Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage: A Postscript

Alston Fitts (Photo by Lianne Rozell) 
Regular readers of this blog know that earlier this month I had the privilege of traveling to Alabama with The Episcopal Divinity School to participate in a pilgrimage with The Diocese of Alabama to commemorate the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels. Each day I offered some reflections on this experience.

Day Three included lunch at St. Paul's in Selma. At lunch I was seated at a table with Richard Morrisroe to my left and across from a vestry member who voted to integrate St. Paul's. That table talk (which also included Doug and Betsy Fisher) would have been more than enough; dayenu. (The food was excellent also!)

But then something truly amazing happened. Alston Fitts, a local historian in Selma and a classmate of Jonathan Daniels at Harvard University stood up to speak. Although Fitts is now 75, like great historians he didn't speak of the past in nostalgic tones - he transported us to that time and place. We were there, with him, as he shared a poem he'd written at the time. It was an extraordinary experience to be there, a thin and holy place.

I corresponded with Mr. Fitts shortly after that by email and asked him if he'd be willing to share a copy of the poem with me, which he did without hesitating. And then I asked him for something bolder, recognizing that he had not shared this poem widely and that something about this fiftieth anniversary had prompted him to take the risk of doing so on this August day. I asked him if I could have his permission to share it here, with my readers. He thought about that and then granted me permission to do so. Without further commentary, here is the extraordinary poem he shared with us, about his friend Jonathan Daniels.

Martyred in the author's home state
on August 20, 1965

Only in part have I left Alabama. Red dirt
still clogs my pores. My tongue is heavy
with the ashes of plantationed folk.
My soul bathes nightly in Hurricane Creek,
dreaming its exile past.
More than the clay is red there now;
Jonathan my friend lies in a long close box,
stripped of his shorts for jurymen to sniff,
his name spat on by cottonmouth attorneys,
robbed of his promise,
never to be priest, or father, or even thirty.
And shall I then return to that dark land,
where churches like shooting stars flare and die in the night,
and hear once familiar voices, now grown shrill,
condemn the victim, condone the murder?
And shall I then go once more to Hurricane Creek,
my father's refuge and my childhood's dream of peace,
and find it haunted not by ancestors alone,
but also by the accusing presence of my Yankee friend,
who strove always to understand, not to condemn,
but now is condemned to dwell among us forever,
his presence an eternal reproach.
If wastes pollute that stream,
who can ever hope to scour himself clean again?
O Jonathan, my poor dead friend,
you spoil us of our past!

– Alston Fitts  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Blood Brothers

This week Hathy and I have been staying on Cuttyhunk Island, guests of the Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church where I was asked to preach and lead worship today. In this ecumenical context where the lectionary is not required, I decided to preach on Genesis 25:7-18, a text that never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. It goes like this:

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years.Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi. These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. (This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

A couple of years ago I was asked by my Bishop to serve on his executive team. All that this crazy Episcopal title of “Canon to the Ordinary” really means is that I work for him. He is the “ordinary” – a term that shares the same Latin root with the word “ordination.” Episcopalians like to use big vocabulary words and fancy titles, but I’m kind of like an assistant principal at a middle school.

Anyway, before this move I was a parish priest. Over the course of almost two decades, I  officiated at an average of probably 8-10 funerals a year, so maybe I've done somewhere between 150 – 200 by now.  It is a part of the work I have always considered to be a holy privilege – to commend a life to God. And in the process, you almost always get a glimpse into how complex families really are.

Whether the deceased was a long time parishioner of mine or someone who had not been to church in decades, I tried to follow the same pattern. I’d sit down with the surviving family members, and ask them to tell me about the deceased. It’s a kind of practical exercise in post-modern epistemology, because very rarely do the stories you hear fit neatly together. What we know (and what we think we know) is so profoundly shaped by where we stand.

