I Have Work To Do. So Do You

I Have Work To Do. So Do You

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Early in November, the Conference Ministers gathered in Birmingham for our fall meeting. But it was more than a meeting. We had been encouraged to read articles and books related to the history of slavery and racism in this country. Most of these I already knew from the work we have done as staff, as Conference leadership and in racial justice ministries. But such can not prepare one for the experience and impact of what we were to encounter there.
 
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Our time began with some good reflection questions and discussion in small groups, then we headed out. We went to the Legacy Museum of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery which told the story of slavery from the earliest captives through to today. From there we traveled to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known as the Lynching Museum, where we began walking through dozens of rectangular 6-foot metal boxes as the ground angled down till the boxes hung dangling from above or lay like coffins on the ground. Each one represented a county and included the names and dates of people lynched there (4,000 altogether – to date). We next traveled to Selma and crossed the bridge where on Bloody Sunday the march to the capital began to demand voting rights. 

The next day we journeyed to a crossroads in Birmingham. On one corner stood the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls, preparing to sing in choir, died in a church bombing. On the adjacent corner was the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. And across from them both was the park where the Children’s March was met by police dogs and water cannons; a tragic moment in history captured in metal statuary. We ended the day listening to members of First Congregational Birmingham, UCC share the stories from their lives and the lives of their parents, who lived there through those turbulent years. 

These are just locations. They’re historic. And they are well done. But just naming them does not do justice to the witness they bear. 
 
Don Remick, Marilyn Kendrix and Kent Siladi - the three Bridge Conference Ministers - during the Civil Rights trip
The first experience on the trip were holograms in cells. They were telling of having arrived here in this country, after being stolen from their homeland and having endured a brutal ocean crossing, and suddenly, without warning or compassion, having their children taken away from them. They spoke of how they could still hear, helplessly, the children calling out for them and crying. Beyond the cages were ads, taken from history, offering slaves for sale:  good laborers they proclaimed, 8 years of age and obedient hard workers, some boasted. And story after story, display after display, confronted you with the trauma of slavery. That image of children (the age of my grandkids) ripped from their families, sold for labor in fields, treated like nonhuman property, lynched for the most callous of reasons, mangled by bombs, set upon by dogs, would be a perpetual theme throughout the time. And it was only one aspect of the history. A history which is also a current event.

I do not have the words to adequately describe this. I felt horror at what people did to people. I felt profound pain and sadness as I saw and heard stories. I felt guilt and shame for what my country and culture and ancestors did and still do. I felt anger at what was done: anger that I was not taught these stories and anger that I knew enough to know there was more to the stories I learned and I didn’t look deeper. And the emotions were not linear. Not one leading to another. They moved in succession. They cycled back on themselves. They merged together into one thing that I can not adequately name.. And I have work to do. Sorting through this is my work. Looking into my family’s and culture's history, with honesty, is my work. And choosing what to do with this is my responsibility. 

I have known for a long time that I am racist. I was not taught to be prejudiced. My family taught and fought against attitudes and actions that were discriminatory. And I still learned that there are ‘others’: people whose skin color or economics or education was different. It was infused into the school lessons, TV shows, cartoons, culture and commentary of the world in which I have lived and live. And, as we say in racial justice workshops, it got into me. I don’t want it, I don’t like it and I have work to do. So do you.

Because I can not authentically or effectively unmask, dismantle and eradicate racism in the world around me, unless I am doing so for the world within me. 

Don Remick is Transitional Interim Conference Minister for the Massachusetts Conference, UCC 
 
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