The Season of Advent will be different for me this year. Traditionally, the Lectionary scriptures begin by lifting up the challenges of the world with its sense of darkness, into which the hope and light of Jesus enters on Christmas. My experiences recently add to the sense of darkness and heaviness – while longing for hope and light.
Two weeks ago UCC Conference Ministers & Executive Officers met for three days in Birmingham, AL with the purpose of connecting to what one person described as “the holy places of our communal sin of racism.” It was an intense experience.
We spent one day in Montgomery visiting The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Located on the site where enslaved people were once warehoused and a block from one of the more prominent slave auction spaces in America, the museum uses unique technology to dramatize the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America. The museum also explores the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence.
From there we went to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that provided another haunting experience, lifting up the history of racial inequality. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names and dates of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. (Remember our Annual Meeting is in Montgomery in June – plan to add time to visit some of these hallowed places)
We drove to Selma, AL and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the site of “Bloody Sunday” where on March 7, 1965 peaceful civil rights supporters were attacked by armed police and beaten while seeking to march to the capital in Montgomery in support of voters rights.
The next day we were in Birmingham and toured the 16th Avenue Baptist Church which was a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, including the Children’s Crusade. Kelly Ingram Park is across the street and was the stage for shocking pictures when the police used fire hoses and dogs on the children, arresting 600 on the first day. On September 15, the Church was also bombed, killing 4 young girls, who were getting ready for a church lesson entitled, “The Love that Forgives.”
Across the street is the Civil Rights Institute, a marvelous museum that provides a time-line and background for civil rights struggles – in the United States and Alabama. Exhibits include a replica of a freedom riders bus that was bombed, the actual jail cell door of Martin Luther King, Jr. and oral stories of personal experiences, etc.
Our evening provided an opportunity to listen to the stories of three members of First Congregational UCC, Birmingham. Mr. J. Mason Davis, an attorney, provided some history of Birmingham and how mining companies and discrimination of free slaves led to a convict system that became “slavery by another name.” Ms. Barbara Shores spoke of her father who was the first black attorney to take a case to court and was a trailblazer as a Civil Rights attorney. Her family endured repeated attacks by the Klu Klux Klan including having their house bombed twice. Ms. Odessa Woolfolk, a retired teacher, shared about the struggles of being allowed to vote. Even black veterans who came back from war were refused the right to vote. Ms. Woolfolk also spoke of the role of the church. Many white protestant ministers were supporters of the KKK. Although some were involved in inter-racial work, they did so with their lives and the lives of their families threatened.
It was a very heavy feeling by the end of our time together. What was alarming was making the connections of how the past continues to affect the present situations. I am becoming more aware of how our justice system allows for persons of color to get more severe sentences than those who are white but accused of the same crime. I am reading more and more of criminal cases where new evidence of the innocence of those imprisoned is not allowed to be considered. In addition, as many of you know, voter suppression is prevalent in many places.
So…as I enter the season of Advent, I do so with a heavy heart. Yet into this heaviness, the light and hope of Jesus enters through the birth of a baby – God with us. It is a light that continues! May we encourage the light and hope to grow through our witness, so that injustice and inequality are eliminated.
Blessings, Char Burch