I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook, but I recently saw a post perhaps some of you also saw that went like this:

Oldest Child – I Make Rules
Middle Child – I’m the Reason We Have Rules
Youngest Child – The Rules Don’t Apply to Me

So when you are preparing for a funeral all of this comes into play. Very often you discover that people who have lived under the same roof 
didn’t grow up in the same house, because things change. The rules even change! This is why when you ask the adult children to tell you about dear old mom or dear old dad they tell you different stories and even different versions of the same story. If you have the opportunity to add grandchildren to the mix it gets even more interesting.I love it when an oldest child tells a story that her younger siblings have never heard because it happened before they were born and I love it when a youngest child speaks of those moments in the kitchen, late at night, after all his older sisters had gone off to college or gotten married. And then, best of all, are those stories where there are multiple versions. “No, it didn’t happen like that at all! What happened, was…”

I never cease to be amazed at what a great mystery we are to one another, even (and maybe most especially) among those you would think might know us best. On occasion, I have presided at the funeral for a family where one or more members of that family have been estranged from one another, perhaps for years or even decades. It’s such a hard thing to bear witness to as people choose different corners of the room or cross their arms or perhaps speak about one another rather than to each other. In such moments one struggles to find words that point toward the love and grace that enfold us all.

One of my favorite scenes from the film “A River Runs Through It” is when the father, a Presbyterian minister, stands up after his son’s funeral and says to his congregation:
And so it those we live with and should know that elude us, but we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.
I have not forgotten that we have a Biblical text before us tonight, and it is to that text that I would now like to return. It’s with the eyes and ears of my experience as a pastor (more than with the eyes and ears of a great Biblical scholar) that I come to the text before us today. I find myself watching Ishmael and Isaac, these two grown men who have come together to bury their father. Each with their own stories and their own pain in the complex relationships they had with their father.

Do you remember the last time we saw Ishmael? He was a teenager being sent away – cast off really—with his mother, Hagar. Do you remember? Those who would call upon us to focus on the family would do well to remember that the families in the Bible are a lot more complicated than the families of 1950's television. It was Sarah’s idea (as the story is told) that Hagar serve as a surrogate to Abraham back in the day before in-vitro clinics. And so Ishmael was born to Hagar and for a while at least counted as Abraham’s firstborn. Until Isaac came along. And then Hagar and Ishmael disappear from the pages of the Bible. They are sent away to another holy book – the Koran.

We know only a little more about what has been happening in Isaac’s life. In fact, the Biblical narrative is way more interested in Abraham and Jacob than in Isaac, who is basically a kind of transitional figure. He’s Abraham’s son and Jacob’s father. But who can forget that horrible day when he and his father climbed Mount Moriah? Luckily the Lord provided a ram in the thicket just in the nick of time. But still, you don’t forget a thing like that. 

Anyway, I find myself watching these two half-brothers intently as they stand together at the cave of Machpelah to bury their father, two different men with different mothers and different experiences of being children of Abraham, and yet also bound together forever as blood brothers. And I find myself wondering what it would be like to be their pastor in this moment. I find myself looking for clues about the kind of men they have become and wondering whether this shared grief will bring them together or whether it will re-open old and painful wounds.  Probably, I suspect, a little of both. I imagine it was a tense time.

I find myself wondering if they are yet able to even begin to grieve, given the terrible memories each of them has about his relationship to this father who was bigger than life, this man who staked his life on the Voice. (If you think it’s hard to be a “preacher’s kid” then just try to imagine what it would have been like to be Abraham’s kid!) I find myself looking for a gesture: does one or the other put an arm on his brother’s shoulder? Do they gather back at Isaac’s tent afterwards for hummus and olives and pita and wine—or is that invitation not extended to Ishmael? 

I have no way to answer these questions, of course. All any of us can say for sure is that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, Ishmael disappears after the funeral. The future belongs to Isaac, who we are told just nine verses later learns that his wife, Rebecca, is pregnant with twins: “two nations are in your womb…” (Genesis 25:23) In an almost scary way the past is about to repeat itself, this time with twins. The Promise will extend through Isaac to his younger son, Jacob who will come to be known as Israel. These are the ones we are told are “blessed by God”—the ones we tell our children and our children’s children about in Sunday School. But mostly we are silent about Ishmael.

But does God have just one blessing? I realize that the narrator’s questions aren’t necessarily mine. Yet there’s no getting around the simple point that Ishmael is there in that field of Ephron for the old man’s funeral. The narrator makes a point of telling us he is there even when it would have been easier to just say: “Abraham died, after a good long life, and he was buried in the cave of Machpelah.” 

