Friday, August 14, 2015

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. 

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