In October of 2019 I had the privilege of participating in an event called the Living Legacy Pilgrimage. It was a kind of tour through the Deep South of the United States, visiting historic sites that are significant to the Civil Rights Movement in the nation—think Selma, Montgomery, Rosa Parks, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We visited many locations, some well known and some known to only a few. All the sites were incredibly important to our week of learning and pilgrimage, but none more than the home of Medgar Evers. While we we there, there was a great kindness done to us. If you read this excerpt from the journal of Lutheran pastor Rev. Laura Ingersoll from that day, you can get a real sense of this love that was shown:
Today is our last full day. On the schedule is the Medgar Evers house, Fanny Lou Hamer and Emmett Till. All three people are tremendously instrumental in the Movement. Medgar Evers and Fanny Lou Hamer, for the way they lived. Emmett Till, for the way he died.
Again, I am struck by the ordinary. The Evers house is small. It’s painted a turquoise color and has an attached car port. Evers was killed when he arrived home one night. An assailant with a rifle, from across the street from his home, shot him in the back. Evers lasted long enough to pull himself into the house. I couldn’t help but think, ‘This was his home, the place he came to be refreshed and not the leader of a Movement, but a place where he was a husband and a Dad. A man’. Looking at the street where he lived, it was an ordinary street with houses all around that really weren’t any different. This ordinary man, had a calling to do something extraordinary – something necessary, vital for his family, for Black people, for white people (though many of them might not have known it or acknowledged it), for the country.
We didn’t know it (the team leaders knew) but, Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers, was expected to be present and share her story. Unfortunately she was ill and couldn’t be with us. Being aware of his assassination back when it happened, though not fully aware of the significance of it, I was disappointed. As we were driving to our next location, we were surprised with a phone call from her. I was impressed that someone so central to the Medgar Evers story, would take the time to speak with us! She didn’t know us. But when she spoke it was as if she really wanted to share with us, something about the man she knew, something about his drive and motivation, something about his character. In the process, we learned that he and his wife, Myrlie, did a phenomenal job with their children because Reena exuded grace, gentleness, sureness and love in her conversation with us.
After a week of so much heaviness, I felt the tension from my emotions begin to lighten. She invited us into the struggle, into the movement, with sweet words that spoke of the house as a place of love, not a place where tragedy struck. And when no one spoke up to comment, I found myself raising my hand. I thanked her for the generosity of her family, and told her how humble I felt, and how grateful we all were for their commitment. I spoke with Medgar Evers’ daughter! Of course, she couldn’t hear me well through a cell phone, and later I had to ask someone what I said, but that’s beside the point. I spoke with her.
Reena Evers didn’t know us, yet she offered us a kind act. She set aside her illness and gave us her time. Although Ms. Evers wasn’t with us on that bus, she “saw” us. Like my friend Rev. Laura, I was deeply touched. In some way Reena’s words have given me hope.
I had been hoping that the week we were spending reflecting on the movement for civil rights in our nation would be at least a small act of kindness we could offer. I was hoping that it would be a way of “seeing” people we have overlooked.
Spiritual Practice: Wonder About How Transformation Happens
When we travel, we often go to the “important” sites. The Eiffel Tower. The Pyramids at Giza. The Beaches at Normandy. Th Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We look at amazing buildings and gather where world renowned events occurred. And surely, these oft – visited places are sites where societal transformation has deep roots. But I wonder if there are overlooked places and people that are also signposts to the change we see in our world? The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma has much to teach us about the cost of voting rights in this country. A closed up market street in Hebron gives deep insight into the continuing conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian people. A small church along the Camino Frances in Spain witnesses to the role and symbol of the feminine face of God in our lives. Lively music in a pub in Dingle, Ireland instructs us in how to both mourn and celebrate as a people.
Transformation is everywhere, sparked by people whose names will never be included in any history book or carved on any monument. I suspect one of our most important spiritual practices is to seek to notice those unnamed transformers. I want to look for signs of the unknown and unsung who have changed our world for the better. When I travel I want to have my eyes opened, not just to the grand and the obvious, but to the surprising and unknown. Maybe you do too.