Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why It Matters

Some folks have requested my closing statement from tonight’s candidate forum at ICUUW. Here it is:

Why It Matters
Somewhere earlier today a woman lost her partner of fifty years.
Somewhere today a man retired – it was not his choice – and has decided to dedicate his life to a noble purpose.
Somewhere today a teenager was beaten for daring to love a person of another race.
Somewhere today a family is grieving the loss of a child.
Somewhere today another family lost their home.
Somewhere today a child decided to reach out to girls in Kenya.
Somewhere today a young man was hazed for defending a queer team mate.
Somewhere tonight a woman falls asleep crying, realizing her spiritual life is vacant, her soul is empty.

This Sunday, each of these beloveds will walk into a Unitarian Universalist Church.
Some are long-term members.
Some are newer; some will visit for the first time
But all will find a Unitarian Universalist congregation somewhere.

Every Unitarian Universalist congregation is somewhere.
Every day is this day.
Every Sunday is this Sunday.
I pray you, beloveds,
Do not ever forget
even for a moment
how much this faith, our faith, matters.

A funny thing happened on my way to the forum....

I'm sitting on the floor in the back of the hall at the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women. Between my "day job" (the stuff I do to pay my bills) and "making a living" (serving as Moderator of the UUA, which is how I make life meaningful), I haven't been able to participate in this Convo as much as I'd like. For example: Rebecca Adamson was apparently as amazing yesterday as I'd imagined. I think I'll have an opportunity to talk with her later today.

The Candidates Forum this evening will include three candidates: Presidential hopefuls Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales, and Moderator likely Gini Courter. I'm running unopposed for a second term. Margot Adler wants to know how to introduce each of us, so I just finished the 100-word introduction of Gini. I try to avoid introducing myself; I usually say "surprise me", but Margot doesn't know me at all, and I'm not sure I want to be that surprised.

Last evening we convened a quick meeting with Margot, Laura Nagel from ICUUW, the candidates, and members of Peter and Laurel's campaign teams. (I'm currently an army of one.) Laurel and Peter have done these forums so many times that they each are confident they could speak for the other -- tell the other's stories, present their platforms and vision for Unitarian Universalism. They're fast learners, but it's not just speed that accounts for their knowledge of each other. They've learned primarily by numbing repetition - far more forums than Bill Sinkford, Diane Miller, Patsy Madden and Diane Olson were required to participate in 8 years ago, and every candidate in 2001 said: this should never happen again -- it's too grueling and wasteful. I've asked both Peter and Laurel how they're doing, how their feet and hearts and souls are faring, what they think of the process? gaunlet? triathalon? that we force -- not by intention but by an inept lack of coordination -- on the wonderful folks who feel a call to Association leadership. More from me on this in the near future.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Final Reflections (Annette Marquis)

Reflections at the end of our pilgrimage

The 2009 Living Legacy Pilgrimage is over now and all of us have returned to our communities, our families, and our congregations. But the impact of this experience is embedded deep in our souls in a way that no photographs or notes or memories could ever summon. To say that we were changed by the experience seems trite considering what people risked, what those who lived the Civil Rights Movement sacrificed to secure their freedom, a freedom that had ostensibly been granted to them 100 years earlier.

In the course of our journey, we visited two Unitarian Universalist congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Birmingham and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery (UUFM). Both congregations greeted us as family who had come home for a visit after too long an absence. They showered us with true Southern hospitality, fed us home-cooked meals, and did everything they could do to make us comfortable. But most importantly, they shared the richness of their histories, their involvement in the Movement, and their courageous people. In both cases, I was struck with how vibrant the congregations are today and how poised they still are to represent UU values in the world.

In fact, in Montgomery, we actually saw the congregation in action as we attended a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to support the inclusion of sexual orientation in the state’s hate crime statute. The Reverend Paul Britner, minister of UUFM, helped organize and MC the event and the UUFM choir led the protestors in singing, “Love Will Guide Us.” It is clear that the fight for civil rights is not over and that wherever we are, UUs are called to lead in these efforts. I was proud to be a UU that day. I was proud to be standing on the same steps where George Wallace refused to allow Martin Luther King to stand at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march because he didn’t want King speaking from the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederate States. I was proud to sharing the day with Montgomery UUs who were proving that our civil rights legacy is still living and breathing in the hearts and minds of today’s UUs.