And then, as often happens at weddings or funerals when we see long-lost relatives we haven’t seen for years, something even more extraordinary. The narrator turns to us, almost in a whisper, and says: “You remember Ishmael…the one whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.” And then, before the story can continue, before the narrative can move forward to those twins in Rebecca’s womb and to the twelve tribes of  Israel, we are told of the twelve sons of Ishmael:
Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemeh, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. This is the length of the life of Ishmael, 137 years of age…[his people] settled from Havilah to Shur, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria.  
His people settled over there – in those Arab countries. You could go to Church your whole life, and if like mine you use the lectionary, then you will never hear this text read aloud in Church. In fact that’s why I just had to preach on it with all of you – because I never get a chance to!

A few years back I read a remarkable book that I commend to you by a journalist named Bruce Feiler. It’s called Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Don’t get me wrong – I knew that Abraham died and he was buried and I suppose if it was a final question on Jeopardy I would have gotten it right that both sons were there and could have named the field where the cave was. But I’d just skimmed past it. I never before had an occasion to go deeper, because as I said, it never comes up in the lectionary, and so I never had occasion to preach on. I never lingered on this moment in time until I read Feiler’s book. But it has haunted me ever since I did. Feiler's thesis is that the world needs Christians and Jews and Muslims to realize we are all children of Abraham - that we're all cousins. 

Karl Barth suggested to preachers that they hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; that we hear a “Word of the Lord” in the conversation that emerges between those two worlds. I’ve been reading a lot about the proposed treaty with Iran lately. Don’t worry, I’m not going to move from preaching to meddling now. Whatever your politics, I assume that in this place we all have a desire to find peace in the Middle East even if we have to also face the complex realpolitik of it all. And it’s hard to sit down and talk with Iran without alienating Israel, to be sure. This stuff goes back a long ways…back as far even as this cave of Machpelah.

But of course the real reason that this treaty evokes so much emotion is because none of us can get those terrible images out of our heads of people whose lives have been beset with violence. Fear paralyzes us. And in any given week you can pick up a newspaper and find images of Palestinians grieving the death of a child killed by an Israeli, and of Israelis grieving the death of a child killed by Palestinians.

You don’t have to look very hard. Grief and fear and pain will be so apparent in both pictures, and I cannot even imagine what it would be like to sit down in a room with any of them to plan those funerals. We try to distance ourselves from those photos but after 9/11 they got etched in our own minds much closer to home. And so it is easy enough to imagine a third image next to the other two—one taken, perhaps, at Ground Zero on that clear September morning in lower Manhattan of American Christians grieving the loss of their loved ones. There is so much that keeps us separated. But here is the thing: the pain on the faces of all who suffer loss is virtually indistinguishable.

We live in a world where the children of Abraham – Jew and Christian and Muslim – continue to inflict violence on each other. Google “Franklin Graham and Muslim” when you go home tonight and you’ll see if you don’t know already how the children of Abraham continue to be rent asunder by fear and by fundamentalisms of various flavors, and by ignorance, and by terrible grief and violence. After centuries of estrangement from one another will we ever find the path to reconciliation? Or will an “eye for an eye” indeed make the whole world blind?

Surely the covenant that the living God has made with us in compels us to enter into conversations with some long lost cousins that may yet lead to forgiveness and healing and hope. Surely it matters, now more than ever, how we speak in our diverse congregations about those people who settled over there, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria – Ishmael’s folks. This is why this moment at Abraham’s graveside is so powerful to me, because it compels me to ask – how many more gravesides do we need to stand at before we allow our grief to open a door to reconciliation?

At a bare minimum, we need to find ways of getting re-acquainted with these these children of Ishmael as they walk from the Bible into the Koran. One of the small ways my denomination is trying to do this is by requiring not just ordained leaders but those being confirmed to include in their curriculum some study of  both Judaism and Islam – at least enough to keep us from bearing false witness against our neighbors, and hopefully more than that, enough so that we can work towards love of neighbor.   

One of our “distant cousins” is the Sufi mystic, Rumi, who was born in 1207 in what we would call Afghanistan today. I want to share the words from one of his poems with you today. Tell me if you don’t hear truth in it that binds us together:

                             Come, come, whoever you are.
                             Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
                             It doesn’t matter.
                             Ours is not a caravan of despair.
                             Come, even if you have broken your vow
                                      a thousand times.
                             Come, yet again, come, come.

My friends gathered here tonight: wonderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving, it doesn’t matter - ours is not a caravan of despair.

