At a Table Convened by Love
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 wondered.
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."