Of all the questions that this pilgrimage generated in me, I continue to be most challenged by what it meant to organize an entire social change movement based on non-violence resistance that I began to wonder if I could have done what the people in the civil rights movement did.

Imagine that you are in a training session designed to prepare you to participate in a protest march. You spend an entire weekend learning about non-violence and non-violent resistance techniques. But this training is not all talk. Throughout much of the weekend you are being badgered, yelled at, called names, pushed, and even hit, and your job is to not react -- to let yourself be verbally and even physically abused and just take it, to not defend yourself, to not run away, to just take it. By the end of the training, it’s decided whether you have what it takes to be in the march. For you see, being a marcher in the Movement is a high honor. If it becomes clear that you can’t respond non-violently, you are placed in a support role and are not given the honor of marching.

As I heard these stories, I again asked myself, could I do it? Could I place myself in that level of danger? Could I risk my life for something, even if it was something I believed in as strongly as I believe in civil rights?

On March 7, 1965, 600 of these trained marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, walked through town and began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital in Montgomery. When they reached the crest of the bridge and could see what was ahead of them on the other side, they report that all they saw was a sea of blue. Police had formed a solid line almost a block away from the end of the bridge. The marchers kept moving forward, down the other side of the bridge, and directly toward the sea of blue. When they got within hearing distance, they were told to turn back. Before the marchers even had a chance to respond, the police, some on horseback, viciously attacked. The marchers were beaten back with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips. This event, referred to as Bloody Sunday, horrified the nation as photographs and video were shown on the Sunday evening news.

Two days later, Martin Luther-King led a second march across that same bridge. Again they were told to turn back and Rev. King asked if they could pray first. The marchers then got down on their knees right in the middle of the street and prayed. Then King stood up, turned the march around and went back to Brown Chapel. Think about that for a moment. Only two days before, hundreds of people, neighbors, friends, and family members, were beaten, many seriously injured, at this same spot, doing this same thing, by these same police officers. What kind of courage did it take to get down on their knees and pray?
Could I do that? I ask myself.

I would like to think that I would have gone to Selma when Dr. King called Dana Greeley, the president of the UUA, and asked for our help. I would like to think I would have gone. But how do I put myself out there today? What risks do I take today to further the cause of civil and human rights? The struggle is not over. Do I have what it takes?

We UU’s have an incredibly legacy of courage, strength, fortitude, and commitment in the struggle for human rights. We have every right to be proud of this legacy. But we cannot rest there. We cannot live on our legacy. We have to find ways to keep our legacy alive by living lives today that honor these heroes of our faith. Somewhere we have to find the courage to step out of our comfortable lives, out of our safe congregations, and take the risks we need to take to move us closer to the world we want to create. It will not happen if we sit idly by. These people knew that. They put their lives on the line to make their dreams of a brighter future see the light of day.

I pray today that I will be ready when I am called. And I’m going to need you there with me. Will you be ready?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shall We Overcome?

The Living Legacy Tour ended ten days ago, and I'm writing my last post (followed by a post from Annette Marquis) to close out the tour. In the past week, I've received emails and questions in person: what was ever decided about singing We Shall Overcome?

We had time on Saturday to discuss concerns of the community. I thought that someone would return to the conversation about who'd "earned" the right or "inherited" the right to sing We Shall Overcome. No one raised the topic. However, Leon Dunkley sang a song he'd composed that somehow miraculously morphed into We Shall Overcome. Another miracle of sorts -- some folks stood up, then more, until all of us were standing and singing together. I don't want to overanalyze but I think that after three days, we knew each other well enough to trust a bit more, to risk a bit more, to want to stand together enough that we got past whatever had separated us, if only for that moment.

There are many more white folks willing to sing "We Shall Overcome" than white folks willing to be part of the "We" that is struggling for justice or working actively to end racism. As long as that is true, there will be people of color and their allies who are angered or saddened by white people singing "We Shall Overcome", even if some of those singing also sang it at Selma or Montgomery with Dr. King. While the folks on our pilgrimage found a way to sing together, this remains an incomplete conversation for me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 6 - Mt. Zion United Methodist - guest post from Jim Key

We have visited gravesites of fallen martyrs, heard emotional first-person accounts of the foot soldiers of Civil Rights era, and witnessed the impact on families of the selfless activists. I have been educated by the museums, inspired by the music, and awed by my fellow pilgrims. Moreover, I have lost sleep for the past six nights on how to process what I have observed on this pilgrimage and integrate it into the work that calls us as Unitarian Universalists to bend the moral universe towards justice.