There is a twelfth-century illumination on one of the many websites dedicated to Rumi that is printed in your bulletins today. It is an image of Father Abraham with all of his children—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—sitting on his large-enough-for-all lap. That was the promise after all – descendents numbering like the stars, from many nations.

I choose that image to live into. I choose that image of hope to point to the kind of Christian I am trying to become. Not those photographs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims killing each other, separated by fear and hatred. I choose that image of love, of Abraham’s big-enough-lap where there is room for all of us as a reminder that God is love, and that God hates no one. God is love, and the journey of faith boils down to just two things: love God back, and love our neighbors. No exceptions.

We gather here on this August night from diverse places. We have come to be together and I hope in some real way to be reminded that ours is not a caravan of despair. There are moments in our own lives, moments in the Bible, that invite radical transformation and perhaps as we return from this island of beauty to our home congregations we might do so with renewed resolved and commitment to the work of healing and reconciliation that this world so desperately needs of us.

As St. Francis of Assisi once put it – St. Francis who traveled (by the way) to the Middle East during the height of the Crusades to meet up face-to-face with a sultan:  “Lord, make us instruments of your peace…” Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

May it be so. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Warm Coming We Had of It

Icon of Jon Daniels
Very proud of our bishops

With my boss, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher

In T. S. Eliot's poem, "Journey of the Magi" an aging Wiseman reflects on a pilgrimage taken many years before and then asks that great question: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? Those who have been following my blog this past week know that I have come with some old friends and some new ones to Hayneville, Alabama to remember the death of Jonathan Daniels. We have come on a journey not to Palestine in the deep midwinter, but to Alabama in the heat of summer. We have come to remember and to pray. As we prepare to leave for home tomorrow morning, I find myself asking the same question: were we led all this way for Birth or Death?

And I wonder if the answer here isn't the same one implied in Eliot's poem: Yes. Because to God's faithful people, we trust that in death, life is changed, not ended.

I was honored today to carry in an image of James Reeb, another "outside agitator" who gave his life for others - a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was beaten to death on March 11, 1965. He was 38 years old.  We carried these "icons" with us on the march and I felt a profound connection to this man as I walked along the way, as well as for the man we had come to honor. And for the living classmates from the Virginia Military Institute, and the Episcopal Divinity School. In the midst of the liturgy these names were called and each of the fourteen of us carrying these "icons" would respond, "PRESENT" as their bios were read and a candle was lit for each one. Very powerful. The living and the dead - one great fellowship divine.

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop -elect
Were we led all this way for birth or death? I was reminded of that very powerful scene in Places of the Heart with Sally Field, at the end of the film when they are celebrating Holy Communion and all the saints - black and white, the living and the dead, are present. One fellowship divine. One mystic, sweet communion.

Were we led all this way for birth or death? Indeed. As the preacher said today, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Now it is our time to run the race with endurance, and to keep on going, and going, and going.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center - a reminder that the work continues

Reflections as Day Four Begins

Last night I posted some reflections as our pilgrimage brought us from Birmingham to Selma, and then from Selma to Montgomery. Last night there was an event hosted by the Bishop and Diocese of Alabama at St. John's Episcopal Church in Montgomery. There we were joined by other pilgrims who have come here by other roads - a group from New Hampshire, a group from the Diocese of New York, and others - all of us here to join today with the Diocese of Alabama in Hayneville, where Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed.

And so today, after breakfast, we will remember Jonathan's act of love in Hayneville along with many others. Before we leave, however, I wanted to share a few more images from yesterday, a bit more reflection, and a prayer.

Western Mass Pilgrims at St. Paul's in Selma
"Get in the way" - a reminder that the gospel is not the same as having good manners!
The sign says, "still leading the march from struggle to salvation"
Morris Dees, Jr. at St. John's in Montgomery
A few thoughts are foremost on my heart as this day begins. While we focus on the light that shone through Jonathan Daniels willingness to give up his life for another, I am deeply aware of the players who were all around him not only today but in his work. He was not a lone ranger. He was shaped and formed by a tradition - a tradition committed to Mary's Prayer for herself, her Son, and for the world. "May our souls magnify the Lord!"

