A Pilgrimage to The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Definition of a pilgrimage (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary)

  1. a journey of a pilgrim especially: one to a shrine or a sacred place
  2. the course of life on earth
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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Yesterday, I went on my first official pilgrimage with my interim rector Father Tom Momberg and six other parishioners from The Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Montgomery, Alabama. We went to the Legacy Museum together, and later, on my own, I went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The morning started in the chapel where Father Momberg handed out a leaflet aptly named In Search of a Church that Heals. Last week, was the celebration of the Feast of St. Luke. The feast day was on October 18th, but feast days are transferable to other days. St. Luke was a physician and a great healer.

Father Momberg did a short service, and delivered the gospel Luke 4:14-21 (from The Message). Here is an excerpt:

“God’s Spirit is on me;

he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, 

Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and

recovery of sight to the blind,

To set the burdened and battered free,

to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!'”

What more powerful words to prepare for our journey.

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We caravanned to the museum. The Legacy Museum located on 115 Coosa Street, about 6 minutes away from our church. We did not walk as pilgrims usually do. Coosa Street is in the heart of old downtown Montgomery. The Legacy Museum exist in the location of a warehouse that once housed slaves before they were to be sold at what is now Court Square).

There are no photographs allowed in the Legacy Museum, which is why all my photographs are from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. When you enter the museum, you immediately go to the left. There you learn about the slave trade and how Montgomery became the hub going from 40,000 slaves to over 450,000 slaves in only a matter of years.

You listen to the stories of the slaves, read their narratives on the wall, and you learn that the stories you learned in 6th grade or 7th grade about benevolent, kind, compassionate plantation owners were false narrative, a way to help guilty white people come to terms to their past, perhaps, or to keep perpetuating racism. After you read these stories, you go down a long black hallway and turn to your right. There are holograms in cages. They, too, tell you their story. Children separated from their parents, people beaten, anguish, pain.

As you enter the main room, you read a timeline with pictures. The timeline shows you how the United States went from slavery, to Jim Crow, to Mass Incarceration of black people while continuing to perpetuate the myth that black (wo)men were intelligently inferior to white people and that black people are dangerous.

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There is a block with Supreme Court cases showing the cases in which racist policies were either struck down or held up by our Supreme Court from the 1800s until 2013.

Did you know that integration has yet to have been ratified in Alabama?

There is a section on mass incarceration where you hear Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who was falsely accused of murder and put on death row for 30 years, tell his story. You listen to him over the phone as if you are visiting him in jail. Thirty years taken away from this man, because of our flawed justice system. Let that sink in.

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Drowning with their hands up. (Police Brutality)

Yesterday, as I walked through this museum on my pilgrimage, surrounded by other pilgrims and tourists, I felt so alone. I read and absorbed with new eyes. I had been to the museum in the summer with my sister, but this experience was different. I thought about the Gospel according to Luke and the phrase, “set your burdened and battered free.” I thought about how my family was complicit in these acts. I felt guilt from my ancestors and pain and anguish, and like I’m not doing enough to help change the way things are and the way things SHOULD be.

By the time I made it over to the jars I felt raw and weary. The jars contain soil from the sites of lynching victims. They are labeled with their names or read Unknown. I stood reading, on a scrolling screen, about the people who had been lynched for “sins” such as talking to a white woman or looking at a white person the wrong way. There’s the story of Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, who was lynched for protesting her husband, Hayes Turner’s, lynching. She was eight months pregnant, and her unborn child was also brutally murdered. Then the lynchers went on a killing rampage murdering 11 people in a brutal mob. As I watched the names scroll, two African American women stood at another screen, pushing a button that says WARNING: Graphic Content, this screen will blur in 10 seconds. The screen shows pictures of the lynchings, people being burned alive, hung from trees, mutilated as they died, with hundreds or thousands of white onlookers. Postcards of the lynchings printed and sold afterwards. And you wonder how someone could be so cruel?

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Names of lynching victims

I completely broke down. I walked to the bathroom sobbing, crying for our past, and trying to reconcile how to fix it or how to move forward. On the way a woman stopped me, touched my shoulder, and said, “It’s going to be alright. Things will get better.” Hope. 