Today we broke bread with the good folks of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church outside Philadelphia, MS and heard the story of the night the Klan waited for a meeting related to registering Black voters to break up. They attacked some of the congregants as they were leaving the church and then burned the church to the ground.

Three voter registration workers, two white and one black who had made inquiries of the church members after the attacks, were reported missing several days later after they were arrested, jailed, and released late in the evening if June 21, 1964. The bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were discovered in an earthen dam on August 4. While the families wanted them buried together, Mississippi segregation laws would not permit it even though the Klan saw fit to bury them together in their first shallow grave. We prayed and sang over the grave of James Chaney this morning.

With this backdrop we heard Leroy Clemons, the President of the local NAACP chapter. His comments about how Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans came together 40 years after these horrific events to claim their history and learn how to work together to, as a community, to learn from the past as they worked for justice now and in the future. We then heard from Hollis Watkins of Southern Echo who, as an activist from the Freedom Summer days, is applying the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement in building bridges to the future in economic, environmental, political, and social justice issues. His advice? Involve the youth of our communities. Teach them the lessons of the past and harness their energy and creativity in our justice work. And sing.

I think I will sleep better tonight. The lessons of this day are becoming clear. There is work to do in my community, my congregation and my district. Now to spread the word.

Jim Key is a member of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, and serves as the President of the Thomas Jefferson District.

Day 5 - Reflection by Leon Dunkley

Reflection...At the roadside memorial for Viola Liuzzo...

In the late afternoon, we approached a lonely altar, her singularly brave stone of remembrance. We approached eagerly and with trepidation. We strode to the place at which we believe that we have stowed hopes for the flowering and the subsequent triumph of the human soul. I knew and perhaps, we knew-again and for the first time-that empathy is the revo-/evolutionary force of love in our world. Genuinely, empathy is a life-affirming, life-giving force. It is the soulforce through which we enter and become one another as family.

In the one we remember as Viola Luizzo as well as in the one we call James Chaney, in the one that we remember as Jimmie Lee Jackson as well as in the one we call James Reeb, the fiercest of serpents and the most gentle of doves, in their strong hearts, remain well met. In their strong hearts and in one anothers, what is best in us remains well met.

Every blessing,

Leon Dunkley
(photo also by Leon)

Day 6 – Meridian, Mississippi

James Earl Chaney was one of three civil rights workers killed early in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign.

James Earl Chaney has just returned from training civil freedom workers in Oxford, Ohio. While he’s in Ohio, life continues in Mississippi: Chaney’s daughter has been born; and a black church Chaney’s been working with to host a Freedom School has been burned to the ground. He arrives home on Father’s Day. Before going home to meet his newborn daughter, Angela, Chaney and two other civil rights workers decide to visit the church.

After leaving Mt. Zion United Methodist the three young men – Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman -- are arrested by deputies in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They are released at 10:30 that night and told to leave town right away, presumably for their safety. They are pursued by Klansmen; Chaney’s car is forced off the road. The civil rights workers are pulled from the car, driven to a lonely gravel road and killed.

Their bodies, buried at a construction site, are found 6 weeks later. The Chaney and Schwerner families wanted their sons interred together, but Mississippi law prohibited it. The Klan could bury them together, but their families could not.
This morning we visit James’ grave. Angela will to join us after working 12 hours as a nurse and tell us about the parent stolen from her, the father she met only in story.

For many years James’ grave stood alone, separate from other graves in the cemetery. Now there is a second grave: Chaney’s mother died in 2007.

There are pebbles on top of the headstone, placed there in respect by prior visitors. To the right of the grave a rusted ballot box half-buried in the soil. The headstone is secured with huge metal brackets, far heavier than would be needed to secure the stone against wind or rain. The raw and rusting metal brackets are visually jarring against the fine gray granite of the headstone.

Something circular has been removed from the headstone. A picture? An icon? None of us knows.

The tombstone that covers James Earl Chaney’s body bears this inscription:

There are those who are alive yet will never live.
There are those who are dead yet will live forever.
Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.