I'm struck by the man who spoke yesterday about the work that the vestry did at St. Paul's in Selma toward integrating that congregation. We may wish in an idealistic wish dream world that it was just always so, that change like that should never have to happen. I think a lot of clergy and lay people carry such wish dreams (as Bonhoeffer called them) around in their heads - so when the work of healing and transformation begins we want it to come to closure; quickly. It doesn't work like that. The vestry voted initially 2-13 - against integrating their church. It required many more votes, more argument, more prayer, more work and more willingness to engage conflict before the vote went the other way - 8-7. And then the the largest pledger left the parish. (Of course you knew that was coming.)

The Body of Christ in our day needs to discover and rediscover that every body needs not only hands and feet and eyes and ears but a backbone. No one said the work would be easy, and so we press on toward the goal.

And last night I was just drawn into the hope and idealism of Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. We need to change hearts and minds; this is one part of the work of the Church. But we need to use the law - to know the law. The ministry of the SPLC over four and a half decades is needed today more than ever. I knew this, and have long admired their work but I found a renewed respect for and appreciation for that commitment to keep calling this "land of the free" to live into that promise. I left that speech last night inspired, and hopeful. And also realizing they've been at it for 44 years and some days it must surely feel like it is just the beginning.. This work is a marathon, not a sprint.

Twice yesterday in our travels the prayer for the whole human family was offered. As I begin this day it is on my lips and in my heart.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus Christ your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (From The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 815)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Pilgrimage, Day 3 - The Feast of Jonathan Daniels

Mural on one side of the Pettus Bridge
(Jonathan Daniels pictured on the left)
O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we traveled from Birmingham to Selma and then on from Selma to Montgomery. Highlights of the day included walking across the Pettus Bridge, and then lunch at St. Paul's Church in Selma. I had the opportunity to sit at lunch with Richard Morrisroe who was shot alongside Jonathan Daniels, but survived. We listened to parishioners at St. Paul's speak about their recollections of Jonathan pushing integration of St. Paul's by bringing black friends there to worship. One of the vestry members who was on the vestry when they voted to "open their doors" was also sitting at my table. Another extraordinary day, truly.

Our pilgrim group from Episcopal Divinity School also includes a number of Jonathan Daniels' classmates who were here fifty years ago. Listening to their memories on the bus, in small groups, and at meals has been a profound part of my experience this week.

There is probably more to say about the day - and surely there will be much tomorrow, as pilgrims from all over converge for the celebration that will include a sermon by our Presiding Bishop-elect, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry.

But today is the actual day when Jonathan is remembered in Holy Women, Holy Men. The words from that book have taken on flesh for me this week - it's truly an amazing thing. For tonight I just want to mention that in the collect above, the story is that Jon was moved to come here to Alabama after praying The Magnificat in the chapel at EDS (technically ETS in those days.) The reference in the collect to the God who "puts down the mighty from their place and lifts up the poor and afflicted" makes that connection explicit. It seems to me that if I were preaching on this day, that is an avenue I'd want to explore further: this focus on Mary, who taught her son to sing this amazing song - not only to feel compassion for the lowly but to work for justice.

One last note: I have been pondering this notion of "outside agitator" this week and then twice today heard it again. First I learned something I'm a bit embarrassed I didn't already know; that there is a biography of Jonathan Daniels entitled Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. I plan to read it soon. And then tonight we had an opportunity to hear Morris Dees, Jr., Founder of The Southern Poverty Law Center. Dees reminded us that Jesus was an outside agitator - but also that for various reasons sometimes insiders will not or cannot see what is broken in a system and how sometimes it takes outsiders to be the catalysts for change. I have to think about that some more.

Birmingham, Day 2 (continued)

Here are some photos from yesterday, taken at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  I'll offer them here without further commentary.

Today we are off to Selma and Montgomery...

Separate and most definitely not equal water "bubblers"

Separate but definitely not equal black classroom, circa 1953
The white classroom, 1963.
(It struck me that Lincoln made both walls)

Just saw on FB the KKK is calling for death to gay people

Rosa Parks

Those "outside agitators" riding buses
What happens to "outside agitators" -
they get burned, and the "Freedom Riders" are beaten

Replica of MLK's cell in Birmingham Jail

Birmingham, Day 2

You may wish to see,
Hearing is a step toward vision.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Today really centered around a relatively small space of holy ground where a lot of stuff happened in a relatively short, intense period of time. I knew the history but I knew it in snapshots - from history books and parts of it from remembered television clips. But putting it all together was a very powerful and emotional experience. Quite frankly it was in some ways much harder for some of my fellow pilgrims who lived it the first time around. (A number of persons in our group were classmates of Jonathan Daniels, and were here at various points in the 1960s.) In any case it will take me a while to make sense of what I felt and experienced today but let me to try to find a few words and offer a few images.

