By Rev. Ian Markham
It is true that in Rome, the oldest building standing is the temple of Hercules Victor, which dates back to the second century B.C. – 2,400 years old – and St. Bartholomew the Great in London, England, dates back to the 11th century – 1,000 years old. In this area, the United States cannot compete; however, to our credit, we do take good care of our history, and we work hard to make sure that even though our history is relatively recent, we create opportunities for people to learn about it.
Virginia Theological Seminary recently marked 200 years. We had an array of programming that captured our past. Both the flaws – our horrendous participation in the evil of the enslavement of human beings – and the grace – our service around the globe – were recognized. It was an exhausting but exhilarating occasion.
Historic Alexandria has an impressive array of museums that tells the full story of the city. Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Alexandria Black History Museum, Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum, Fort Ward Museum, Freedom House Museum, Friendship Firehouse Museum, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. These museums are impressive: they are manageable – a typical visit need not exceed an hour – and yet so informative.
The past is a straightforward binary. We either remember or we forget. We either save the records of the past or we don’t. There is no middle way. And history is precious. Once forgotten, it is lost forever. And the act of remembrance is important. It is an act of respect, of “do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” It is also a space where we face up to the evil of our forebears as well as their achievements. And, yes, as we think about the present and the future, we can and should learn from the past.
As part of our bicentenary, VTS has created a new welcome center, which everyone is welcome to visit. Do explore the various exhibit pieces on the main floor and learn about the history of the Seminary. Also allow yourself the time to enjoy the two remarkable exhibits on the lower level where the world of St. Nicholas and the diverse world of the holy family in creche form are captured.
Alexandria is blessed by many remarkable local historians. Please allow me to highlight two of my favorites. The first is Michael Lee Pope. He is the author of “Ghosts of Alexandria,” “Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.,” and my favorite, “Wicked Northern Virginia.”
The second is Oran Warder. His book “Rebuilding Zion: William Holland Wilmer and the Rebirth of the Episcopal Church in Virginia 1782-1827” is a fascinating portrait of the former rector of St. Paul’s and the founder of VTS.
The next time you are thinking about, “How shall I spend today?” I invite you to decide to visit a museum or two, read a book or two and really appreciate the City of Alexandria in all its richness. It might not be Rome or London, but in its own way it is really special and very interesting.
The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.