By Gary Gunderson
The life of Reverend Dr. Christopher Patrick Bounds doesn’t fit in a blog; it hardly fit into Memphis! He and the Bounds brothers once opened for the Temptations on Beale Street. And he knew the labyrinth under those streets working with public works department.
And, oh my, did he do public work as the soul of the “Memphis Model.” He and Reverend Dr. Bobby Baker built a meshwork of trust in a city with almost none, certainly none that crossed over the broken boundary zone between the powers, principalities and structures of faith that kept dreaming of mercy and justice decades after Martin preached his last sermon down the street at Mason Temple.
I knew only a shred of this great life. Technically, he worked for me as a chaplain at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, but I was never confused about who knew what to do and why. He and Bobby Baker once took me to breakfast after the Congregational Health Network was rising up from the delta mud; they told me I needed to hire more white people to balance the risk of the work being dismissed and targeted as just Black: “surely you can find some!”
Chris lent his considerable store of trust to CHN, Methodist Healthcare and me. He once took me to preach at the Historic First Baptist Church of Millington (the white people named their later thing First Baptist, too). The congregation had come for church and found me in the pulpit; they were skeptical based on a few centuries of history. Chris explained in his introduction that I talked softly and, frankly a bit oddly about the leading causes of life; but it was worth leaning in and listening.
Clear vision and heart of mercy
Dr. Bounds was never surprised by the ugly claws of injustice. He closed the door of my office and told me that while he knew I was a liberal and did not have room for Satan in my cosmology, I was dangerously exposed without some way to understand that chaos fights back when justice and mercy begin to rise up. It did and does.
He was the lead chaplain at University Hospital which put him inside rooms where justice could be carefully titrated and found inconvenient amid the pressures of big time healthcare business. He spoke in clear language that ripped the veil when quality wonks spoke of gross disparities as “opportunities.” We found, somewhat surprisingly, that our data showed equal treatment inside the ER; but that Black men died on the way at shocking rates. And the hospital had trouble keeping track of the ones that survived. Chris said these were his brothers and that they were dead.
It is hard to live with such clear vision and a heart of mercy. He was one of the few Black preachers to preach white funerals, including one for a recovering alcoholic chaplain. Their love for each other was a beacon fire in a dark land.
He spoke life in places that only spoke death. He preached leading causes of life in a funeral that released a family full of repressed anger and grief. The deacons and lawyers had to protect him. He warned me that these leading causes of life were a lot more powerful than they look.
TC and I got married in South Africa but with a blessing of the marriage on Mud Island in Memphis. Chris did the prayer, which went on for quite some time. Several minutes into the prayer we realized he had wandered off into supplications for the Affordable Care Act, which somehow seemed appropriate given the many tribes attending. Pastoral love and politics were never far apart in the eyes of Dr. Bounds.
When I think of—dare I say brother—Chris, I can think of many times he spoke the urgency of justice. But I can only remember him with a smile and gentle eyes that did not give up on anyone. We knew when his love Bren passed last year, that Chris would not have much more use for this world. He passed at 10:30 Monday morning in the residential hospice he helped build, surrounded by many whose lives were dignified by his.