With fellow pilgrims from Western Mass in front of 16th St. Church
Today we spent our day in and around the 16th Street Baptist Church, For those who do not know the history, on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Across the street from the Church is the Kelly Ingram Park - the sculpture shown above is dedicated to those four girls. And then across the street the other way is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Taken together, these three places help to tell the story not only of racial fear and hatred but of hope and courage and love. 

The Wales Window shown to the left was given by the people of Wales to the people of the 16th Street Baptist Church after the bombing, a meditation on the words of Christ in Matthew 25:40, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." The crucified figure, a black Christ, has his right hand pushing away against injustice while his left hand is open, offering forgiveness. A rainbow, representing diversity and God's promise, crowns the figure's head. 

The next three images are also from the Park - and perhaps speak for themselves: three clergy kneeling in prayer, the dogs being turned loose by "Bull" Conner against protesters, and a young kid being bullied by a cop and a police dog. All pretty scary stuff - all documented.

I think what I found so emotionally exhausting was in wanting to believe that even if we have not yet overcome, we'd like to believe we have come somewhere - somehow. And no doubt some gains have been made. But it was hard to be in this space today and not think of Ferguson, and of Charleston, and of the long litany of black lives that have been taken in just recent history.

For my own part I want to help the Church find its voice but to do that I think we begin by listening and remembering. Instead we very often tend to focus on survival - rather than the mission of the Church which is about all of God's children being able to live together with justice and peace. Clearly there is work to be done, and I think that was my big takeaway from today.

I was also struck at how often in the museum we heard words about "outside agitators." In yesterday's post I referenced King's letter and in it he clearly speaks about that accusation but it didn't really click until today, in the Civil Rights Institute - that phrase came up again and again from whites who just wanted the Freedom Riders, people like Jon Daniels, King himself - to "go home." This was not their business, locals said. They were "outside agitators." I've been thinking all day about how ill, closed-in systems protect themselves -the same thing can happen in an abusive family (or congregation.) You say, "this is none of your business." But that is a terrible lie. Injustice is our business. We are our brother's and our sister's keeper.

I want to share three more images that all give me hope as this very intense day comes to an end. First, we needed to eat lunch - and we had some choices, I opted for the goat curry at a local Jamaican place that was truly superb. I don't say this lightly! As my friends know, I love to cook - and to eat. I love everything about those things but it's about more than the food - it's about the shared meal, and about the culture, the spices, the flavor. Food is such an integral part of culture and I think, in all seriousness, about how much time Jesus spent at table with his friends, eating.

Sharing a meal - trying new foods - changes us. See Isaiah 25:6 if you don't believe me, where the prophet says: "on this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine - the best of meats and the finest of wines." I love that! Goat is a very fine meat! It is no accident that these words come from a prophet who, in the very next verses speaks of the Lord wiping away tears and taking away people's disgrace from all the earth. Goat curry for everyone! 

And finally, music. I was really glad we got to spend some time at the Jazz Hall of Fame. It was there that I became acquainted with a name I didn't know before - John T. "Fess" Whatley. If you ever doubt that one person can make a huge difference in the world, then take some time to find out about Fess Whatley - who was by all accounts an incredible disciplinarian. He told his students to note the copyright at the bottom of a sheet of music and then would say, "that's how you are going to play it because that is how the person wrote it!" He was a taskmaster whose students came back to thank him for being so demanding on them. Don't you love that? In part the video we watched explained that this was not just for the joy of music - this represented economic opportunity for many young black men of the day. 

Tonight, after another long day, I give thanks for the life and witness of "Fess" Whatley and I pray that we might all find our own ways to make a difference. Whether it is cooking, or marching, or playing the sax - it's all of a piece. It's all about the full and abundant life that is intended for all God's children - not just some of them. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Birmingham, Day One

Team Western Mass at St. Mark's Church, Birmingham
"It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be." (From A New Zealand Prayerbook)

It has indeed been a long day as pilgrims have gathered here from north and south and east and west. My own journey took me from Worcester to Logan Airport, to Atlanta and then back in time on a 30-minute flight from Atlanta to Birmingham across a time zone, which meant arriving about a half hour before I left!