We slowly gather around the grave, quietly take pictures, stand silently. Softly, ever so softly, Leon Dunkley begins to sing*:

I went down to Long Kesh to see Bobby Sands
He was not there but his spirit keeps on walking
I can see his smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs

Another verse follows...
I went down to Atlanta to see Martin King…
And then others...
I went down to Mississippi to see James Chaney…
I went over to India to see Mahatma Gandhi…
I went over to Dublin to see Bernadette Devlin…

Other voices join with Leon’s:
I went down to Mississippi to see Fannie Lou Hamer
She was not there but her spirit keeps on walking
I can see her smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs

I went up to New York to see Malcolm X…
I went down to Selma to see James Reeb…

I went down to Long Kesh to see Bobby Sands
He was not there but his spirit keeps on walking
I can see his smiling face on the men and on the women
And the children…they sang freedom songs
And the children…they sang freedom songs.

The tombstone has been decorated with artificial flowers and while we are singing we notice something non-artificial: feces. It looks human. It looks recent. We get a plastic bag and clean the feces off James' grave. Arrange the artificial flowers, tend this restless resting place.

Janice Marie Johnson leads a graveside prayer and we sing more songs: freedom songs, solidarity songs, commitment songs. It is raining lightly. Angela has not arrived. We clean the tombstone thoroughly with Windex and paper towels provided by Jimmy, our bus driver. Back on the bus. After the bus turns around, a police car arrives, light bar flashing. There ‘s no reason to be afraid here, but in that moment, that flash of blue lights, I learn something more about gravel roads in deserted woods, even in daylight.
In the back half of the bus we don’t hear the conversation, only see Gordon Gibson leave the bus, go to the police car. He returns accompanied by the police officer, who steps on the bus to tell us that Angela Chaney has been delayed at work, cannot join us, sends her apologies. Seems that James Earl Chaney’s son-in-law is a Mississippi police officer.
Grief and hatred, fear and progress. Jimmy closes the door and drives on to Philadelphia, Mississippi and the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

* Long Kesh (in Meridian, MS) - Adapted by Leon Dunkley from the original by Marshall Stearn of the SNCC Freedom Singers

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Concerned White Citizens of Alabama

It's Monday morning and I'm in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this pilgrimage is Rev. Charles Blackburn, who served our Huntsville, Alabama congregation from 1964-1966. Charles and his partner Glen live in Baltimore now. This morning's post is from Charles, followed by some commentary from me.

The Concerned White Citizens of Alabama
the Rev. Charles Blackburn, Minister, UU Church of Huntsville, AL 1964-1966

I want to tell you about a little-known footnote to the Selma Voting Rights Movement. On March 6, 1965, the day before Bloody Sunday, the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama demonstrated in front of the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma. The significance of that march was that it was the first time in the history of Southern Alabama that white citizens of Alabama had demonstrated in support of black civil rights.

The moving force behind this organization was the Rev. Joseph Elwanger, a white Lutheran minister of a black Lutheran church in Birmingham and a native of Selma. Because of his support of black rights, he was vilified by his bishop and scorned by his white ministerial colleagues.

I was asked to recruit some participants from Huntsville and was able to find 15 members of my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville, who were willing to march. When we assembled in Selma there were 72 of us, 36 were Unitarian Universalists from the Birmingham and Huntsville churches and the Tuscaloosa fellowship.

Since we did not have a parade permit we had to maintain 30 feet between each rack of four people, making us feel quite vulnerable. As we turned the corner onto Lauderdale Street where the courthouse was located, we were confronted by a mob of rednecks shouting obscenities and wielding clubs, chains and pipes. We were nearly paralyzed with fear. Suddenly a Nazi-party skinhead ran toward us menacingly. Amazingly, he was arrested by Public Safety Commissioner William Baker. Next a car appeared in front of us belching acrid smoke. The driver was also arrested. Then Rev. Elwanger’s bishop confronted Elwanger and accused him of being a traitor to his parents, his high school, his city, and his church.

As Rev. Elwanger read the prepared Statement of the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, the catcalls of the rednecks drowned him out. The mob began singing “Dixie.” In response, we began, tentatively, to sing “America the Beautiful” and to move forward again. At that moment a large group of black supporters began singing “We Shall Overcome.” Their signing inspired us to continue. The cacophony was astonishing.

I am convinced that we would have been bludgeoned had Sherriff Jimmy Clark been in charge of security that day as he was on Bloody Sunday. Instead Baker whispered to us to disperse quickly and return to the Knox Reformed Presbyterian Church by a different route. After we reassembled at the church, the fiery James Bevel said that when we first appeared in view he shouted, “Damn, the Kingdom’s coming!” Rev. C.T. Vivian then praised us as well but ended his remarks with the admonition, “But where have you been?”

