I recently returned from a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama — a meeting sponsored by the Pension Board of my church denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Montgomery was an interesting choice considering that the UCC is one of the most theologically and socially progressive denominations in the United States. Indeed, because of Alabama’s draconian and restrictive anti-abortion laws, some of our folks decided to boycott this meeting. But I went and I am glad I did, because I discovered that 21st century Montgomery has chosen honestly to confront its painful and brutal history and to tell the truth about slavery and the violent decades after slavery.
In downtown Montgomery are the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Both venues dramatically illustrate people’s experience of slavery and the deadly violence perpetuated against the African-American community for generations. In the National Memorial there are literally hundreds of hanging blocks of concrete, each representing one county in one state, with a list of those known to have been lynched in that county. Interestingly, there are blocks representing counties in northern states as well. There are chilling photos of people, many with children, laughing and eating box lunches as black men are being lynched. And not just men. There are names of women and children on those blocks as well. To walk through those corridors of hanging concrete blocks was a painful and sobering experience. But I should add that such a powerful and honest exhibit in a place like Montgomery was also a sign of hope. Perhaps human history truly can move in the direction of justice and truth, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary. I am sure that many in Montgomery would insist that there is still such a long way to go, but at least an honest effort is being made.
A second Montgomery reflection: I asked a member of the hotel housekeeping staff where I might find some authentic southern food. Without hesitation she answered, “Simply Southern.” And simple it was. Paper plates and plastic utensils. You went up to the counter to make your order. But there it was, right in front of you: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra, squash casserole, mac and cheese, and banana pudding with vanilla wafers. Oh, and I can’t forget the pecan pie and sweet tea. And oh my goodness, it was all wonderful! Perhaps I have tasted better fried chicken, but I can’t remember when. I was halfway through my meal before I realized I was the only white face in the restaurant. But it really didn’t seem to matter. We were all focused on the food. Actually, people couldn’t have been kinder. Folks around me seemed to understand that I was not from Montgomery. I wonder how they knew?
I found that kindness everywhere I went. People, black and white, seemed to go out of their way to be gracious and helpful. There was a level of civility that I don’t always see in California. Now I don’t want to go too far with this. I’m sure there are plenty of people in Montgomery quite capable of being mean and uncivil. But it sure seemed to me that many folks there are working hard to replace the hatred and violence of the past with a new ethic of understanding and kindness. I hope that is true. I choose to believe it is true. For a few days in deep red state Alabama, I was able to lay aside my pessimism and dare to believe that change truly is possible.
By the way, as I was driving around Montgomery, I found myself behind a car with a rainbow flag bumper sticker. You just never know when and where amazing grace might happen!
The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.