New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
By Gini Courter
Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage: Birmingham, Alabama
We took the bus to the Birmingham Unitarian Church where we were warmly welcomed.
We opened with worship led by the Pilgrimage planning team (Annette Marquis, Rev.
Gordon Gibson, Rev. Hope Johnson, Janice Marie Johnson, Judy Gibson, and Rev.
Wendy Pantoja). Rev. Jason Shelton, who drove down from Nashville to spend
the morning with us, led music for worship. Harmonies filled the open niches in
every stanza; this was and is a wonderful group to sing in.
In smaller groups we
talked about why we decided to join this pilgrimage and what we knew about the civil
rights movement, about Selma, about Montgomery, about the struggle. In my small
group, every person came because they were invited by someone they care for
deeply. I looked in each person’s eyes as they talked about their decision and I could
easily imagine us as a table convened by love.
After worship, Jason
spoke and sang with us about the music of the Movement: “The places you are
going to visit are a landscape with a soundtrack,” he said. His workshop drew on many
sources, including the music and writing of Bernice Johnson Reagon and the book Sing for Freedom. Listening to and singing different versions of songs, I learned
how songs evolved from the spirituals, talking about freedom and justice in an
afterlife, to songs demanding freedom and justice now. We sang “I’m Gonna Sit at
the Welcome Table” (note that it’s “I,” not “We”); the second verse is “I’m
gonna be a registered voter.”
Jason quoted Bernice Johnson Reagon:
“It’s a non-violent movement, but the songs are aggressive.” They had to be.
What if UUs had been in charge at Selma? “Ok, we’re gonna cross the bridge
now. Let’s all hold hands and sing Spirit of Life… We laughed, and thought, and
We talked about the dismissal of Kumbaya as a “hippie song” or a
children’s song, but it was sung frequently in the Movement: “Churches are
burning, Lord, come by here” and “There’s been a shooting, Lord, come by here.”
This is a song of prayer, and I find that I’m using it as such already.
This is the beginning of this journey
and we don’t really know each other. We’re one bus, but not yet one community.
We hit our first significant speed bump when some of us chose not to sing We
Shall Overcome. People were hurt and angry and confused, and there was no time for
the discussion, so it was put aside. Later, the planning team decided that this was
a conversation that shouldn’t be held on the bus. We will discuss We Shall
Overcome as a community on Saturday afternoon.
Gini Courter is the Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position she has held since 2003. A version of this story appears on Gini's blog, "Just Gini."
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Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.
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Gini Courter, UUA Moderator.
Rev. Jason Shelton leads singing before the bus departs from Birmingham.
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