Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Selma Tales: Montgomery and Selma III

On the way to Selma we went through Montgomery.  One of our pilgrims, Richard Morrisroe, the former Roman Catholic priest who was shot with Jonathan Daniels in Hayneville, took the bus microphone and as we passed the hospital, he told of his harrowing experience after the shooting.  He lay on the ground in front of the cash store at least a half an hour bleeding before anyone was allowed to tend to him. He was transported to a hospital in Montgomery in the hearse that carried Jon's body.  He lay in a corridor without care for some hours before a Roman Catholic priest was able to
The Cash Store in Hayneville, AL
find a doctor who would tend to him.  Finally, it took 11 hours of surgery to save his life. I believe that Richard was in hospital for almost 6 months after that.  He was permanently marked by this incident.  He subsequently left the priesthood, became a civil rights lawyer, married a woman of color and has two wonderful children, one who is named Jonathan and several grandchildren.

I had met Richard on several other venues celebrating the life of Jon over the years.  He is mainly a quiet, thoughtful person.  He is still a strong Catholic, and I think finds himself rather bemused by the fact that he has been a part of the life of an Episcopal saint.  Later, in NH, I would hear him say that he knew Jon 'eight days in life and fifty years in death'.  He has been a ready witness to the death of Jonathan, willing to share this pilgrimage even though it was difficult.  

We arrived in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  There is now a National Parks Historical Center on the corner across
from the famed bridge.  Many of the pilgrims walked the bridge. It was a hot day and Judy and I opted not to.  We had done that before.  For several in the group that was quite meaningful and empowering. There was not much time to linger because we had been invited to lunch at St, Paul's Episcopal Church.

St. Paul's closed its doors to the marchers 50 years ago.  The Episcopal members of the march gathered on the steps of the church and praying that the doors and hearts of the people
would be opened.  Later, through the spring semester,  Judy and Jon would attend the parish taking with them children from the projects in which they were staying.  They were treated to really crude comments from 'good' members of the parish.  There was even discussion of destroying the chalice after the Black children received communion.  Judy, Jon, the children and few other African-Americans were only allowed to sit on the back row. Over the altar in the church are the words "He is risen, He is not here." But the group could only see a portion of the phrase..."He is not here." And agreed. 

The present rector of St. Paul's hasn't been there a year, but he was so welcoming.  They prepared a lovely luncheon and then spoke of the change of heart that the parish had come to. Several of the older members reminisced, but I had a hard time staying present. I realized that the deep Southern Alabama drawl still carries the weight of racism for me.  It took all I could to listen to the veiled excuses for their behavior 50 years ago.  It was hard to stand in forgiveness, and yet I knew that was where the heart of my pilgrimage was.  This pilgrimage wasn't about Jon; it was about me, about how privilege has changed me for good or ill.  

I had to step out of the remembrances for a bit just to catch
my breath. And when I returned the rector was making a presentation to Judy in the name of Jon for helping the parish grow.  A lovely trophy was presented.  It was the first time I have seen Judy awarded anything or even acknowledged for her work in Selma.  She has so often gotten lost in the mystique of Jon that people didn't realize the work she did.  Most of the photographs of Jon that are part of his story were taken by Judy and yet she is never given credit for them.  They now are copyrighted by others.  
EDS Pilgrimage 2015

We returned to Montgomery and went to the Civil Rights monument.  It is a simple fountain in the center of the city's government complex.  Designed by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC.  There is a constant
sheen of water that flows over the names of the Civil Rights Martyrs.  Some of the pilgrims went to one of the churches, but I sat in the evening with a young priest I had met on facebook.  We talked of ministry and the needs of the Church in the wake of the racial issues that still face us.  

The bus was quiet on the way back. Later I heard that the trip to the church was quite a spiritual time for those who went.  I was still trying to reconcile my emotions in the face of the racism that I was still feeling and working through what that kind of exclusion says about us as Church.  

Even now, some weeks after the trip, I am still trying to allow myself to touch those hidden places in myself--I do not
believe that I find racism in me but I did find a growing dissatisfaction with the kind of privilege that I represent simply because of my skin.  I know that it has offered me things that I have not deserved simply because of the color of my skin.  It sets up barriers that I have worked hard to to tear down and yet at times it seems that not enough has been removed for us to know how to trust one another.  And so in my seventies I feel that 'separate' state that continues to break my heart. And yet I cannot give lucha continua...


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Is it not the rich who oppress you?