After I broke down, I went back into the museum and watched the movies about incarceration, about the need for prison reform, about the slave trade, and about the lynchings. I thought about the questions on the back of the leaflet Father Tom Momberg gave us and the one that read:

Have you received a message of Good News?

I felt confused by this question, but then realized that The Legacy Museum is bringing us together. It’s a step in the right direction. With awareness, change can occur. As the stranger in the bathroom said to me, “things will get better,” but I’d like to add the words: if we make them better. If we fight for change, we can begin the long arduous process of healing the wounds, of claiming our racist past and making amends for it. We can tell people we are sorry for what our ancestors did to them, and we can start making the necessary changes in the prisons, in the schools, in the churches, and in society to help our brothers and sisters. We are all brothers and sisters, and we should treat each other as such.

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Looking Forward

I didn’t expect to have such a visceral reaction yesterday, but sometimes I think when we are experiencing a moment like that we need to embrace the feeling. At that moment, I felt so overwhelmed by the past, but afterwards I felt relief and a sense of peace.

When I arrived at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice after lunch and communion, I felt calm spread over me. I touched the names etched into the columns. I spoke to a man who had traveled from Georgia, and I told him I was sorry for what my ancestors had done, and he said, “We all have a place here.” Wisdom. Forgiveness. Grace.

The second meaning of pilgrimage is “the course of life on earth.” What will you do with yours?

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In the words of Toni Morrison, “Love your heart,” and use that heart to make change. 

 

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Memories of Ed

This morning, I put in a Violent Femmes CD on the way to work. The only one I own. It is the self-titled album. I hadn’t listened to this album in years. It reminds me of Ed who I knew from church and then high school. Then he was simply gone.

When I was a kid I went to Holy Comforter, an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s still there. There were a ton of kids and one of those kids was a guy named Ed Pradot. He became my friend as we moved from children to the awkward pre-teen years and started participating in the youth program called EYC (Episcopal Young Churchpeople). We spent time at lock-ins together, playing BINGO in the church cafeteria, and stumbled through our developmental and adolescent years together.

I knew Ed pretty much my whole life. He had fluffy blonde hair, and a huge magnanimous personality. He was a grade below me in school, but that didn’t affect our friendship. One summer, our EYC group went down to Orange Beach for the weekend. Ed and I were in the back of a car with a girl named Deidra, and he put in the Violent Femmes CD. We sang the songs all the way down to Orange Beach (church appropriateness = questionable). That night, we decided we’d stay up all night: Ed, Deidra, and I. And we made it too. Only, we were too tired to go to the beach and slept through all of the next day. I think we made it down to the beach for about thirty minutes before sundown the following night. But we didn’t think the time had been wasted. We were young, and we’d stayed up through the whole night so we could talk, bond, and learn how to grow up and become adults.

Later, when I was in 11th grade, I transferred to the Catholic school in town. Ed went there, and we ended up in some classes together. Then we started carpooling. I picked him up every morning and we talked all the way to school.We often stopped at a Spectrum gas station on the Eastern Boulevard to get candy and junk for our day. We were such good friends, but nothing more. I never had thoughts of him as more than a friend, but I’ll never know whether he wanted more. It wasn’t something we discussed, but it wasn’t something I questioned either.

On one of these morning trips, Ed did not seem himself. I asked him about his history test, and he told me he didn’t have one. He stated he had a science test, but I knew that wasn’t true because we had discussed it the night before on our way home. I had also told him how in Health class we learned that when someone has a seizure you don’t put anything in their mouth. Instead you wait it out, and then sweep out their mouth afterwards to make sure they have a clear airway.

That morning, I had made it to the intersection of McGehee Rd and Troy Hwy and was about to turn onto Eastern Blvd, when he started having a seizure. I thought he was messing with me.

“Oh, c’mon Ed. I know you’re faking it, trying to see what I’m going to do.” I patted him, trying to get him to stop, but he continued seizing. His head hit up against the window of my Supra Celica. I learned at this particular moment in my life that I’m horrible in emergencies. I was at a stop light, and I beeped my horn trying to get people to move. I rolled down my windows and yelled that my friend was having a seizure. No one moved. And finally, after what seemed like an eternity the light changed. Ed was seizing still—I think. I drove like a bat out of hell to the Spectrum station. I left the car running, made sure that Ed was okay, and ran into the store.

