notes from the road


    When we finished the closing session of our mission trip last night with the folks from Beloved Community UCC in Birmingham, Alabama, one of our hosts suggested we move the gathering down the road to a local coffee shop/wine bar. We got there to find they were closing at nine and to discover the Crestwood Tavern across the parking lot. The night was cool so we rearranged tables on the patio and made ourselves at home. The owner of the bar saw us moving furniture and came out to talk to us. We ordered drinks and began talking and laughing and he came out again, asking who we were. After all, the rest of the clientele was noticeably younger and, actually, a good bit quieter. When we told him who we were and what we had been doing, he said,

    “That’s what this place is all about. I want it to be a place where people can come hang out and feel at home. It’s fun to look out here and see a bunch of weirdoes like ya’ll having such a good time. You’re cool.”

    Take note, my friends, of the power of community. A singular weirdo is an outcast; a bunch of weirdos is a cool group of people. There is power in numbers – and good, hearty laughter. As the evening wore on and our eighty-five year old group member put a twenty on the table to go toward the next round of beers, a voice breezed through the speaker and across the patio as a young woman covered a Patty Griffin song:

    just before the flood comes
    just before the night falls
    just before the blood runs
    into the valley
    just before my eyes go
    just before we can’t go any further
    love throws a line to you and me

    Our traveling Pilgrims ate breakfast at my in-laws house this morning before they began their trip back to Durham; Ginger and I are hanging around for a couple of days for a family reunion, some time with her folks and some other friends, and then a couple of days exploring together. Since I joined the group well into their week, I took this afternoon to trace their steps through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is built across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and on the very ground where Bull Connor and his men bombarded the children with fire hoses and attack dogs even as Ginger’s mother was giving birth to her just blocks away at the city hospital.

    I entered the BCRI with a group of children and sat down to watch the introductory video, which, among other things, told of the role black workers had played in the growth of the mining industry that made Birmingham a significant city in the South. The narration was supported by an old Leadbelly song I didn’t know, but that stayed with me:

    bring me a little water Sylvie
    bring me a little water now
    bring me a little water Sylvie
    every little once in awhile

    The music ended and the screen lifted to invite us into the exhibit hall – an amazing collection of artifacts, information, images, film, and music telling the story of the struggle that culminated in what we call the Civil Rights Movement. At various places along the way, you could hear sounds from two or three of the presentations, the words and melodies both cacophonous and harmonious at the same time. Here were the stories of people who realized, in as profound a way as I suppose is possible, the power of community. Together they sat at lunch counters, sat down on buses, boycotted the same buses, walked and sang and died, determined, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “to use the weapon of love.”

    They were bound together by love and faith and determination and music. In one of the video clips, a man remembered, “The whole movement was like a musical.” From across one of the partitions, I could hear words I recognized:

    got my hand on the freedom plow
    wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
    keep your eyes on the prize
    hold on

    I realized, as I got deeper into the exhibit, both me and the folks around me were moving slower and becoming more aware of one another, even as we bumped into each other because we were so taken by what we were seeing and hearing. Where we all stopped was in front of the large screen broadcasting “I Have a Dream.” From there we wandered among a crowd of plaster-colored statues all looking out the window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the four little girls were killed by the bomb.

    There’s more, but the coffee shop is closing and my internet access is soon to be terminated. Today has been a musical of sorts. I’ll let Patty Griffin have the closing number: her MLK song, “I Went Up to the Mountain.”



    Leave a Reply