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? James 2

Nearly every time I read Scripture things jump out at me.  Reading the texts for tomorrow, I am caught by this phrase from the Epistle. I am not preaching so I haven't prepared the texts all week like I would if I were going to be in the pulpit.

 I have read this passage for years and probably preached on the whole passage numerous times, but for some reason I am caught by these words, this part of the whole part of the Epistle of James for so many different reasons that it feels like it swirls around in my heart.

This Epistle isn't used much in the lectionary.  Martin Luther was really opposed to this epistle because it spoke of spiritual works, works that showed forth the change of heart, the transformation of spirit that occurs when faith is operative in the Christian.  Luther was trying to
emphasize the place of faith over works which at the time was the face of Roman Catholicism.  The Catholic theology of works had devolved into a cash hound for the Vatican so that it became a mere matter of buying one's salvation.  Luther was rightly scandalized by the Church's practice of selling indulgences. However, Luther's corrective was to deny the place of works in the salvific action of faith.  Actually it wasn't Luther who was opposed to 'works'. It was those who parsed the theologians later in history. And it is the exaggeration of this idea of faith OVER works that has eroded the Christian message in the past 25 years. 

The balance of faith and works has always been a difficult barometer of faith.  It is so easy to look at what one person does to measure their faith, we think.  And yet it is so difficult for us to know the struggle of faith that goes on in the heart of
individuals in relationship to the Holy Center of their lives.  I am sure there are those who are scandalized by my outward actions when I am advocating for those who are not as strong.  How we can judge the character of others solely by their actions is a mystery to me. And yet I find that I do that just like others. It is a constant struggle for me.

But this part of the whole passage caught me.  It throws a monkey wrench into all the Protestant Work Ethic, or the Prosperity Gospel
that is being bantered about these days.  It is easy to think that the 'ME' generations have led us to the type of 'get ahead' thinking that amounts for education these days.  But it isn't a recent phenomenon.  Obviously James and his followers were dealing with the same problem. The author of the epistle is dealing with a time of dislocation and violence and yet he is exhorting his followers to peacemaking as a sign of their faith.  I have always found this epistle one that calls me to action standing firmly on the Christian principles that I have learned in the life of Jesus.

But this one little verse has stopped me. God [has] chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  Of course, this mirrors the
Sermon on the Mount.  Of course, the Magnificat speaks of  'lifting up the poor', but do we really trust that?  If Christianity is really lived, if we are really going to embrace a kind of spirituality that proclaims the simplicity that was taught by Jesus of Nazareth, how do we treat the poor?  How do we see the poor?  Do we see them as people who have more faith than we ourselves? Or do we not even see them?

Over 45 years ago I went to Mexico to do 'missionary work'.  I thought that I had something to 'give to the poor people' in small
ranchitos.  I must admit I had a rather romantic idea of what being a missionary was.  I was going to 'take faith' to a poor people.  When I got there, I found a people who had greater faith than I  because their faith was so necessary for their basic existence.  I was 'rich' by their standards although I had been raised working class in my own
country.  But I was educated and I had a car...signs of material wealth in their eyes.  They appreciated what I brought them, teaching English, but I came to realize that they had so much more to teach me about trusting my life to God.  And I learned something
about being poor.  I learned that the work ethic I had growing up enough.  I didn't have to 'get ahead' of others just to be successful.  What I chose was not success, or perhaps my definition of success changed.  I chose to try to live as best I could living Christ's life and provide for myself minimally.  I chose to live a life of poverty--not the kind of abnegation that denies the beauty of God's life.  But I chose to step off the rat race of self-aggrandizement to know that my values were more important to live than trying to meet society's.  Somehow I was able to allow myself to be different enough not to worry about what the neighbors thought. In 1970 I made private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience--an obedience that was made to Christ, not those who felt they had the right to demand it. 

My friends have been with others who have chosen to live simply in faith assured that God was in charge.  Yes, there have been times when I have gotten into financial problems because I choose not worry about what I am saving for a rainy day.  I try to be responsible, but constantly worrying about my portfolio is not something that I do.  

Recently we had a bit of a problem with cash flow and our account
was charged with items that were supposed to be paid by others.  The person responsible for the mistake said "You should have a credit card.  This wouldn't be happening if you just had a credit card."  I told him that I do not choose to have a credit card and participate in the credit system of privilege that continues to deprive the poor and
participates in debasing people everyday.  He didn't 'get' it. (I think he's a banker.) He is a good person but cannot see that the kind of identification with the poor that this passage calls us to.  He can't see that the whole system is what abases millions around the world and conversely debases him. To choose to opt out of the system is unheard of, in his mind. He does not see it as oppression. And he doesn't realize just how he is chained to the fundamental of richness that leaves him impoverished.