Inside, I said, “My friend is having a seizure in the car. Call 911.” Six shocked faces turned to look at me, and six shocked people dropped their morning snacks and ran out to help me. Ed had stopped seizing by then, and the attendant called 911. A nice man straightened him up in the seat and swept his mouth. He was bleeding, because he’d bit his tongue. A nice woman held me, comforted me and told me Ed was going to be alright. I called Ed’s mom, but she didn’t arrive until after the ambulance had already loaded Ed into the back and taken off. The ambulance driver told me where they were taking him, and I relayed the information to his mother.

She said, “He’s never had a seizure before.”

I just shook, barely able to speak. Then I got in my car and drove to school. I attempted to take my Religion test, but Mrs. Toner my religion teacher walked me to the office, called my mom and sent me home. I was so shaken up.

Ed recovered. He told me the last thing he remembered was getting in the car, and then it was a blank, like he didn’t even exist until he woke up in the hospital feeling so tired with his tongue completely bitten through. He didn’t even remember the conversation we had that morning in the car.

Unfortunately, when I went to college Ed and I lost touch. And the summer before I went back for my sophomore year I thought about him. I called his house, but his little brother told me he was staying with his dad that summer. When I asked for the number, the little brother told me he didn’t have it.

A few months later, sitting in my dorm room at American University, I received a call from my childhood friend Hillary. She was sobbing. “Ed got hit by a car, Lauren. He was crossing the road. He’s dead.”

I was shocked. Because he had such a big personality that it didn’t seem possible his life could be snuffed out just like that. And I didn’t get to say goodbye. I wanted to see him that summer before my sophomore year and talk to him, pal around, and just be Lauren and Ed, but it never happened. My parents were in London when I received the call, and so I didn’t have the money to fly home from Washington D.C. to Alabama. I called my brother and sobbed on the phone to him. I felt life was unfair. I’d lost two friends at young ages by this time, and I just didn’t understand how that could happen. It took me a long time to wrap my head around losing Ed. More than anything, I wish I had insisted on getting his phone number from his brother and having one last conversation with him before he left this world.

Today in the car, listening to the Violent Femmes all the memories of Ed popped up making him feel alive again. I could see his kind eyes, his funny, fluffy hair, and the smile he always wore. I remembered all the nights we’d hung out together at EYC. I remember how loving and caring he was, and I’ll always treasure those moments I had with him, even though they were too few.

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Church Days

This weekend, I took my kids to a new church. Same domination: Episcopalian. I’m not very religious, but my kids like church and believe in God, and I decided to try out a church that might have kids. We went on sort of a crazy day, because the church was starting a discussion on gay marriage. But we sat down and had breakfast, I dropped the kids at Sunday school, and we listened as the reverend spoke about Acts and the Jerusalem Council. Then we went to the church service. We enjoyed ourselves, and I think we’ll go back.

I’m not here to get into a religious or political discussion or even to discuss my opinion on gay marriage I’ll put it out there though: I’m for it. Everyone deserves to be with someone they love. Attending this church this weekend made me nostalgic for my own childhood.

My mom dutifully took us to church as kids. A lot of times my sisters were acolytes. I stood in the front with the choir. I earned my gold cross. I wore white dresses and dress-hats that stuck into your head and made you itch, and stockings with white seemingly unbendable shoes. Everything seemed to be white! And I couldn’t wait to get home and strip out of those dress clothes, often in the hallway before I’d even made it upstairs to my room.

We often attended breakfast at church, the smell of bacon beckoning me. I’d eat and my friends would trickle in, and then we’d run in the halls, go see the babies in the nursery, and finally make it to the sanctuary where I usually scribbled on paper and held my mom’s hand. I hated the way the wine tasted, and me and some of my other childhood friends would run after communion to get a sip of water and rinse out our mouths.

I spent nights outside with EYC, getting into trouble. I did lock-ins and trips to the beach. I established friends and memories that will never fade, in the sinking Alabama sun, as I discovered myself, learned about the history of religion, and began to establish my own religious code of ethics.

These are the memories I want for my children. Memories of inclusion. Memories of fun and fellowship.

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