unseen things now seen (by me)

Friday morning I woke up sleepy and maybe a little grumpy. Okay, maybe a lot grumpy. However, sleeping past 6 a.m. was not something I was going to be aloud so I tried to rally by splashing cold water on my face in the bathroom of a rest stop. I got back on the bus a little less than happy to be alive but remembered the journey I was on and tried to pay attention.

As we continued our drive into Birmingham, AL we watched the movie 4 Little Girls which tells the story of the events preceding the bomb that went off in the famous 16th St Baptist Church which injured 22 people and killed 4 young girls, ages 11 and 14, while they were getting ready for Sunday school. After watching most of the film, we stopped for breakfast at New City Covenant Church. We were greeted by one of their pastors who was not only alive at the time of these Civil Rights events but marched in the famous Children’s March of 1963 that preceded the bombing of the church. It’s a march famous for the reaction the police had on the people. They used police dogs and fire hoses to “tame” the children who were just quietly participating in a march for their rights.

After breakfast we got back on the bus and went a few blocks to the famous church. We walked into the 16th St Baptist Church and sat in their pews waiting on groups to arrive. As I sat there, I looked around this historic sanctuary, trying to imagine that day in 1963 when everything changed for that congregation. We watched another video there that chronicled the church’s involvement as well as the events of that day and the events after that day.

One of their pastors told us of the renovations that were done after the bombing to restore the side of the building that was destroyed. This included having to repair 3 stained glass windows that needed to match those that were built decades before. So they hired a famous artist from Whales to come out and redo these windows. This man was so touched by the story of this church and what had happened that he went back to Whales and took up an offering at schools to put in a special window. So in the back of their sanctuary there is a window that they call their “Whales Window.” It depicts and African American man suffering in silence (as Jesus had) pushing one hand out – against oppression – and one hand is uplifted – asking for forgiveness for the oppressors. It is a beautiful window.

We then walked across the street to the Civil Rights Institute (called an institute – not a museum because it is meant to educate). We began the journey through time – in our partner groups. It started with a film about how after slavery was ended that the African American population in the US basically built our country by taking the dangerous jobs that the Caucasian population didn’t want. Laying the railroad, mining, etc. And that everything became segregated. It ends with a picture of a water fountain that says “Whites” and basically a rusted spicket that says “Colored.” Then the screen lifts up and opens the room into the institute with the actual water fountain / spicket. So we all got up and ventured in.

What followed was pictures and models of the various things that separated the “whites” from the African Americans. The things that stuck out to me most were – pictures of ads depicting African Americans in a mocking way, a laundry truck that said “Imperial Laundry – we wash for whites only,” the comparison of houses in African American neighborhoods. Then there were the awful pictures of lynching, cross burnings, and a KKK outfit. It was appalling. Pictures from the day that African American students tried to attend school in Arkansas – the faces of children full of hatred and rage. I fought back the tears the whole way through. Attempting to write down all the things that stuck out and that made me cringe.

Then we entered a room that just had holograms of people and over the speakers came words of hate that I’m sure flew out of many mouths. Words I could never imagine repeating anywhere. A little further and we saw the beginning efforts of Martin Luther King , Jr. He came to Birmingham to aid in the marches and to speak. He was arrested and thrown into jail. While in jail he became aware of a letter from officials of Birmingham calling this movement (his movement) untimely and unwise. He responded to this letter with a letter that is later to be referred to as “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In the institute they have a little mini hallway where on one side you have a mock jail cell and on the other wall there is the letter, blown up to be read at a distance by many people. And if you press a button you can hear a voice read the letter. I stood in that hallway and began reading that letter. He began by addressing that they could not be told to wait any longer. He then recounted the many prejudices that his family faces and the results of those actions. I stood there reading this letter and thinking of all of the things that had happened up to this point. All the injustices, all the deaths, the deaths still to come – including Dr. Kings – the way that people would continue to be treated for years to come.

And I broke. I stood there with tears flowing down my face. Thinking to myself that no wonder there is so much hate toward “whites.” They have every right to be mad. What if this had been a part of my story, my history. Realizing that all they were asking for was equal rights and they were being denied. They wanted to belong in this country that they helped build. They wanted the same freedoms that this country was built upon. It absolutely broke my heart that this was their reality. And on top of that, this man was writing a letter to his oppressors – to those who have used hate and violence toward him and his family – and his words were eloquent and full of love. He was truly responding to hate with love. It was the most tragically beautiful thing I’ve ever read.

So picture me – standing in this institute, in this tiny little hallway, clutching my journal to my chest and tears streaming down my face. I was so overwhelmed I almost didn’t realize I was crying. All there was in the world was me and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr staring me in the face. Suddenly, another member of our journey – who was African American – is beside me, handing me a tissue. He placed an arm around my shoulders and I just stood there for a moment, allowing him to embrace me in that raw place.

From there I moved on and continued on the journey. But that moment I will always remember. I will never forget how it felt for my heart to break in that way and how another person on the journey comforted me within his own pain.

“We will accept the violence and the hate, absorbing it without returning it.” – James Lawson

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