Word for Word 1/3/24

Pastors in many denominations are heavily encouraged, or required, to participate in some sort of continuing education each year. What this looks like can vary from pastor to pastor depending on their interests, goals, what the growing edges they may want to look at. In November, I, along with Rev. Kim Gates from St. Paul and Forest Mills UMCs, had the opportunity to take a “Civil Rights Pilgrimage” on a small group tour. We started out in Nashville, traveled down to Atlanta, rode over to Birmingham and also spent time in Montgomery and Selma in Alabama before making the loop back up to Nashville.

Now, full disclosure would be admitting that the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s happened well before my time, so while many on the trip could remember what they heard (or didn’t hear) in the news back then, it is all history to me.

In Atlanta we wandered through the neighborhood that Martin Luther King Jr lived in, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr Center for Nonviolent Social Change. In that neighborhood we saw the house King was born in (the very one an arsonist attempted to start a fire at earlier this month), the fire station where he hung out with his friends, and the church where King was baptized and ordained.

Eventually we made our way to Birmingham, Alabama, also known as “Bombingham” back in the day due to 50 explosions that occurred in that city from between 1947 and 1965. We stood outside of 16th Street Baptist Church at the exact spot where a bomb was planted that killed 4 young girls on September 15, 1963. The exact very spot that bomb was placed. The thickness of the walls and solid rock foundation were the only reason more weren’t injured or killed that day.

And kitty corner across the street from this church was a beautiful park, showing all sorts of monuments and statues to that era. The very first statue we came to was a statue of four girls. It was in honor of the same four girls who were killed in the bombing that very day, for the crime of being black.

There was a fifth girl that day who was there, but was “only” injured as she permanently lost her eyesight. The statue of the four girls was a depiction of the last thing the fifth girl ever saw.

There was a statue that commemorated the fire hoses used on children who dared to protest against the way they were being treated. Of course there were no people attached to those hoses: we prefer to think the hoses did all the work. The pressure that came out of those hoses was so great, they could lift people up in the air and slam them down again. The pressure was so great that trees in the way had the bark stripped right off of them.

I could go on and on, but I could take up the entire newspaper in doing so. One thing I never knew is that many of the black people who were arrested never came home and never were heard from again. They were sent off to iron and copper mines where they were worked to death. It is said that Adolf Hitler got many of his ideas from the way black people were treated in the south before the civil rights era.

I know, I know. The argument now is that we are past all of that. Things have changed, that’s ancient history and we need to move on. Unfortunately, the repercussions of the actions from that era still reverberate through families today. I did not realize the GI Bill, which was so important to soldiers coming home from World War II, as it allowed them to buy homes and go on to school, was generally denied to black soldiers. The practice of “redlining” allowed banks to refuse to make loans in specific parts of cities, where black people were allowed to live, of course, making it impossible for them to buy homes. The list goes on and on.

But the fact is, much of the wealth in this country is passed down from generation to generation. And if your parents weren’t able to buy a house, go to school, or get a good paying job, not only are you statistically unable to do the same things, but there is also no wealth to pass down from generation to generation. And when much of our wealth is tied up in owning property, that means those who were denied opportunities 70 years ago are the same families that continue to struggle.

For our last stop, we went to Selma, Alabama and were able to walk over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which was the starting point for the march from Selma to Montgomery. But before that, we got to tour the town of Selma, itself. Selma is not a thriving town, by any stretch of the imagination. The population is nearly 18,000 people, and 80% of them are black. Back in the 1960s, organizations were called in from across the south to fight against poll taxes and tests in order to secure voting rights for all. Unfortunately, an incredibly historic city on the civil rights pilgrimage is now also one of the poorest and most crime ridden cities in the country.

We spent a week wondering what we’ve done to each other in this country: too often in God’s name. For all the arguing, pain, and finger pointing we’ve continued to do, as Christians we know we can do better to love others and improve life for everyone. It’s what God calls us to do. Our history tells us we could have done better, and our future tells us we must do better. May God continue to teach us to lead with love and compassion for all.

Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Zion United Church of Christ (UCC), Waukon