A Narrative of Hope and Courage

This week’s guest blogger, Mary Nations, shares a church service she recently helped to design and deliver as they explored the impact of difference and bias. It’s a powerful study of courage in the face of fear and how narratives—spoken, sung, and read—can share the lessons we must learn from the history that’s described in her homily.




I'd heard those songs before. I'd heard them in the piney woods setting of the churches of my mother's heritage in Nelson County, Virginia. ... Yet, in this place, Southwest Georgia, with hostile police ringing the exterior of the church, they were neither repetitious nor familiar; they were worship that contained within the reality of its expression a power affirming life and defying death. That power with which those songs and prayers were infused transcended the objective reality of our situation, fashioned fear into faith, cringing into courage, suffering into survival, despair into defiance, and pain into protest. ... It would be insanely dishonest to claim that we were unafraid. Fear was an intelligent response. Fear was a part of the survival kit. The challenge was to use fear as a signal to exercise caution while refusing to allow fear to paralyze you. One night when a gang of local "lawmen" entered the mass meeting and stood behind us with their hands on their guns, we sang our freedom songs with defiant and prayerful fervor.

– Prathia Hall, SNCC

The music actually was a group statement. If you look at the music and the words that came out of the Movement, you will find the analysis that the masses had about what they were doing.

– Bernice Johnson Reagon, SNCC Freedom Singer

Parker Palmer says that the "true" covenant "means the acceptance of weighty obligations to a Lord who demands that we 'do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.'" The church's acceptance of this true covenant, he says, would "serve as a channel of reconciliation in a world in love with divisions....the church would proclaim not its mastery over the world but its servanthood--to God, to humankind, and to the vision of a peaceable kingdom."

– from UCC.org

Call to Worship

One: I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
People: I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
One: I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the river of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:
People: I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.

– Pauli Murray, Cambridge, 1969

Opening Prayer

Holy One, Something new is upon us, and yet nothing is ever new. May we love ever more.

May we motivate ourselves to committed love in action.

May we motivate ourselves to live the life we wish to see in the world. May we learn to sing freedom songs with defiant and prayerful fervor. May we be the transformation we wish to see in the world.

From the inside out . . .

From the roots branching upwards . . .

From the heart. . .

to thought

to word

to action.

Through life's trials and hardships we can arise beautiful and free

– Adapted from Barbara Kingsolver and Julia Butterfly Hill

Scripture Reading: Micah 6:8

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously take God seriously.

– The Message

Homily: The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

William Faulkner’s observation of the past is our present starting place.

I saw the film Freedom Riders this week for the first time. It is the story of a six-month period in 1961 that became a major turning point in the civil rights movement.

The Freedom Riders were groups of black and white Americans who chose to travel together on buses and trains into the Deep South. By taking this action, one that sounds downright ordinary today, over 400 people risked their lives and livelihoods, and many endured brutal beatings and imprisonment. Fifty years ago, traveling together was direct and deliberate challenge to the Jim Crow laws that were still in place in the South, even after being overturned by the Supreme Court.

The volunteers were met with organized mob violence catalyzed by bitter racism. In Alabama and Mississippi, local and state law enforcement were intentionally restrained from providing safety and enforcing federal law. As the violence and arrests continued over weeks and months, with coverage nationally and internationally, more Freedom Riders joined in, each group showing an amazing adherence to nonviolent activism.

How did this movement begin? To quote one participant, Pauline Knight-Ofosu: “I got up one morning in May and I said to my folks at home, I won't be back today because I'm a Freedom Rider. It was like a wave or a wind that you didn't know where it was coming from or where it was going, but you knew you were supposed to be there.”

Does such an undertaking begin so simply? Yes, perhaps at the individual gut-feeling decision level, but we all know there must be a lot more going on underneath this statement.

I liken this to an avalanche. From a distance, you can look at a mountain and see no outward sign that an avalanche is imminent, but within the actual layers of snow and ice, even at the microscopic level, there is tension building, and change happening. At some point, the exact time being unpredictable, the littlest additional accumulation can become more than the slope can hold, and it “suddenly” shifts, releasing that built-up tension.

In considering the formation of avalanches, we can begin to understand the tension involved with social change such as the American civil rights movement. There are untold individual and group decisions being made that lead into movements of united action, amidst the shifts in culture, policies, politics, public discourse, and on and on. It is impossible to see and understand all that is in motion prior to such social shifts.

This film does help provide a look through history though. In this time in the early 60s, from one point of view, there were untenable laws, cultural norms that created and maintained us & them divides, and the expanding exhaustion and frustration as a portion of the population lived the reality of being relegated to a status of second class citizenship, suffering from the violence of unjust inequality.

However, other viewpoints were in sharp contrast. One journalist in the film reports that: “People in the South felt, 'I'm being asked to live in a different way, I'm asked to have different attitudes, I'm asked to behave differently. And as I'm being made to do all of these things, there are people who come on the TV in my own living room and tell me that I'm a redneck, and I'm a racist, and I'm all of these things -- and by God, I'd like to, I'd just like to punch some of those- them damn agitators right in the face! I gotta hate somebody. I got to hate somebody.”

