Monday, March 9, 2015

Remembering Selma & the Role of the Church

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the second march from Selma to Montgomery. Black people in Alabama, fifty years ago, were systematically denied the right to vote. And so they organized peaceful marches and demonstrations to protest this injustice. Many people were beaten by law enforcement officers at these events. 

In Marion, Alabama, Jimmie Lee Jackson helped organize one of these nonviolent actions in his own town of Marian, Alabama. He was a deacon in his church, and most of the people participating in the protests were organized through churches. Following the entirely peaceful demonstration, Jackson was not only beaten but shot by a state trooper and died in the hospital. 

Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize 600 black people to march peacefully from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. As they crossed the Edmond Pettis bridge, many of them were savagely beaten and gassed by the state troopers and county posse members who then chased them back into Selma and continued the assault. Amelia Boynton, a women who helped organize that first Selma march, was beaten unconscious. Her photograph and other images shocked the world. 

Early the next morning Martin Luther King, Jr., dispatched a telegram that read: 

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all of America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths representative of every part of the country, to join me for a ministers’ march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.... 

Hundreds of white clergy, joined the now thousands of black clergy and protesters. When the marchers got to the end of the bridge, state troopers made way for them to pass. But King led the marchers back to the church for he did not have a state or federal order of protection. 

Unitarian Universalist ministers Clark Olsen, Orloff Miller, and James Reeb were among the marchers. They had just eaten dinner at an integrated restaurant with other colleagues who headed by car to the church service where King would speak. But the three of them headed to the church by foot. As they walked back, they were attacked by four men with bats. James Reeb never saw the first blow coming. He was taken to a hospital where he died two days later. 

He wasn’t the only Unitarian Universalist to lose his life following this march. Viola Liuzzo, a white activist from Detroit saw on television the horrific images and informed her husband and two teenage sons that she had to go. She drove down to participate. She was ferrying a black protester from Selma back to his home when she and the black teenager in her car were shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. There is a reason why two of the people killed right after the second Selma march were Unitarian Universalist. Because many Unitarian Universalists showed up. Many people of our faith tradition had the courage to love and live out their values.  

At the memorial service for James Reeb, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached,  

So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.”

This month I am exploring with my congregation what it means to take a path of resilience. The role of a healthy and vibrant congregation is to provide a nest, a nest where we all can grow in resilience. A nest where we cultivate lives of courage and commitment, where we grow warriors of love who gladly head to the front-lines of justice-making. A nest where we are nourished and receive solace when we are weary. A nest where we grow our souls and recommit ourselves time and again to live with courage to bring forth in our world justice, compassion, and equity in human relations. This, I believe, is the core work of the church. 

I had a conversation with a new member a couple years ago. She told me, “I’m not here to get involved in justice work. I am exhausted. I am hurting and grieving. I need to get my life back in order. And what I feel called to do is join the choir.” That’s great. We need people in the choir, because the choir nourishes us, supports us, it contributes significantly to our nest where we all can grow in resilience, our nest where we can support one another in lives of courage, compassion, and commitment." In time this person may want to become a warrior for love and participate on the front-lines. But that’s not where we all are, and that’s okay. What matters is that we all find our place in supporting this nest and contribute to nourishing people to attend to our core mission.

My point is that both the Christian and the Unitarian Universalist  faith traditions are ones where the church, our congregations, are here to not only call us to be good people but to nourish and challenge us all to live into the vision of the beloved community where justice, compassion and equity are realized in all human relationships. 

May this be our promise and our prayer.

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