Leaving Selma

Having visited Selma last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights march lots of friends have asked us "How was it?"

As I shared last week, our family had a wonderful time. The whole experience was powerful and moving. But we also left Selma with a lot of complex feelings.

We wanted to be in Selma. We wanted to bring our two sons. But we also didn't want to become self-congratulatory or pat ourselves on the back for making some big statement about race relations. Selma was a historical gathering and commemoration. An event. And as an event it was amazing and impactful. We'll carry this day forward in our hearts.

But attending an event is a far cry from change.

We were also haunted by other thoughts.

As I shared last week, for most of the morning before the march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge we were gathered out in front of Brown Chapel where many visiting dignitaries, among them Attorney General Eric Holder, were speaking during the Sunday morning service. We were a part of a huge crowd that filled the neighborhood around Brown Chapel, watching the service on a large Jumbotron set up on the street.

As I stood there watching the dignitaries arrive and then speak my eyes looked up at the spires of the chapel. The white paint was flaking off. Slats were broken and birds had set up a nest. This chapel, so significant in Civil Rights history and on this Sunday the subject of worldwide media attention, was in a state of disrepair.

We also began to look around the neighborhood. We were with a huge crowd standing across the street from the Chapel. Across the street were low-income housing apartments. Our huge crowd was basically standing in their front yard. Laundry was hanging on lines. Many of the residents sat out on their concrete stoops, looking at the crowd who was straining to catch a glimpse of famous people being escorted by Secret Service agents from black SUVs or being interviewed under lights in front of TV cameras.

As the time passed Jana and I started looking less and less at the chapel and more and more at the neighborhood.

Many hours later, after having crossed the bridge, we walked back through the neighborhood toward the chapel where our car was parked. The crowds were gone. People were leaving and heading back home.

And what we noticed was the trash. All the trash the crowds had dropped and left behind.

We also looked more closely at the poverty of the neighborhood, passing abandoned house after abandoned house scarred with broken windows.

For two days--Saturday when the President visited and the march on Sunday--the world was focused on Selma. But now the crowds were leaving Selma, us among them.

Sunday had been a glorious, historic day. But what would Selma look like on Monday morning?

Empty streets filled with trash.

And that realization struck us hard as it seemed emblematic of how we often approach the struggle for justice. Crowds showing up. Voices raised in protest. Banners waved. Outrage and solidarity expressed.

And then it's Monday morning in Selma. Nothing has changed except the trash the crowds have left in the street.

Leaving Selma both Jana and I were working hard to process our thoughts and feelings. We loved Sunday in Selma, but we kept thinking about Selma on Monday morning.

To help herself process her own feelings and share them with the boys Jana jotted down a prayer in the car as we drove back to Abilene. When she had finished she read her prayer to Brenden and Aidan. I asked her permission if I could share the words she shared with her sons. Jana doesn't fancy herself a poet. I told her that's not important, it's more a stream of consciousness than a poem. Her words captured some of our feelings upon leaving Selma.
"Leaving Selma" by Jana Beck

We swept in on our white horses armed with placards and iPhones.
The world showed up in your yard.
Stood next to your laundry drying on the line.
The same line it hangs on today.
Only there's a lot more garbage on the ground now.
Hopefully we left behind more than our trash.
Perhaps we left you with the hope that thousands still care, still remember, still see?
Are you the sparrow?
The one His eye is on?
The world peaked through your window yesterday.
We sat on your porch.
Is it quiet this morning?
Do you feel like a sparrow now?
God saw you before we came.
He sees you today.
Maybe we caught a glimpse of what God sees while you let us lean our weary backs on your gate.
He still sees you.
But do we?
We drive back home in our shiny cars.
Are you still sitting on your cracked front steps watching your laundry slowly dry?
The world remembers Selma from fifty years ago.
The courage, the bravery, the fear, the hope.
I remember the Selma from yesterday.
The broken window panes, abandoned houses, boarded up doors and windows.
Bird's nests filling the broken shutters of chapel spires.

Lord, give me you eyes.
Show me the sparrows.
And let me leave hope in their front yards and not just empty water bottles and trampled flyers.
Put my eyes on the sparrow.

Am I leaving Selma with new eyes?
Where are the sparrows?
There are so many.

And yet you care for them all.

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6 thoughts on “Leaving Selma”

  1. First, let me say how much I admire you and your family for your visit to Selma. For you, your wife and sons, it wasn't just talk; it was the deed. And Jana's poem strikes at the heart and opens the eyes. I enjoyed so much reading it.

    What you have done, in my opinion, is, though you approached this visit as a man of God, a family of God, you showed that Christians cannot keep "brotherhood" wrapped in a religious blanket; that just as long as we accept one another as "One in Christ", then that's all that matters. No, It still matters how I accept others in this nation, regardless of skin color, or dress, of accent, of custom as citizens, with every freedom and right that I claim for myself.

    Yet, it saddens me, indeed, it angers me, that there are those who call themselves followers of Christ who still approach those whose skin color is different, whose ways are different, with the attitude "You must know your place"; and that way of thinking fills too many churches.

    As much of a loving man he was, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not write about racism with a velvet glove. He pulled no punches. And in his book, THE INSECURITY OF FREEDOM: ESSAYS ON HUMAN EXISTENCE, he wrote the following: "This world has no place for the man who keeps another man in his place". This book, along with Thomas Mertons, "CONJECTURE OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER, should be read by every Christian. They are disturbing, they shake the level, easy ground beneath our feet; and if we are blessed, they shake us to our knees.

  2. Jana may not fancy herself a poet, but her words brought tears to my eyes! Thank you Jana for being willing to share.

    Thank you Richard for focusing on this, for attending the Selma commemoration, and for your thoughtful words. You are serving as a wonderful inspiration.

  3. "Birds' nests filling the broken shutters of chapel spires."

    Sounds like poetry to me, Jana. The uncomplicated care of your voice speaks balm into last week's 'disagreements'. Thank-you so much for sharing.

  4. After reading your original post 'Selma' I spent a long time looking at photographs from that first march. What a price was paid, what fear was faced, what pain endured, 50 years later a photo-op and 30 seconds of news. No pain, no fear, nothing paid. It was all political profit, How dare we say we honor those who marched when it is all gain for us? So glad to read this today. God have mercy on us and guide us, instruct us so that we might be ready to cross our bridge. To face the pricipalities and powers that deny some life and make a difference for those who come after. Thanks for the prayer.

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