We were served a delicious meal tonight at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, followed by orientation and worship. Shortly after my arrival today at the hotel, I re-read  Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail - it just seemed like the right thing to do and if you have not ever read it or not read it recently, I commend it to you. It just still (sadly) feels as if it's been ripped from the day's headlines and fifty-two years after these words were written I find myself ashamed to read these words expressing Dr. King's deep sadness at the response from white churches.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I was glad to find another portion of this letter read aloud as part of our common worship tonight and want to also share these words, which I still find so relevant to this time and place:
The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are...
One of my passions for ministry these days, even more so in diocesan work than as a parish priest, is to try to help the church find it's voice again - a voice of prophetic hope, a voice for the healing of the nations. I have always cared about this work, but I think that at the parish level there are many other tasks and too often this work gets pushed to the sidelines or to next week's agenda.

Amazingly, King goes on to say that even if the church doesn't figure out how to really be the church, he did not despair about the future - because God will still be God. But I think our work as the church is to work toward the dream of God, and among other things this means that we need to sometimes be disturbers of the peace before there is true shalom. We need courage, and wisdom, and love.

Anyway, in the midst of our prayers and this portion from King's Letter, forty or so of us then sang James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice and Sing, unaccompanied. It was quite powerful to me and since it is indeed night after a long day and what has been done has been done I'll conclude with these words - words of hope for the church and for the world:
Lift every voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring, / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; / Let our rejoicing rise / High as the list'ning skies, / Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. / Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / Let us march on till victory is won. 
Amen. May it be so.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

We Learn By Walking

Tomorrow morning I'll get on a plane in Boston to fly to Birmingham, Alabama to begin a five-day pilgrimage to commemorate the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels who was shot and killed on August 14, 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama. I'll be walking with others, including my Bishop, with a group from the Episcopal Divinity School. (If you have an hour to spare, click here for an excellent documentary about Jonathan Daniels.)

I'm behind in the reading we were asked to do to prepare for this pilgrimage - but am using this rainy morning to catch up. One of the "learning modules" is on this theme of pilgrimage - something I've thought about before. I especially appreciated this short blog post on the Four Principles of Pilgrims gleaned from the writings of Ignatius Loyola. In particular I appreciate the fourth principle - and these words:
We learn God’s will by moving toward something—whatever seems right to us. In the way that you cannot steer a parked car, God cannot direct us while we are sitting rigidly in our fear and over-caution and our need to know every detail before acting.
On a personal level, I tend to find these words both right and challenging. I am not normally a fearful person, and I don't think of myself as someone who often gets stuck. But I can be paralyzed by over-caution, or over-thinking things. I do like to know where I'm going and I do like to see down the road (further than one can sometimes see) and I do like to "think things through" before I set out on a journey. Very often this serves me well, as a strength; except when it doesn't. I'd rather learn, and then walk; yet sometimes the "shadow" of this gift is that it keeps me from learning by walking.

So these words convey wisdom to my soul and in a sense they summarize something deep in my soul that has been unfolding for a while now - probably since I said yes to becoming Canon to the Ordinary a couple of years ago without really knowing for sure what it was I was saying yes to!

But I think these words are bigger than my own personal journey, as pilgrimage always is. I am not walking alone in Alabama - and more importantly I'm not setting out to these places as an explorer - but as a pilgrim. We will walk together, on holy ground - ground made holy by the blood of martyrs.

We walk at a time and place when it's hard to know how far we have really come in fifty years. As recently as a few years ago people like me (white, male, educated) could be tempted to believe that as we watched an African American take the oath of office that we'd come a long ways in the journey toward racial justice as a nation. I sometimes wonder these days, however, if that moment in our history - the election of President Obama - didn't tap into some deep primordial racist fear that has set us back; or maybe just opened our eyes to the fact that the journey has only begun. Clearly anyone paying any attention at all has to wonder how we take the next steps.

I am the kind of person who could sit and think about that for a very long time. And maybe I'd come to some new insight. But this week, I'm going to walk the pilgrim way with others. I ask for your prayers as the journey unfolds.

I trust that we will indeed learn by walking.