"But where have you been?" Unitarian Universalists point with pride to the time when hundreds of ministers came to Selma, when the UUA Board of Trustees recessed, traveled from Boston to Selma, and reconvened the Board meeting in Selma to stand with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A beautiful memorial to Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and James Reeb hangs on the wall of the second floor chapel at 25 Beacon Street, the room the board meets in three times a year. We have a shrine to remind us that the dream is not yet fulfilled.

"But where have you been?" We are politically active lovers of democracy. We have elected an African American President of the UUA. We worked hard -- many of us -- to do the same for the entire country. There is progress, and cause for hope, and the dream is not yet fulfilled.

"But where have you been?" Spend a few observant moments in Selma and you know that the dream is not yet fulfilled. Open your eyes in the place you call home. Selma is not merely a town in Alabama, or a point in American history. Selma is in Michigan and Massachusetts, in South Carolina and California, New York and Maryland. Selma is each time and every location where Unitarian Universalists heard the call for people of goodwill to assemble and bear witness. Selma is every temporal geography in which we answered that call...and later retreated in confusion or fear or fatigue.

"But where have you been?" The question echoes over the decades. How will we answer?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sojourn to the Past – a sidetrip

The Living Legacy pilgrimage is in Montgomery, but I’m still in Selma. The Rev. Dr. Clark Olsen is a regular speaker for Sojourn to the Past. Sojourn to the Past brings the historical Civil Rights movement to life for 11th and 12th grade students. Jeff Steinberg, executive director of Sojourn and a history teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area, started Sojourn in 1999. Since then, he has conducted more than 40 journeys with more than four thousand students and teachers from across the country.

A Sojourn group arrived in Selma this afternoon and I accepted Clark’s invitation to hang out with him. We’ll rejoin the Living Legacy Tour later this evening. An hour ago I met Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock 9. Now, I’m sitting in a ballroom with over a hundred high school students, many from California, watching them learn about the Movement. Other than being roughly the same age, this is an incredibly diverse group: young men and women, Asian, Anglo, African descent, Latino/Latina.

This is active learning. Jeff Steinberg begins with a lecture and question and answer: “You need your Jim Reeb homework sheet out. You need your Free at Last workbook.” The young people pull sheets out of their thick binders and get ready to answer questions and take notes. “What was the issue in Selma? Give me a time frame – what is the year? What happened on March 7? March 9? What kind of people did Dr. King ask to come to Selma? How many people were killed in Selma? What were their names?” Questions are answered promptly; partial answers are completed by other students.

Answering the question “What kind of ministers were Jim Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller?” takes a bit longer. Lutheran, Catholic, Christian, ministers are all offered as answers before a young woman offers “Unitarian”. Jeff asks “Are there any Unitarians in this group?” Clark and I raise our hands and Jeff reports “We have two in the back.” Yup. Here we are.

Jeff quickly moves into the documentary that Clark’s daughter, Marika Olsen, produced for CNN. “It’s a 12 minute video, so you know this will take me four hours.” Instruction doesn’t stop. Jeff stops the video frequently to highlight issues and ask questions. “When Jim Reeb died, it’s on the front page of every newspaper in America: front page San Francisco Chronicle. Front page New York Times. When Jimmy Lee Jackson died, it was only reported in the black press. How many of you are bothered by that?” “How did Reverend James Reeb’s death play into the hands of racism?” Students stand to answer questions, and “You’re going to see the jury in a minute, but you don’t need to see them to answer this question: what did they look like?” “What bothers you about President Johnson’s comments here?”

Jeff pauses just before the end of the video. “Clark’s going to tell you why he went to Selma. Listen to what he says. I’m going to ask five of you to tell me why Reverend Olsen went to Selma.” The video ends. “Why would Clark Olsen, a white minister who had the right to vote, go to Selma?” Five students are called on in turn. “You went to Selma because it was the right thing to do.” Jeff asks the students “When are you going to do the right thing? When are you going to take the right stand, even when it’s unpopular?”