Just consider the tension in these worldviews.

It was in this tension, and because of this tension, that the Freedom Riders boarded the buses. And these actions, along with sit-ins, stand-ins, and work-ins created more waves of tension. Was violence always a for-gone conclusion? Not in all worldviews, and in fact the Riders stuck to a nonviolent approach, but as tensions escalated in some settings, violence ensued. Pauline Knight-Ofosu was involved in many activities before becoming a Freedom Rider…and joined a wave that has significance 53 years later.

How do we see similar scenarios emerging today? A community under such stress cannot hold all these tensions. Societal avalanches – shifts happening in different times and locations, were and are inevitable, but still unpredictable.

Let me add some more context, and hope, in the present. I saw this film during a class at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, called the South in Black and White: Southern History, Culture, and Politics.

The class instruction is a collaboration between a black singer/scholar and a white historian/author, both North Carolina natives. Each week the class begins when we are invited to join Mary D. Williams’ powerful a cappella gospel-singing. After beginning each class in song, she shares the words, music, and history of the selection from the canon of African-American protest songs and spirituals. The opportunity to join her for 13 weeks of call-and-response is worth the price of tuition alone.

Mrs. William co-leads the class with Tim Tyson, a writer and historian who specializes in the issues of culture, religion and race associated with the US Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century. Tyson stands at the front of the room, but listening to him is more like sharing a front porch in rocking chairs on a cool summer evening - he gives a vivid recounting of stories that are true, violent, and absolutely relevant to making sense of the world today. I want to linger on this porch, and revisit time and again. His knowledge and passion seem limitless as he invites us to notice that the way things have been influence the way thing might be, unless we make meaning together, now.

For our service today, I asked our pianist to consider playing some songs commonly associated with the Civil Rights movement. “This Little Light of Mine” may be simple in style and structure, but it is so much more than a children’s song. When you think of singing it as voice-in-action, in the face of horrific tension, it is indeed pure gospel, and the empowerment embedded in these phrases is immeasurable. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…riding on this bus, I’m gonna let it shine…sitting in this jail/hospital, I’m gonna let it shine…mourning those we’ve lost, I’m gonna let it shine…let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Mrs. Williams brings and sings such songs to the course because doing so links learning emotionally and physically. It makes history, culture, and politics active. One author says, “call and response is an African American form of critical analysis, a process that draws on the experience and insights of the entire community. The individual maintains a crucial role: a carefully crafted call can lead to the best, most useful insights. But the individual does not necessarily or ideally maintain control.” Music changes space, and music can change us without anyone controlling it.

Mrs. Williams, through her voice-leadership, shows us how to learn and do at the same time.

Dr. Tyson adds layers of details and nuance to this learning in his lectures and in the deep reading assignments we do. A few memorable quotes from his lectures include:

  • People make history but not under the circumstances of their own choosing,
  • We use history to unfold where we are in it,
  • Politics involves the negotiation of how stuff gets divided up,
  • “Stable” society is defined by what is “normal”,
  • The struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory over the past, and
  • History is made by people who bend and shape the present to create the future.

Lots to digest there – the stretching and unfolding of our American culture, past, present, and future. In the context of our past, how do we influence what comes next? What are our tangible responses to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? How do we "serve as a channel of reconciliation in a world in love with divisions”?

These divisions cause tensions, the tensions that sometimes accumulate to an avalanche level. These tensions can be exhausting unless we look at them with the future in mind. A colleague recently said: “I once asked an organizer who was working his entire life for racial and social justice whether he became discouraged. He replied, it is not the destination, it is how I choose to live my life.”

What wave or wind calls us into action like Pauline Knight-Ofosu? She said the church was the heart of the movement in those days. Dian Nash, another Freedom Rider, who was asked personally by the Kennedy administration to stand down, to not continue the ride, says that the Riders carried on, because even under threat of death, they knew continuing was the loving thing to do.

I want to end with one final quote, from Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me I shall draw a larger circle to include them.”

What can we do, what can community do, what can our government do, to bring nonviolence to bear in the tensions in the world? How big of a circle will we draw? What busses are pulling up, ready to board? What carefully crafted call are we singing? And how do we want to respond?

Musical Reflection: Wade in the Water

Prayer of Confession

Holy God, we admit to You that all is not right – in our hearts and in our world, We look to the darkness and not to the light.

We look for what is broken, and not at what is being mended. We look to criticize and not to praise.

We look at ourselves and not to You.

Turn us around so that we look at the possibility, at hope, at promise, at grace, at healing, at love.

This we pray in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

– Beth Merrill Neel

Words of Assurance

You servants of the most high God, do not be afraid. For with God there is great mercy to forgive and there is great power to transform. So may the peace of Christ dwell within you. Amen.

– spaciousfaith.com


Benediction in Unison

Holy One, open our eyes. Help us embrace our ugly and inspiring past and present. Make us active, powerful and inviting instruments of peace and justice today. Let us share extravagant love far and wide, and long into the future. Amen.

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