Lawmakers on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill stood for the Rev. Rosemary Brown to offer a quick invocation and open a recent session. She told them to sit down. She then delivered, in powerful and prophetic style, a sermon on doing the right thing.
Brown’s homily grew from her experiences on the scene of the first of two recent middle Tennessee nursing home fires in which a large number of residents died. Many remain hospitalized with burns and other injuries, their full recovery in doubt. Some investigators, surviving family members and outraged citizens believe that many could have survived had the nursing homes had sprinklers. Neither did.
Brown’s concerns are broadly based, but her grief is personal and palpable. Some of the victims and their family members were parishioners in her United Methodist church. “If you had been out there that night in September, nothing would have made sense, nothing,” she said.
Tennessee nursing homes built before 1994 are not required to have sprinklers but instead were “grandfathered in” under the state’s fire safety law. This issue promises to be a major one for these lawmakers this session, but it comes too late for so many.
Brown recalled for the lawmakers watching one firefighter remove a blanket that covered a woman’s face. The victim was his own mother. “Until you have done that, don’t pretend you’re making decisions on behalf of the people of Tennessee or this country of ours,” she admonished.
She forcefully and eloquently confronted the somewhat shocked leaders. “We talk about a grandfather clause. What on earth is that?” she asked. “Someday it’s going to be your grandfather, your grandmother.”
Though most of the lawmakers publicly agreed with Brown’s sentiments, some were privately critical, unhappy that she seemed to mix politics with prayer. One warned colleagues against setting a precedent for allowing guest chaplains to lecture instead of pray.
Brown offered these parting words: “We are warehousing our elderly. We put them in waiting rooms and they wait to die, but may God have mercy on us if we don’t protect them so they can choose to die of old age and natural causes. Let us pray.”
That day, the elected leaders took a seat and listened, some quite uncomfortably, to one who would not be ignored. If they are wise, they will carefully consider her words and do the right thing.
Listen to someone who’s been where you haven’t, Rosemary Brown told them. Be humble enough to seek wisdom from others when you cannot find it in yourselves. Use your influence and power not to advance your own pet projects and personal causes but instead to affect positive change.
It’s excellent advice for leaders in every capacity.
Leadership works best when followers and leaders work together, share collective wisdom and hold each other accountable.
Wise leaders refuse to ignore their people. Wise people refuse to be ignored.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.