Clark receives a standing ovation from the students before he has said a word, and again at the end. In summary Jeff asks “How does your story relate to these young people? What is the moral of your story?” Clark “I didn’t talk about Selma for almost twenty eyars. The lesson is when you see something that is an injustice, something that is wrong, say something. In my case, it led to a turning point in American history. I didn’t do it, but I was there. I didn’t know it would be historic. The wonder is when you do something, step up to an injustice, you never know what might happen that’s really good. You never know what effect you might have. It can be wondrous.”

A student tells Clark: “My word for you is friend – you’re a true friend being there every minute, holding his hand. You were strong. Even though you were afraid, you were there.” The mission of Soujourn to the Past is “to develop communication and advocacy skills that better enable [students] to promote awareness of social justice in their community, and create a more civil society where diversity is embraced, injustice is spoken out against, and all people are treated with dignity.” Another says "It was damn right motivational to hear what you did back in the day. It makes me think about what I will do in my own life back at home." A young man "I hear on the news about people doing extremely bad things. It's rare that I get to meet people who have expressed love and who have helped other people change the course of history. To be able to love show what humanity is about...I can't explain it." A young woman rises to say "I view you as a role model to our generation. You're the reason we're here today....You have given us a reason to be here, to help us make changes in our communities." A young man hugs Clark "Any white person who stepped out to help the black community was in danger. You're daring because you were willing to help the community with civil rights and voting rights. I'm glad your passion helped you push past your fear." "These things can give us a dream, a way to go. You give us the stuff to follow your heart." One person after another, young people rise for the give back. It's a Clark Olsen lovefest -- and it should be.

Jeff closes by saying "My work for Clark is the highest compliment I can give: he is a gentle man. Don't take this for weakness. I'm tired of all the machismo I see on tv. When he said [to his attackers] "please don't", that's about as real as it can be."

I’m incredibly grateful to Clark for letting me witness this incredible piece of justice work.

The Legacy Continues - by Annette Marquis

I'm packing my bags and getting dressed for church at Brown Chapel AME. Here's a most excellent Saturday report written by my friend Annette Marquis:

On the fourth day of the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, after a visit to the site where Rev. James Reeb was killed, a tour of Selma and a stop at the National Voting Rights Museum, participants on the pilgrimage took a silent, meditative walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge where civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten by police on what is commonly known as Bloody Sunday. It was seeing this horrific event on TV sets around the world that prompted the first wave of Unitarian Universalist ministers, including Rev. Reeb, Rev. Orloff Miller, and Rev. Clark Olsen to go to Selma. Rev. Olsen walked with us from what was Walker’s Café, the site of their last meal, down the block to the place where a group of segregationists attacked them, striking Rev. Reeb on the head with a bat, a blow that ended his life 36 hours later.

Later in the day, with these and other images fresh in our hearts, we gathered together to talk about the meaning of Selma to Unitarian Universalists’ today. How do we move from a place where the answer to a question about a congregation’s social justice committee is “we marched in Selma” to an answer that says, because we marched in Selma in the 60s, we are involved in this work today.” Janice Marie Johnson, one of the Pilgrimage’s planning team members, led the discussion by asking us to identify, in a word, our appreciations from this experience. We gave voice to feelings such as “cathartic,” “calling,” “rootedness,” “stirring,” and “empowerment” as we reflected on the day. Johnson then pressed us to speak our affirmations.

To this question, we expressed our desire to “keep the story alive”, “a renewed commitment to social justice and anti-racism work,” “recognition of the importance of everyone’s journey,” and “a faith that we can be partners and allies in the ongoing struggle.” Rev. Olsen responded, “I’ve wanted my experience to mean more than telling and my story. I’m hopeful that [as a result of our commitments from this journey] it might be.” The Rev. Hope Johnson, another of the Pilgrimage’s planning team, spoke about how in the town of Selma, “I can tell people that I am a Unitarian Universalist and they know who I am. I’m challenged to know what to do with that.”

After speaking together in the large group, we broke up into small groups to discuss our vision for the future. We were asked to consider, “How might we find ourselves in the story of Selma as we go forward into the future? Each group reported back with their visions for how we might say, “we Unitarian Universalist were in Selma, to we are in Selma and this is what we are doing.” A consistent theme emerged that we have to enter into any work as true partners of the people in the local communities we want to serve and that these partnerships have to be real and they have to last. We have to listen to the needs without imposing our values on what we are hearing. We talked about being intentional in our planning so that we can be the best partners we can be.

