The Church on the Bridge

Pettus Bridge, Selma to Montgomery

Pettus Bridge, Selma to Montgomery

If some churches are like opium dens, others are like Pettus Bridge, the bridge over the Alabama River you must cross to get from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

In the history of America’s civil rights movement, Pettus Bridge and the events of “Bloody Saturday” represent a crossing over from the society addicted to violence, hatred, and war to “the peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah. Think Jesus. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. Think Congressman John Lewis. Think all the anonymous souls who dared to cross the bridge from here to there.

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies — or else? The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” [The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

I suspect Karl Marx never knew a church like that. What he saw was religion as a tool of the powerful, an ideological overlay on reality to keep their subjects compliant with the existing social order.

The church of the bridge is no opium den. No one is doped up. No one is in a stupor. People don’t go there to hide. It is by nature a place that calls for commitment and action. The Church as Pettus Bridge is spiritually, economically, politically, and culturally revolutionary. It requires far-reaching transformation of people, structures, and systems. It’s a risky place. The church on the bridge requires you to put your whole body, mind, and soul on the line – on the  bridge – fully conscious that the troops the old social order will come after you. It is the church of Jesus and the prophets, and of Paul at his best:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Epistle to the Romans 12: 1-2, NRSV]

Every time the Church of the Bridge gathers for worship, the pews are filled with people wearing crash helmets. They expect something real to happen. They expect to make it happen. When they gather around the Lord’s Table for Eucharist, they know what they are celebrating: “the peaceable kingdom”, the City of God on the other side of violence, hatred, and war that puts them on the bridge.

 

 

 

MLK Day 2015 – the house next door

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

On Martin Luther King Day 2015 the historic house next door to us on The Freedom Trail here in St. Augustine is a faint shadow of its former self. A weathered sign by the rear entry reads:

“NO TRESPASSING by order of the City of St. Augustine. Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Some of the louvered glass windows on the back porch are broken out. Sheets and blankets cover the windows.

The White family paid the price for their courage. James and Hattie were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, as was their son Samuel. But, as Isaac Watts (1674–1748) reminds us in his poem and hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Time has a way of placing brackets around even the best historic moments. James, Hattie, and Samuel, their 14 year-old son, who was sent to reform school for sitting in at the downtown St. Augustine Woolworth’s, have been borne away by time. The three of them are deceased; their story and the dream is still alive.

When young Samuel and his three friends later known as “the St. Augustine Four” were arrested at Woolworth’s, the authorities agreed to release them to their parents’ custody on one condition: that they sign a statement that their children would not violate the law again. The four young men pleaded with their parents not to sign the pledge, assuring their parents that they, the sons, could make no such pledge. Mr. and Mrs. White refused to sign. Fourteen year-old Samuel was sent to reform school for a year. He served six months of the sentence before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson and other civil rights movement leaders came to St. Augustine to shine the national spotlight on St. Augustine. Samuel and the other incarcerated member of The St. Augustine Four were released by order of the Governor of Florida. The Civil Rights Act followed.

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

– William Walsham How  (1823 – 1897) 

MLK, Dr. Hayling, and Mr. James Jackson

Be where you are. If you stay there, really LIVE there, dig into the place, listen to the voices, watch the faces and people movements, you’re likely to discover the deeper streams of courage and frailty that make a place what it is.

Take yesterday, for example. Kay and I attend the “Hands Up!” educational event at St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, around the corner from where we’re living this January. Mr. James Jackson, who seems to know a great deal about the law, citizens’ rights, and how to deal with law enforcement, sits behind us. There’s something different about him, a weathered face and voice that come with experience.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

Dr. Robert B. Hayling and Mr. James Jackson

When the opportunity presents itself, we step outside for conversation. James Jackson was  a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Field Officer in St. Augustine with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I listen to what he tells me about the tumultuous time in St. Augustine that led to the passage of U.S. Civil Rights Act. “The bill was sitting on Johnson’s desk,” he says, “but he didn’t want to move forward with it. What happened here in St. Augustine [referring to the acts of civil disobedience to de-segregate the public beaches] drew national attention and put pressure on Washington.”

After the “Hands Up!” workshop a google search for James Jackson leads to more information about him, Dr.  Robert B. Hayling, a dentist, and another who were kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan. Gwendolyn Duncan tells the story.

