I was a young child with an auspicious beginning.
Mom tells this story with a smirk on her petite face; we were in the waiting room at the pediatricians office when I was still a very young girl, perhaps no older than two years of age. Glancing around the room, Mom says I looked back at her, squeezed her knees, and squealed with delight, “Mommy look! A chocolate baby!” This wasn’t said with a drop of malice but instead out of excitement, I noticed something different and this delighted me, evidently.
Yep. Kids say the darndest things.
By the time I was entering adulthood, this anecdote seemed all the more amusing. Not only had I attended a school in a racially diverse state (at least more so than where I had originated from) – Arkansas – and also had a father as a long time educator for one of Colorado’s most diverse schools, but my college senior thesis (a year of work, mind you) centered on race relations and urban development for youth in New Orleans.
The moment that was the biggest “game changer”, you might say, was when I sojourned down to a small town in Mississippi early in 2008. We had started what had been dubbed “The Journey of Reconciliation”; a college trip aimed to immerse students in the history and realities of the Civil Rights Movement, the legacy of its people, and places, and the value of service. Truth be told, I went along with one of my best friends Michelle – long before our abiding friendship had been cemented – and it wasn’t upon some dignified invitation that we went. No, we heard students discussing the itinerary in the wooden hallways of our old chapel following a service one evening and decided to invite ourselves to an informational meeting. We went, and I’m pretty sure we paid all of $70 for the entire trip. Yes, the glory of Hendrix College.
We rode in these hilarious white vans with other college students through Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, onwards to Atlanta and back again. A Colorado girl, this was my first time in the Deep South and it left a lasting impression.
I have this orange folder that has a piece of purple duct tape on the front. On it, I wrote,
Movements begin with individuals.
When I open the folder, it explodes with ticket stubs from the National Civil Rights Museum, a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, a city map of Atlanta, and a wrinkled paper of writing prompts that our leaders directed us to reflect on. A couple of the questions listed are,
“Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with.’ Did you see evidence of compassion offered to the victims and their families? When have you offered compassion in your own life and where has compassion been offered to you?”
In one of the moments that stands as a marker in my own faith, we stopped at small, little Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Located in Neshoba county – where the first land owned by former slaves occurred in 1879 – the church stands as a major historical landmark as it played a role in “Freedom Summer”. The plaque outside the church summarizes the events briefly and succinctly,
“On June 21,1964 voting rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerener, who had come here to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion church, were murdered. Victims of a Klan conspiracy, their deaths provoked national outrage and led to the first successful federal prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi.”
Before attending a service, we had the incredible opportunity to hear an elderly woman speak with us about her experiences as a young girl when history was playing itself out. She spoke at length about the church being burnt by members of the KKK. Her descriptions of the smell, of the magnitude of the flames, and the hatred resonated deeply. I don’t remember every detail she spoke of, but I do remember how it made me feel. Her testimony was as powerful as I ever heard. I knew that day that God had worked something miraculous in that woman’s heart – perhaps in this community too – and that never has left me. When it comes to what abiding faith looks like, that is what it means. To praise God in times of discrimination, murder, and fire
As we continued our travels South, I felt certain that what Dr. King and many of our citizens accomplished back in this struggle couldn’t be confined to any legislative or power controls. Yes, that was the end goal – the big idea – but before any of those larger changes could take place, it was about taking claim of lives and livelihood. It was about blood and death – literally. It was love transforming hate.
I didn’t know how important it was that I bear some understanding of racial inequality and struggle at the time, but it has followed me everywhere I have gone. The South, perhaps more than many other places in our country, holds our deepest and darkest history and secrets. America, claiming to be a land for the free, hasn’t always been. What scares me, is that even now, can we really stake that claim?
Selma is a powerfully intense film because it bears witness not only to the history of the movement, the people, and the ideas, but the pressing, undergirding need that still exists.
I liked it to, because I walked out of the theatre (blubbery and tired from all the tears I shed), not in a spirit of anger or disbelief, but in a deeper understanding that God has called us to be people that are different. We have reacted to this shamefully, consistently throughout human history trying to mold others to what we think is “right”.
Our reflection of who Christ is should be, is, and will always be different.
It’s far more than just color. It’s more than race. It’s even more than our personalities, our choices, or our fundamental beliefs. It’s our character. It’s our heart. It’s how God wants to use us.
I attend a church that I think gets this. It’s not all about free love and it certainly isn’t a “soft” church, if you know what I mean. But difference is valued. Our pastor recently shared with us that in a massive church survey, most of the congregants loved the diversity of the church more than anything else. There is something special about worshipping The Lord alongside people who come from different places, who might have a different amount of money in their pockets, and have been through a depth of experiences that you could never understand. It’s special because the foundational conversations can take place; understanding can be more facilitated, and I think this was what Dr. King was talking about. I think that’s what Selma was about too.
It was about equal rights, the struggle, and the deep pain that some people have had to walk through. And still, it represented the need for unity and sharing the struggle together. When the second march to Selma happens, it’s bigger, stronger, and it’s diverse. In this moment in the film, you can’t help but feel that yes! That’s what reconciliation looks like.
In Philippians 3:10, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
When my Sunday community group has discussed this verse, and since referenced it time and time again, it’s been about a larger understanding of what Jesus had to go through in order for us to be made new. We can never replicate what he has done, and yet, we can engage and accept the sufferings of others so that we can better envision and experience the kind of community I think Jesus longs for us to have.
I’m not saying leave your job today and go out and protest and march in the streets.
Honestly, if you turn on the news these days it might compel you to want to shut out, disengage, and ignore the chaos that seems to be happening. We are living in weird times.
But I’m not even saying watch the news, either.
Maybe it could start with watching a film like Selma or maybe it means seeking community a bit more intentionally than you have before. Maybe it’s having a conversation with somebody that not only looks different and is different from you, but may even THINK different than you. I struggle here the most. It’s easy to talk about community and all of this “kumbaya” sort of feelings, but on a practical level it can be hard, especially when you want to respond before even listening to what another person is saying.
Ignorance might drive me crazy, but wouldn’t I be the ignorant one when I refuse to listen to another person’s thoughts and ideas?
Yes, building community and understanding is quite difficult.
However, Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and Selma remind me – and all of us- that it has been done before. And absolutely, it can be done again.