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.