All too often those who are in positions of privilege cannot see
what they are doing is oppressive.  I have often railed against 'white, straight, male privilege' and I am finding that it isn't any one race, sexual orientation, gender that oppresses. It is those who seem to have the comfort of being able to dictate how life is to be lived by others.  We are seeing it a clerk in Kentucky, in heads of universities that ignore quotas, police who live in fear so that they inflict fear on others, even people in our own churches or synagogues.  We may do it to people in the grocery line or to a waiter at the restaurant. James' words haunt: Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 

I often forget the blessed name that was invoked over me at my baptism.  I often forget the faith of the poor that is in me and find
myself trying to 'get ahead' instead of 'paying it forward' in the name of Jesus.  

When I find myself worrying I try to unravel it, to pick it apart to see what is at the heart of it.  I often find that it is my own sense of privilege that is at the center of it.  It is then that I must call myself to repentance and return to the poverty of my choosing, the poverty that says I can depend upon God for all that I need.  It is in that poverty that I can find the richness of God's presence.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Selma Tales: Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, AL II

After meeting our fellow pilgrims on Wed. evening and some guided discussion, Thurs. morning we all went to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham.  There was a instructional exhibit for those who had never experienced the Jim Crow laws of the South.  The majority of our group had either not grown up in the South or were too young to have been confronted with many of the
degrading expectations of people of color in the 50's and 60's. It was hard for me to remember the indignity of Jim Crow.

I remember the injustice of those laws. Riding in the back of the bus, the green or worse water fountains, the smell of bathrooms that were never cleaned marked 'colored' from the time I was small.  It wasn't until college that I learned of 'night riders', the rape of Black women that was not seen as a crime, and the lynchings.  The Institute had exhibits that brought them all back.  The recordings of
bigoted politicians and police were played that reminded me of the TV in the 60's.  But standing now in a Birmingham museum the horror of those days it all returned.  Judy and I did not walk together.  I couldn't walk with anyone.  The violence of the videos of marches, police brutality upon non-violent marching were visions I didn't want to revisit, and yet needed to.  It is so easy for white folk to close their eyes.  However, if my Black friends had had to endure it, I could
not in conscience close my eyes. There is such truth in "I am not free if my brother is oppressed." My own oppression came over me in waves, the kind of oppression that I allow when I fear those who would belittle others because of ethnicity, color, culture, sexual orientation, creed.

We also went to the 16th Street Baptist
Church, the church that was bombed in 1963 and where 4 tween girls were killed on their way to their Sunday School class.  Many went to the Jazz museum where images of how people of color coped with the oppression and how a local musician was able to lead young people of the era into creativity rather than hatred. 

While in the Institute I met the daughter of Rev. Fred
Shuttlesworth, the founder of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and a member of the NAACP, an organization that was outlawed in AL in the 50's. She was visiting the Institute while on a visit to Birmingham too.  I felt humbled by her presence.  She wanted Judy's name so that the whole story of the struggle for equality could be told. She too understood that White folk were oppressed by Jim Crow too.  Any group that has to oppress others to feel superior is already imprisoned.  And the White folk of the South were as much chained by their fear as people of color were by the law. And in many cases, still are.

When we got back on the bus, I sat with an African-American priest, younger than I, who had never lived under Jim Crow.  "How could they do that to MY people?" she cried.  I realized how much of a shock the exhibit had been for her.  I was reliving but she was experiencing it for the first time. My heart hurt for her.  It hurt for me--a White woman whose race had terrorized her people and I began to understand just how hard it is to us to talk with one another to get to any kind of healing of the racial barriers.  Between the shame and the indignation it is hard to insert reconciliation. 

This pilgrimage was not about what happened 50 years ago.  It was
about now.  It was about Ferguson, Charleston, and every other murder that we have had over the past years.  It was about Rebel flags. It was about voting rights now.  It was about scholarships and percentages
of minority admittance or employment. It was about anger and despair where minorities will always be minorities until America becomes brown or learns that cultures are designed to give us more than what they mean to separate in us.

A type of fatigue began to settle on me. I not only couldn't find internet connections in which I could blog or sent my impressions back to the parish or the diocese as I had planned.  I was overwhelmed with what hadn't happened in the past 50 years in the South.  And by the end of my first day, I knew that this trip was going to be life changing if I allowed it.