusively with such horrific evil.
Ambiguity exists as to whether or not Washington committed one or both of the crimes he was charged with. I am inclined to agree with journalist Patricia Bernstein, who notes the absence of motive in Washington’s statement, his illiteracy, the dubious confession behind closed doors, and the apology made at his trial seeming to imply he was coerced into making a statement with the promise of leniency. It’s reasonable to believe Washington didn’t know what he was confessing to or to what extent he confessed. Of course, this makes no difference when it comes to the brutal and horrific treatment he endured, but it does bring to mind a comparison with another man falsely accused and murdered at the hands of a gleeful State mob.
It was Monday in the Fourth Week of Easter. The appointed devotional readings for the day came from the Gospel of St. Matthew, the beatitudes. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”
There is no pilgrimage site for Jesse Washington. There are no relics to be found, save those that children thought to sell and have now been lost to us. All accounts hold he was buried somewhere in an unknown field. There has been talk over the years of a monument or in the very least a plaque to be installed on the courthouse steps where the lynching took place, along with an apology from the city. These ideas have never materialized beyond talk, however, and in evidence of the sickening generational texture of certain sin, some of Fryer’s descendants have been outspoken against it.
Traditionally, relics tend to be from martyrs, but we’re not so accustomed to commemorating the dead anymore, so perhaps on this we get a pass. We have a real martyr in our midst, the victim of the sin of white supremacy, but you’d only know it if you knew to ask. There’s too much to see in Waco now that’s new, that’s beautifying, so we don’t bother much with the ugly. And there’s the tricky part of it—for a long time, Christianity wasn’t afraid of things like bones, because bones foretold resurrection. We don’t let dead things stay dead anymore, awaiting the resurrection. Dead things need to be “reclaimed” or “salvaged” now, in this life and this world.
Maybe that’s reading too much into things.
This year marks 100 years since the lynching of Jesse Washington. The Baylor University department of religion faculty and graduate students organized a multi-mile walk from Washington’s hometown in neighboring Robinson to the steps of the courthouse in Waco where he was lynched; it was well attended. An attendee tells me they might do it again next year. I’ve walked a portion of the trail they outlined, a tangle of sidewalk and side road, poverty and rural decay. Here is Waco, too, the place everyone wants to come to now. Here is where miracles of houses turned homes are worked. Here, where the condom wrappers glisten in high May sunshine like diamonds on a plain of scorched earth.
When I asked one woman about her experience at the Market, she told me about a special connection she had with a Magnolia staff member. The two women shared how God had been convicting both of them lately, one to be more open about her faith and the other to be less content. They prayed for each other, and the woman still prays for the staff member several months later. “Joanna and Chip,” she told me, “have created an environment where striking up a conversation about how God is challenging you is natural.”
And another, who would not consider the visit to be a form of pilgrimage and the items she bought to be nothing more than souvenirs, pointed out, “I am delighted to see a happy marriage highlighted in primetime television. That’s the appeal for me—they represent Christ well and they have fun. I don’t see any other Christians like that in entertainment television.”
And still another, a friend from my time at Baylor, put a rather nice reflection on the purchase of a candle: “Chip and Jo are revitalizing a town I love, so financial support via this candle purchase is a demonstrable way to affirm their revitalization efforts (even if I’m just buying goods at a business). The significance of buying the candle is that I wanted to cast a vote in support of Magnolia. I could imagine feeling that a trip to the Market without purchasing something would be worthwhile, but purchasing something made the visit concrete.”
I heard a lot of this—variations on themes of the good of Chip and Joanna, except not quite the good of them as the idea of them. There’s a distance these visitors maintain. These are not the people who have been known to try to track down where Chip and Joanna live, dotting their property line hoping to snap a candid photo. These are people who love Jesus, who are pleased to see some of that love translated to the small screen, who want to shop where no one will shy away from saying, “Merry Christmas,” and who want Waco to flourish.
This is what makes Fixer Upper complicated. There are the real people of Chip and Joanna and then there is the idea of them. What I hear most often about them is how thankless this work can be. They are changing the landscape of this city, they are making it a better place to live. It’s exhausting, constant, and they rarely get to just be themselves in public. There’s only a handful of grocery stores in and around town. There’s a good chance you’ll shop near them sometime. Most of the time, people handle that by begging for a picture or asking their advice about a remodel. I want to say I assume I know what they feel in those moments, but I don’t. And unless you know them, unless you’re their confidants, neither do you.
It’s the idea of Chip and Joanna that brings people to Waco, not unlike how it was often more the idea, the apocrypha, of a saint’s life that brought people to their relic shrines. No one I spoke with claimed to believe they really knew who Chip and Joanna were, and I have caught myself as I write this piece attempting to lay hold of their identities only to remember I have never met or spoken with them. We love the same city, I have had dinner and morning prayer and glimpses of a life played out in a home they renovated, but I am no closer to knowing them than anyone else.