Dr. Robert HaylingFor [Dr. Hayling’s] continued fight to right the injustices perpetrated upon him and his fellow Black Citizens, his home was shot into, barely missing his wife and killing his dog which was within the home. His wife and children escaped without injury. On another occasion, Dr. Hayling, along with Mr. Clyde Jenkins, Mr. James Hauser, Mr. James Jackson were kidnapped by the Klu Klux Klan.

All of the men, except Mr. James Jackson were beaten unmercifully and left semi-conscious. If not for the compassion of a white minister, Reverend Irvin Cheney, who slipped from the rally and called the State Highway Patrol in Tallahassee, Dr. Hayling and his fellow activists, who were stacked like firewood, would have been burned alive with gasoline. Dr. Hayling received the most serious injuries, suffering hospitalization for fourteen days, losing eleven teeth, and several broken ribs. Scars he is known to have said, “I’ll take to my grave.” He and the others were charged with assault but charges were dropped because the Klan never showed up to court. The Klan was never prosecuted in this case.

— Copyright © 2004, Gwendolyn Duncan, “Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement – Dr. Robert B. Hayling”

Dr. Hayling’s house is three blocks from where Kay and I are staying. Before meeting Mr. Jackson yesterday, we read the Freedom Trail plaque walking by the house around the corner here in Lincolnville.

Be where yo are. If you stay there, really LIVE there, dig into the place, listen to the voices, watch the faces and the people movements, you’re likely to discover the deeper streams of courage and frailty that make a place what it is.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Jan. 18, 2015

 

The House Next Door on the Freedom Trail

We knew nothing about St.Augustine when we rented the house at 96 South Street for the month of January. It turns out that the house next door played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement. 94 South Street is on “The Freedom Trail” tour in St. Augustine in Lincolnville, the district settled by freed slaves in 1866.

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

94 South Street, St. Augustine, FL

Newly arrived, we notice that a group  gathers each day outside the house. Our second evening I walk by the house at dusk and greet the gray-bearded man sitting in a chair. He rises with his cane.

“Good evening.”
“Good evening,” he responds.
“You live here?” I ask.
“No, my friend does.”
“My name’s Gordon,” I say, extending my hand.
“Mr. _____” [I cant’ hear what he says]. “So tell me about this house. It’s an historic house, right?”
Freedom trail plaque“Read the sign,” he says, limping to the plaque next to the sidewalk. “Read it.”

I read it out loud.

Home of the White Family – Lincolnville

This has been the home to the Whites, one of the outstanding families active in the 1963-1964 civil rights movement in St. Augustine.  Parents James (a decorated Buffalo Soldier from World War II) and Hattie Lee White both took part in demonstrations and went to jail for freedom in those times.  Their son Samuel was one of the “St. Augustine Four”–teenagers who spent six months in jail and reform school after a July 1963 sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown.  Mrs. White wrote to NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, “I’ve never heard of any child being taken away from their parents for wanting his freedom.  Have you?”  National protests at the injustice by Jackie Robinson and others forced the governor and cabinet of Florida to release the St. Augustine Four in January 1964.

Twin daughters Janice and Jeanette took part in the effort to integrate one of the local white churches.  They are featured in Jeremy Dean’s movie “Dare Not Walk Alone.”

Sons Christopher and Walter Eugene were pioneers in the effort to end racial segregation in St. Augustine’s public schools.  Son James took part in the wade-ins that garnered international attention at St. Augustine Beach in the summer of 1964.

This marker is erected by ACCORD to honor all of the members of the family for their efforts to make St. Augustine, America, and the world a better place.

Christopher still lives in the house.

So here we are vacationing next to history. Look for more posts from conversations with Christopher and the people at St. Paul A.M.E. Church after the “Hands Up” workshop this Saturday.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Thursday, January 15, 2015

 

 

Martin Luther King Day in St. Augustine

The car dealer here in St. Augustine will be open on Martin Luther King Day. No holiday for its workers.

I learn this while waiting for my car to be serviced. I read the local paper, The St. Augustine Record, Wednesday, January 14, 2015. Tucked away page A6 under “News and Notes” is a small headline:

“Commemorative Breakfast Planned”

Commemorative of what? Martin Luther King, Jr., Monday, January 19 at First Coastal Technical College.

