Friday, April 17, 2015

Return to Selma

At first, I thought I would go to Selma for the 50th Anniversary because I wanted to be a part of something. I have been there 3 times before, all while traveling through Alabama for service trips with Unitarian Universalists, and each time I was moved to tears as I stood before the bridge that bore the weight of history: the bridge on which peaceful protesters were beaten brutally, clubbed and kicked and set upon with dogs, for asking for the right to vote. To know that this happened, in my country, in my lifetime, has humbled be beyond belief.

So, more than once, I have made the commitment to dedicate a good portion of my life and work to un-doing what my fellow white Americans have done: the sin of racism.

And, like James Reeb, also killed in Selma, I wanted to be a part of things, to "share actively in the adventure." I saw the right, and I didn't want to cheer from the sidelines; I wanted and was determined to be actively on the right side of history.

Here, I visit my first congregation on the way to Selma. UUC of Shenandoah Valley. This is the first couple I performed a wedding for! Twenty years ago.

But, I've had many years to work out and contemplate this resolve of mine. It has not gone as I might have planned or dreamed. Just wanting to "share actively in the adventure" may get you to turn out for the big protests, the fancy dinners and speeches, and the marches to commemorate the other marches. You may, as I have, be asked to sit on boards and councils and committees that rubber stamp deals made elsewhere. You may speak about things in public (if you aren't TOO honest). You may urge your congregation. But not too often, nor too loudly, nor too much of your time.

walking with Seth in Selma

Life is what happens while you are making other plans.  John Lennon said that, and for him, death was what happened while he may have made other plans. I have another child to care for, a family member who has special needs. I have had to work at active ministry longer than expected. The place I chose to settle into for my longest tenure of ministry... Lexington, Kentucky.... may be the worst place in the world to do the work of anti-racism. A veneer of politeness and a thick layer of denial, like dust kicked up by the hooves of racing horses, covers the mixed and ugly racial history of a town that held the world's largest slave auction; the town that had a segregated college basketball team longer than any other but named Rupp arena after the racist coach; the town that still has elitist parents gnashing their teeth in fear that their lily white babies might have to be bused to one of "those" schools. When even the Black community doesn't speak out, you know this is entrenched and institutionalized racism. What is a white, Yankeee liberal minister going to say or do from her pulpit in the white suburbs?

So this journey to Selma was bittersweet. It was both a chance to revisit my once-lofty goals, as well as to grieve and readjust them. How often I have counseled people who have come to me with broken hearts and spirits about "coming to terms" as a way of moving forward, rather than use words like acceptance, forgiveness, or letting go? It was a time of coming to terms. 

I was able to see, meet and re-connect with some of the pioneers for racial justice and equity that our movement has produced. I recalled meeting Jim Hobart when he was serving in Denver, and he and I were both at one of the very early UUSC work camps down in Alabama, where we joined with Quakers to rebuild Black churches that had been burned in the mid 90s. I saw that, twenty years on, his vitality and spirit were still alive. This gave me hope and inspiration that I could still do something worthwhile.

I talked with Rochester's long time minister Richard Gilbert, who had served prison time for his work against the SOA. I saw reunions taking place, Clark Olsen with Orloff Miller, and both of them with the families of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo and especially the family of James Reeb. I listened closely and learned deeply from the words of colleagues who have not given up in this struggle, not the least of which is Mark Morrison Reed, who not only counseled us all to work from a ground of love and relationship, but actually demonstrated that to me in a brief conversation we had at a meal.

These experiences and more renewed my faith in my religious calling as it has not been renewed in many long years. And I can say with conviction that my resolve has been renewed as well.

But.. it was not only my fellow UUs who lifted me up during this wonderful event!

Just look at the picture above and imagine turning a corner and seeing what was close to 500,000 people crossing this bridge! The last 3 times I saw it, it had been empty save a passing car. And without exception, everyone we met, young, old, no matter the color or size, was friendly and generous of spirit. It was a moment in the vast sweep of time, but one to be treasured. If I ever do anything or write or say anything of consequence, it will be because I was given the Grace to have been present at moments such as these; where I simply knew that humans are capable of love, acceptance, harmony, joy, peace, kinship, fairness, so much more than what we are living out.
There were two nearly mystical experiences. One happened as we left the gathering place for UUs, a park in Selma. Some local men were having a bar-b-que, and stepped into the street to greet us. They were African American, middle aged or younger, and lower to low economic status, as this was a run-down neighborhood as is most of Selma. Amongst us was a Black man who was also a cross-dresser or dressed in a feminine manner as he had bright pink shorts, a purse, and high heels. Not unusual for GA, but perhaps a bit so for Alabama. The men started hugging us and thanking us for being there! I wondered if they would avoid this brother, but NO! They went right on and hugged him too.
Then, you see the boy above? That's our son Seth, who has Autism. He didn't want to march but then decided he would. Crowds and noise of any kind are hard for him. Well, after about 2 hours of waiting and shuffling we were almost to the bridge when he SAT DOWN! He refused to go on. We just begged him to get across, when out of nowhere there came an African dance troupe. He loves music and he got up and just started to dance along, at which point their organizer pulled him to the front of the group! they were so loving and encouraging to him. This is a boy who gets ignored, judged, and looked at askance so often in public just for being himself. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he was loved, accepted, and lifted up. Is that Grace right there? 

These were people from Africa. It was not even a moment of national pride and joy. It's a human, international moment of love.

People taking selfies, everywhere.

Seth was marching along as we headed home! 

Just before this conference and march, I turned 60. It's a time for reflection, and wondering, what have I accomplished? What, if anything, can I hope to do? It's also a time for realistic appraisal, for perhaps relinquishing grandiose dreams, but recovenanting with myself to do what is most urgent and necessary, regardless of what feels like "failure" at the time.

Joseph Priestly Exec David Pyle

Since I've returned, it's been a month, and there have been more killings of unarmed Black men by police, more issues coming to light about racism in this country, and outrage growing with what seems very little outlet. I am praying and hoping, but I am doing more than that. I took part in a conference for UU ministers called "Ministry in the Age of Ferguson." I have begun to put out some feelers. I'm only doing a two year interim, so the work is harder when you don't have a congregation to count on long term. But I am going to jettison the excuses, and do what I can, while I can, each day. I know there are thousands, tens of thousands, like me, and that alone gives me great encouragement. I think I nearly gave up for a while, but I have realized I must never do so. I'll keep you posted.