Except I do know what they present to the world, and a line from Joanna’s recent Mother’s Day blog post has stuck with me: “And no matter what season you find yourself in, just know that you are doing enough, and you are loved and appreciated.” If the aesthetic of the Market is Christian women’s conference, these words are the motif of the same. You are doing enough, be content. It seems what brings most people to the porch of the Market is to feel these words materialize. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry of books and blogs written by mothers telling Christian women they are enough.
And here is the uncomfortable truth. Saints don’t tell us to be content. Saints tell us this is not how things should be but to take heart because they won’t always be this way. Saints tell us we aren’t enough, but Jesus makes us so. Saints tell us we aren’t content, but it’s okay to long and yearn for better because better is promised. Saints don’t forget that it takes a certain income level and a certain position in society to have the kind of contentment that is not joy but satisfaction.
I do not believe Chip and Joanna have claimed to be saints, but we have made them effectively so. I think of the words of Fr. John Winfrey warning Orthodox Christians not to imitate the saints. If we imitate the saints, he reasons, we fail to imitate the One whom the saints themselves sought to imitate. “Our real struggle is to transfigure who we are into temples of the Holy Spirit. This means we shall be entirely unique in all of God’s wonderful creation but that we shall share in the singular unifying characteristic of the Saints: the holiness of God.”
But the hundreds of people who come to the Market each day all tend to dress the part. They buy the wears. They adorn themselves similarly. They imitate, to borrow the words of the previously mentioned commenter, the “true idol” whom they “aspire to be like in every way.”
Among the signs you can buy at the Market, one in particular troubles me: “I am strong because I have been weak. I am fearless because I have been afraid. I am wise because I have been foolish.” It’s a parody of 2 Corinthians 12:10, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” There is no Christ to be found in this particular wall declaration to be purchased at the Market. But you can own this relic for $54.
The parking situation around the Market is a complex one. When my wife and I first moved to Waco, we lived a few blocks down from the silos before the Market officially opened. Even then, parking was a game of chance. Our building renegotiated its parking allowance no less than four times in the year we lived there, bouncing us between a lot out back, a lot catty-corner, a shared lot only on the top floor and only on weekends and only on days when Mercury was in retrograde. We don’t live there anymore, but we drive through downtown and past the Market with regularity to get to Baylor’s campus. If you live in Waco for any amount of time and are on Facebook, you will see an iteration of a post make rounds about once every two weeks. Written by a Waco native of some description, the post generally begins by thanking people for their interest in the Market and then reminds them that Waco has a lot more to offer than just items of Fixer Upper renown. It goes on to remind visitors of the private schools adjacent to the Market, of the many times children have almost been run over because of impatient pilgrims, and how local businesses did not welcome their parking lots being taken over by people with no intention of purchasing their wares. The post gets a good many shares for a few weeks and then someone else, witness to yet another child almost killed, yet another disregard for the other business of our town, types a new plea in earnest.
There are a few businesses, however, that have seen advantages to the influx of traffic. Employees are stationed at the entrance of area parking lots offering sanctuary in exchange for $10. The hopeful line of cars for each is not dissimilar to the line of those waiting to enter the Market each day. There is no manger parking to be found; it’s either here or blocks away downtown, near the courthouse. I’ve seen enough of these signs and enough of these lots to have a feel for them, the usual faces. The other day I was driving to campus to pick up my wife when I saw someone I didn’t recognize, holding a sign that wasn’t printed but marked out on cardboard in a lot I had not before seen open to parking. I pulled up, noting the several cars already occupying the space.
He was young, a bit younger than me, and he held out his hand expectantly.
“I’m actually not here to park,” I said, “Is this your lot?”
He paused and studied me. “$10.”
“I’m not going to get you in trouble, I just want to know. Is this your parking lot?”
He looked around and then smiled at me.
“No one has stopped you?”
“Nobody looks at me.”
“How much money have you made?”
He, too, is benefiting from this culture of pilgrimage.
“That’s a lot of money.”
He looked at me cold. “You can afford it.”
I nodded. I can. I found a five dollar bill in my wallet. “This is all I have.”
“Do you need it?”
Behind me, a car honks. The young man looks back, waves as if to tell them to wait.
“I don’t.” I handed it to him.
“Man, if you’re not here to park, what are you here for?”
I studied him for a moment, the car behind me honked again, “I guess I don’t really know.”
I pulled into the lot, made the half circle to the exit, and went on my way.
He’s right, I don’t know what I am here for.
From Magnolia Market, you can walk about nine blocks and be on the steps of the courthouse where they dragged Washington away. There’s not much to comment on about it these days. There’s usually a small knot of families loitering, waiting to hear about judgements made about the lives of their loved ones. Wacoans, too, who love their city. Above them, atop the courthouse, Lady Justice. In one hand, a sword; in the other, nothing. Her scales have been missing for years. There is talk that this will be fixed up soon.