I put down the paper and walk through the show room to look at the new models. A white sales manager sees me get into one of the cars and points angrily to a 20-something African-American salesman to get with the program. The young man greets me through the passenger window. I tell him I’m just killing time during a routine oil change and that I’m from Minnesota. We exchange pleasantries.

I get a cup of coffee and go out to look at the used cars – it’s my thing, checking out used cars – and run into the young salesman again. I ask whether Martin Luther King Day is a big deal here in St. Augustine. He smiles. I tell him I’ve just read the newspaper and the small announcement. “Is the dealership closed for Martin Luther King Day?” I ask. “No, Sir. We’re open,” he says. “I’ll be working.”

“Do you know about The St. Augustine Four?” I ask. He doesn’t. I tell him we’re staying next door to the home of James and Hattie White whose 14 year-old son Samuel was sent to reform school in 1963 for sitting in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and that the case of the four teenagers was responsible for Dr. King and Jackie Robinson joining the cause in St. Augustine.

Before I leave the dealership, he finds me in the waiting area. “I asked the boss,” he says. “He said I can have the day off if I want it.”

I tell him there’s a “Hands Up!” workshop Saturday morning at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) where MLK and Jackie Robinson joined the local the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine. It’s just around the corner from where we’re staying in Lincolnville. “Come if you can!” “Thanks,” he says, “Maybe I’ll see you there.”

 

New Legislators, Selma and MLK

Verse – Advice to New Legislators

Support each capital IDEA
(notice the capital letters)
made in the State Capital
(but not always in the CapitOl building)
which will gain financial capital
(if it garners enough political capital)
by making good use of social capital
(without wasting natural capital)
and be sure to capitalize on it.

-Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Jan. 14, 2015

This hour of history - The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This hour of history – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life America celebrates this weekend, had a different IDEA. His was of a world “in which men no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.

A mutual friend who marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery and had just seen “Selma” sent the line, reminding us of “the lessons that are severe, easily forgotten amidst the King mythology, but as relevant today as they were when he first voiced them.

Idealism and Terror

When one thinks of idealism, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi comes to mind. Moral and spiritual giants who stand for ideals that make the world a better place. We think of Idealism as good in the face of evil, or of ideals lifting us up from the dirt of reality, purifying life from its toxins. Ah, but there lies the fatal flaw in idealism itself.

George Will’s Washington Post opinion piece “A Murderer’s Warped Idealism” looks afresh at idealism and evil, not just evil masquerading as idealism, but idealism as a source and form of evil itself.

Will’s commentary zooms in on Adolf Eichmann, executed at midnight 1961 for his role in the German State’s systematic extermination of 6,000,000 Jews. During the trial in Jerusalem Eichmann minimized his role in the Holocaust, presenting himself as a thoughtless functionary carrying out the orders of his superiors.

Referring to newly discovered writings by Eichmann which form the backbone of a new book by German philosopher Bettina Stangneth, Will writes:

Before he donned his miniaturizing mask in Jerusalem, Eichmann proclaimed that he did what he did in the service of idealism. This supposedly “thoughtless” man’s devotion to ideas was such that, Stangneth says, he “was still composing his last lines when they came to take him to the gallows.” (Bolding added by Views from the Edge)

Eichmann and Hitler were not without ideas or ideals. They were not thoughtless. Nor were they irrational, as those who believe that reason can sea us believe. They were idealists who sought to lift up a super race, burning away the world’s impurities as their deranged hearts conceived of them.

The late Dom Sebastian Moore, O.S.B. shone a different light on idealism and the remedy for human madness. He put it this way in The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger:

“We have to think of a God closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of [God] not as standing at the end of the we way take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us in our evil, at the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid.”

We are, says Moore, “conscious animals scared of our animality and seeking to ennoble ourselves.”

Eichmann, Himmler, and Hitler were idealists. Nationalist extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. Whether behind the banner of the State, or of religion, gender, ideology, scientism, or rationalism – idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as “the other” while fleeing “the sore point” that we conscious animals seek to avoid.

Only the God who meets us at the sore point of our shared animality can save us from fantasies. In his last book, Remembered Bliss ((Lapwing Publications: 2014), Dom Sebastian told the reader, “I’m ninety-six, and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, the search for God as real.” RIP.

 

 

 

“Hello, NSA”

“Hello. NSA?” “Hello, CIA.“ “Hello, Homeland Security.” “Hello, whoever you are, listening in on my phone conversations.”