A couple of the groups suggested a new model for youth who are coming of age that, in addition to or maybe even instead of a trip to UUA Headquarters in Boston, we might have trips to Selma so they can see their faith in action. And it was agreed that whatever we do, first and foremost, we have to focus on building, developing and deepening relationships with the local people.

Members of the planning team will take all the ideas that were spoken today and provide participants with a report that will help to guide us on our next steps to our “living legacy” of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, after attending church at Brown Chapel AME Church where Rev. William Sinkford will speak, the pilgrimage moves on to Mississippi.

Annette Marquis serves as the District Executive for the Thomas Jefferson district and a member of the planning team for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.

Day 4 - Saturday's Amazing Grace

Rev. Mitra Jafarzedeh offered this blessing before our dinner in Selma tonight:

It is Valentine's Day, a day to celebrate love:
hearts and flowers love,
chocolates and candy love.

Here in Selma and in Marion and in Birmingham
we have heard the stories and felt the spirit of another kind of love:
the hard love of freedom
the soft love of hospitality
the grace-filled love of solidarity

If in this day our hearts have been broken
or if these stories have sounded an echo of old pain

Let our hearts not break down, but break open
and may the space created be filled
with the long, arching love of Justice

And may we begin again in this moment as we gather to break bread together and give thanks for our many blesssings.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day 4 - Selma, Alabama

Day 3 in Marion, AL was a great day. I will tell you about it later. But for now:

Day 4 - Saturday - Selma, Alabama
written with Annette Marquis, Rev. Charlotte Cowtan, Rev. Hope Johnson, Janice Marie Johnson

This morning we toured Selma, Alabama. Joanne Bland, co-founder and past director of the National Voting Rights Museum, led us. She repeated yesterday’s admonition that she’s a Southern grandmother and as such, if she’s talking, we best not be. (Properly admonished, we were almost ready to behave for the day.) The bus stopped in front of the Towne Café, formerly the Walker Café where civil rights workers ate. We had a great lunch there later.

We walked down street to the site where three UU ministers – Olsen, Miller, and Reeb – were attacked en route from dinner to Brown Chapel to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s instructions for the next day. The ministers could have turned left leaving the café to return they way they had arrived, but they thought it would be faster to turn right. The shortcut proved deadly.

College students painted a memorial mural on the side of a nearby building. It was a somber moment as we gathered around the memorial plaque for James Reeb and Clark Olsen spoke about the attack and its aftermath.

We were driven to Brown Chapel, and arrived at the same time as members of the Buffalo Soldiers Motor Cycle Club on their civil rights pilgrimage. Neighborhood children looked on with amazement and pride as over a hundred African Americans regally dismounted their Harley hogs and Honda Gold Wings and crossed to Brown Chapel Church AME. I talked with Big Jim from Detroit about the 50 member Michigan chapter.

We followed Joanne around the church to a concrete slab: “Stand on the slab – not up there on that new stuff, down here on the slab.” While we assemble, three neighborhood children come across the basketball court to the fenced playground. It’s flooded in front of the only gate. One child climbs the fence, and two wade in the water. Joanne tells us to each find a rock and a treasure hunt ensues as we discard shards of broken glass (“That’s not a rock!”) in search of small pebbles knocked free from the concrete. She looks at the tiny rock that Bill Sinkford holds “Mr. President, show me that rock” and weaves a story of her grandmother. Janne Eller-Isaacs’ rock magically tells Joanne’s sister’s story. Hannah Eller-Isaacs rock prompts Joanne to ask: “Are you ready for this rock? This is my rock.”

Then, the challenge – we can leave our rocks there on the slab. Or we can each take our rock, but we cannot take them lightly. If we choose to take the rock, we must stay in the work, hold onto the rock as part of our reason. Let the rock anchor us in hard times. As we walk away, Joanne laughs: “ I’m going to have to get more rocks. I know none of you are going to leave yours.” As it turns out, she is right.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Living Legacy Pilgrimage, Day 1 (continued)

I ended my last post toward the end of Jason Shelton's great workshop on the music of the Movement. After the workshop we had lunch at the UU Church of Birmingham then bussed to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Bombing was one of the tactics used to intimidate and harrass African Americans. On Sunday morning September 15, 1963, a bomb buried at the church exploded, killing four girls -- Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed in the blast. Nearly two dozen other people were injured.

