Naming Names

Father David Epps's picture

There seems to be a trend among politicians to name public properties after notable citizens who have not yet left this earth. I believe it is a grave mistake.

Naming bridges, roads, parks and the like after historical national or local figures are nothing new, but most of the time the honors were conferred following the demise of said honoree.

There is a bridge in Senoia, Ga., named after a local soldier who died in Vietnam. A stretch of Ga. Highway 54 in Coweta County is named for a soldier who was killed in the current war with Iraq. Both are, I believe, appropriate. They commemorate the lives of these young men who finished their course by making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Such honors are a good thing. They serve to remind the community that heroes have dwelt among us.

Many communities have a school, road, or public building named after John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jefferson Davis, or some other historic figure, although I suspect that streets bearing the name of Jefferson Davis are limited to the Old South. There is even a road in Coweta County named after a local long-time preacher and, in Peachtree City, several streets commemorate founding fathers of the community.

But these all, for the most part, honor those who are dead. Naming things after living people, on the other hand, is a bit risky.

When I served on a state Commission on Ordained Ministry some years ago, a promising candidate came before us and looked like an outstanding prospect. However, he refused to name the college from which he graduated. He had his transcript in the file but the name had been cut out. When he finally understood that he was going to be denied unless he gave us the name of the school so that we could verify his studies, he hung his head in shame and whispered the name of the institution.

Instantly, we understood his anguish. For four years, he had invested his time, efforts, and money in a degree that now bore the name of a disgraced television evangelist who had named the school after himself.

Several years ago, I served as the senior pastor of a church that relocated from one county to another. A year later, we were involved in choosing a new name for the church.

Seeking input from the congregation, we received over 200 suggestions for a new name. Surprisingly, quite a number of the people submitting suggestions wanted to include my name as part of the church’s new identity.

While “Epps Chapel” or “Epps Memorial Church” had a certain appeal — and here I jest — they were the first suggestions that I struck off the list. Today, I am quite certain that the church would be glad my name is not permanently on the marquee.

The very first church I served as pastor was, however, named after a man. The church was “N. G. Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church.” I have no idea who N. G. Taylor was and doubt that the members of the church knew.

I suspect that, in the late 1800s, old N. G. gave an acre or two of land for a church and that’s how the name came to be.

A number of churches are named to honor the founders of the movements such as John Wesley Memorial United Methodist, John Knox Presbyterian, and the Lutheran churches all include Martin Luther in their designations.

Catholic and Episcopal congregations tend to be named after early Christians such as St. Peter, St. John, St. Luke, and so on, but, again, all these people are deceased. Their lives are well-known and, unlike the living, they aren’t prone to do something stupid and disgrace themselves.

There are too many living people who once held positions of prominence and influence who now find themselves in prison, or under a cloud, or publicly shamed.

Jim Jones, the cult leader who led over 900 people in a mass suicide, was once a respected community leader. How would you like to live on Jim Jones Avenue?

Although later historians may be kinder to the man, does anyone really want to attend Richard Nixon Elementary School this close to Watergate?

No, if politicos wish to honor a man or woman, then, by all means, honor them. Give them a testimonial dinner, or a certificate, a proclamation, or a plaque. Put their photo in the paper and say nice things about them.

But before naming public facilities in their honor, let history run its course and make its decision.

Let them “finish the race” and then, upon proper reflection and with historical understanding, name something after them if it is appropriate.

Even “saints” aren’t called “saints” until after they are dead.

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