I’m on the phone with the Church Administrator of the little church I serve. A loud whining noise suddenly over-rides her voice. I try to talk with her; she keeps talking as though everything is fine. I hang up and call again. She wonders what happened. I tell her. “It’s the NSA,” she says. We both laugh.

But it’s no laughing matter.

The timing of the unexplained noise on the phone coincided with arrival of an email from a JFK assassination researcher who is providing overnight lodging for another critic of the Warren Commission Report, Judyth Vary Baker. Judyth is Lee Harvey Oswald’s former lover, controversial author of Me and Lee: How I Came to Love and Lose Lee Harvey Oswald. Ms. Baker makes the case that President Kennedy was assassinated by a right-wing, anti-Castro, Mafia-linked group within the CIA.

Judyth is in town this week promoting her latest book, David Ferrie: Mafia Pilot, Participant in Anti-Castro Bioweapon Plot, Friend of Lee Harvey Oswald and Key to the JFK Assassination. David Ferrie is the shadowy figure with whom Judyth worked in 1963 in a New Orleans cancer research lab she claims was a covert project of the CIA.

At the request of her publisher, my friend here in Chaska approached several bookstores, a church, and a senior citizens center. One of the bookstores, one of America’s largest, originally said yes, but the next day reported back that “it wouldn’t work out.” An event at a church was scheduled, but was cancelled at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.

“Hello, NSA.” “Hello, CIA.” Hello, somebody. Someone is listening in. Someone who doesn’t want the rest of us listening to the likes of Judyth Vary Baker or reading the allegations about David Ferrie and the connection between the anti-Castro, Mafia-linked cabal within the CIA.

Or maybe no one is listening in and my friend and I are making it all up. Maybe there is some other reason for the noise I’d never heard before on my phone. It’s just a strange coincidence that the noise happened while the email was arriving on my MacBook Air. It’s coincidence that the phones of people I called the rest of the day did not ring but showed as voicemails without messages, a new wrinkle in their experience and mine. It’s coincidence that my computer and those of several others I had emailed or phoned began to behave as though they needed the Geek Squad or Prozac.

Although I’ve never asked to see it, I’m confident that the FBI has a file on me, and, if they do, I’m rather proud of it. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a group in Decatur, Illinois identifies a picture of King’s alleged assassin as the man who’d shown up out-of-the-blue while a crowd of youth was still on the church parking lot following the dismissal of that night’s youth outreach program.

The FBI shows each of us three photographs, asking if we can identify the man  we met. Each of us, interviewed separately, identifies one of the three. The picture matches the photograph of James Earl Ray on the cover of Life magazine.

A cub reporter who gets wind of the story publishes a column in The Decatur Herald. The Chicago Sun-Times publishes a story on its front page. Right-hand column. Right there in black and white. The headline reads something like “King Assassin Spotted in Decatur, Illinois.” Several of us are quoted in both articles.

Years later, researchers search the files of the Decatur Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times for the stories. They’re not there. There is no evidence that the stories were ever published.

“Good night, NSA.” “Good night, CIA.” “Good night, FBI.” “Good night, Judyth.”

“Hello, Patriot Act.”

“Good-bye Constitution; good-bye Republic.”

“Kyrie Eleison!”

Warren, Mandela, and Truth

This morning’s Washington Post ran the story “Think tank’s criticism of Elizabeth Warren’s populist policies leads to Democratic feud”. Click HERE to read the story.

The story runs the day after the death of one of the world’s great leaders who turned his vision into reality in South Africa: Nelson Mandela. It was reading the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and biographies of Gandhi that Mandela became the voice that changed Apartheid.

Reading the online “comments” on today’s Washington Post article about Senator Warren led me to leave my own comment, as follows.

Elizabeth Warren rankles the feathers of all who have yet to see the insidious assault of crony capitalism on the integrity of a democratic Republic. Right, left, and center thinking people in this country recognize we have a VERY serious systemic problem that required redress. Think tanks, like political parties themselves, belong to the people who pay their bills. Senator Warren does not work for a think tank, and does not work for the Democratic Party. She represents the people with conscience, clarity, and boldness that cut to the quick. That’s to be applauded. Dismissing her as an unrealistic idealist is also to dismiss Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and, particularly apt for today, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu who saw something better for their societies.

Chime in with your views.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.