According to our tour guides, there were hundreds of bombings of black churches, homes and businesses during the early 1960s, but the bombing at 16th Street Baptist was the only bombing with loss of life. I visited 16th Street Baptist in 2006 and watched Spike Lee's documentary about the bombing, 4 Little Girls. I was saddened and sickened and angry in 2006. There's an additional poignancy? pain? understanding? sitting in the sanctuary at 16th Street Baptist with Knoxville UU Ministers Chris Buice and Mitra Jafarzedeh one week after the sentencing of the man who committed violence in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley UU Church last summer.
We spend most of the rest of the afternoon at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum across the street from 16th Street Baptist. I like this museum a lot -- with one exception. The video at the entrance tells the history of Birmingham, a city built new and fresh and segregated two decades after the end of the Civil War. The exhibits are compelling: a "white" classroom and a "black" classroom side by side for easy contrast; a display case full of pickaninny salt and pepper shakers and other racist memorabilia; news coverage of Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King's speeches and interviews with prominent members of the Birmingham community.
The last time I visited the museum I left sad and angry. The very last room is a "civil rights for everyone" sort of room which promotes the full inclusion of just about every group of historically marginalized folks...with the exception of gays and lesbians, who were conspicuously absent in 2006. I decided to skip the last room, but friends who went the distance tell me that it's a bit better today. In additon to the permanent display there's a computerized display that includes leading edge issues, like the pros and cons of same-sex marriage. It would be a comfort (not to mention fair) if the display included a similar list for mixed-sex marriages: you know -- the kind between one man and one woman.
This afternoon's oft-repeated lesson: the line between "leading edge" and "bleeding edge" is perilously thin.

Living Legacy Pilgrimage - Arrival and Day 1 (Thursday)

Arrival – Thursday - Birmingham, AL
I didn’t post yesterday (Day 1) so this pilgrim’s report covers the first day of the Living Legacy Pilgrimage to sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I’ll post more later today.
We gathered on Wednesday night at our motel in Birmingham, Alabama. There are about forty folks on this pilgrimage: women and men, lay and ordained, adults of all ages, students, retirees, straight, gay, lesbian. Some of us call the South home, others arrive here for the first time. A larger number are returning for the second or tenth or hundredth time.

Joseph Selmon, who has been the driver for past Civil Rights trips, can’t drive for us this year but he and his wife, Mary, join us for dinner.

Day 1 - Thursday morning – Birmingham, AL
We take the bus to the Birmingham Unitarian Church where we are warmly welcomed. We open with worship led by the Pilgrimage planning team (Annette Marquis, Rev. Gordon Gibson, Rev. Hope Johnson, Janice Marie Johnson, Judy Gibson, and Rev. Wendy Pantoja) Rev. Jason Shelton, who has driven down from Nashville to spend the morning with us, leads music for worship. Harmonies fill the open niches in every stanza; this is wonderful group to sing in.

In groups of five we talk about why decided to join this pilgrimage and what we know about the civil rights movement, about Selma, about Montgomery, about the struggle. In my small group, every person came because they were invited by someone they care for deeply. I look in each person’s eyes as they talk about their decision and I can easily imagine us as a table convened by love.

After worship, Jason speaks and sings with us about the music of the Movement: “The places you are going to visit are a landscape with a soundtrack”. His workshop draws on many sources, including the music and writing of Berniece Johnson Reagon and the book Sing for Freedom. Listening to and singing different versions of songs I learn how songs evolved from the spirituals talking about freedom and justice in an afterlife to songs demanding freedom and justice now. We sing I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table (note that it’s “I”, not “We”); the second verse is “I’m gonna be a registered voter”.

Jason quotes Berniece Johnson Reagon: “It’s a non-violent movement, but the songs are aggressive.” They had to be. What if UUs had been in charge at Selma? – “Ok, we’re gonna cross the bridge now. Let’s all hold hands and sing Spirit of Life… We laugh, and think and wonder.

We talk about the dismissal of Kumbaya as a “hippie song” or a children’s song, but it was sung frequently in the Movement: “Churches are burning, Lord, come by here” and “There’s been a shooting, Lord, come by here”. This is a song of prayer, and I’m using it as such already.

This is day 1 and we don’t really know each other. We’re one bus, but not yet one community. We hit our first significant speed bump when some of us choose not to sing We Shall Overcome. People are hurt and angry and confused and there’s no time for the discussion so it is put aside. Later, the planning team decides that this is a conversation that shouldn’t be held on the bus. We will discuss We Shall Overcome as a community on Saturday afternoon.

More later...