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I wonder what kind of monument would be built for former Alabama Governor George Wallace?

Slavery Reconciliation monument, Richmond, VA

By all accounts, George Wallace began his public service career in the 1950’s as a local representative and eventually a circuit judge who leaned progressive, even liberal on many of the cultural issues of the day. But after a couple of election losses, he started to pursue a more populist campaign, one built on outspoken criticism of the federal government, virulent opposition to the civil rights movement, and unvarnished racism.

He rose to national prominence in 1963 when, during his inaugural address as governor, he railed, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Two years later, he would be governor of a state whose police force set dogs on peaceful marchers while troopers beat any who fell in their path. He even stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to try to block the entry of African American students into the all-white school.

A would-be assassin’s bullet ended George Wallace’s presidential run in 1972. Maybe it was pain, maybe it was the true understanding of mortality. But shortly afterwards, Wallace began one of the most remarkable changes of character of any American leader.

He eventually reached out to the African American community, even to individuals who were beaten by his state police — to seek forgiveness. In 1976, he personally called many of those he offended, including civil rights leader John Lewis who had been beaten in Selma during that 1965 march. He eventually won re-election as governor, winning a substantial number of African American votes.

During the governor’s ‘forgiveness tour’ of the 1970’s, most civil rights marchers publicly forgave the man who expressed such hatred only a few years earlier. But not everyone accepted that Wallace had a true change of heart, some believing that his change was a matter of political expediency or, as he grew older, an attempt to make amends before called to judgement.

It is not too hard to consider that one of the factors contributing to the governor’s turnaround was his receptiveness to God’s grace after the assassination attempt forced him to change the way he saw things.

Living his life in a wheelchair and in a good deal of pain, in 1979 Wallace was wheeled into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery (Dr. Martin Luther King’s original church), and told the congregation that he finally understood the pain he had caused the black community as he asked forgiveness.

So, theoretically speaking, what kind of monument would be built for Alabama’s George Wallace? A statue of him standing in the way of African American students trying to enter the University of Alabama, or a portrayal of his shaking the hands of the congregants in an African American church? I guess it would depend on who is erecting such a monument — and when.

 

Can a community ask forgiveness for history?

I live in Richmond, Virginia. It is a wonderful city, manageable in size, blessed with natural beauty,  characterized by a number of high quality universities and colleges, a good mix of different business communities, and an increasingly diverse population. I love my adopted home.

What makes Richmond unique is the fact that it sits at the crossroads of American history and culture. A few miles east sits Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Americas. It was also the capital city of what was the Confederate States of America.

In the early 1900’s, residents of Richmond worked on Monument Avenue, now a beautiful tree-lined residential boulevard of stately mansions, apartment buildings, and churches. It is on the National Register of Historic places, and the American Planning Association named it one of the ‘10 Great Streets’ in the country. Monument Avenue is indeed, a strikingly beautiful thoroughfare.

It also includes soaring monuments to five of the leading military and political leaders of the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Matthew Maury, and Jefferson Davis. Also in line along the median is a less imposing statue honoring Richmond native, Arthur Ashe.

Richmond, and its stretch of monuments to Confederate leaders, sits 70 miles east of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, the site of recent confrontations ignited by the response to a proposal to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Are there those who celebrate such monuments in genuine respect for the sacrifices of ancestors? Probably.

But as we have seen in Charlottesville,  these monuments have often served as a rallying point for those desiring to use the word ‘heritage’ to hide their own attitudes of racial superiority.

 

Forgive what?

We often hear the argument that monuments to leaders of the Confederacy honor men fulfilling their duty to defend their homeland and resist the interference of a large federal government in local affairs. Adding to that mix, some argue that the war was caused by everything from tariff policies to a conflict between the Christianity of the South and the secular humanism of the North. To such proponents, slavery was a secondary cause of the war at best.

Such an argument may make believers in the ‘Lost Cause’ of the South feel as if they hold the moral high ground, but there is no high ground to be found in the words of the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens as he described the value of the seceding states’ new constitution in 1861: “[Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Or as Confederacy president, Jefferson Davis said in an 1861 speech: “We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him. Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”

It is irrelevant to argue if slavery was the most significant cause of military action or a secondary cause of hostilities. What is important is that slavery was by far the most significant moral failure, based on perceptions of racial superiority, that was passionately defended as a property right that needed to be preserved in the Confederate States’ constitutions.

 

A need to see other perspectives

One cannot look at the public monuments to the leaders of such a cause and think only of states’ rights without acknowledging that the most important right that mattered involved the perpetuation of slavery. The celebration of such monuments allows a community to honor courage and valor in battle, but too many of the celebrants stop there, not considering that such valor was invested in keeping millions of persons in chains.

In doing so, the community says, ‘if what we celebrate offends someone else, that is their problem.’ No apologies, no need for forgiveness.

But is there no point at which the offense done to others becomes so grievous that our humanity asks us to at least mute the honors to those who ignored such offenses? Is there nothing in our history to even hint at the possibility that celebrating a cause codifying racial subjugation has allowed that cause to ripple through time, from the speech of Jefferson Davis, to the steps of the Alabama capitol, to today’s rancorous ‘dialog’.

Or are such alternative perspectives to be ignored because too many of us blinded by that ‘stick in the eye’ mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel?

 

How can a community seek forgiveness?

For George Wallace, asking forgiveness was pretty straightforward. Find the people you beat up, call them, and tell them you are sorry. For a community of a diverse population, many years after a conflict that opened an unhealed wound, it is less clear as to what should be done, and by whom.

To its credit, the leaders of the State of Virginia have issued a formal apology for slavery. Yet such a proclamation seems less public than a parkway of fully illuminated statues of Confederate leaders.

Personally, at least as far as Richmond is concerned, I don’t think we should tear down the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue as a symbol of an apology. (Well, not all of them, at least). Maybe I feel that way because such a gesture is akin to saying that the South’s past never happened. It may be of value for all to recognize that some past generations wanted to continue a cause well after 1865. But I trust that members of a recently formed commission staffed by civic leaders and those experienced in the ebbs and flows of history will make the best choice regarding the avenue’s future.

I, for one, would rather build something new.

Tucked away in a tiny corner of Richmond’s government district is the Slavery Reconciliation monument. Its simple, though unmistakeable form does something that the statues of mounted soldiers does not — it tugs at the heart. Looking at the statue, you aren’t sure if you should feel the pain of divided families, or the joy of re-connection, but you feel something, something that evokes human compassion.

I would suggest that if any monument should be relocated, or better, enlarged and enhanced, it should be the Slavery Reconciliation monument. Perhaps a larger version (at least as tall is General Lee’s horse), should placed in the most visible part of the city near a soon to be replaced civic center, or perhaps at the gateway to the city’s Museum District; not some out-of-the-way spot that people stumble upon, but someplace passed daily by residents and visitors of all backgrounds. It should sit as prominently and be lit as brightly as any of the Monument Avenue statues. Maybe Richmond can keep its street of statues of Confederate leaders as a reminder of the values of past generations, but it is time to turn attention to a new focus on its path forward.

 

Reconciliation requires two parties.

But no matter the gestures of repentance, it is forgiveness that is needed to allow people to move on.

It is unfortunate that for some folks, holding onto the pain of past wrongs is easier than forgiving wrongdoing. There seems to be something satisfying about holding onto pain, of reminding others of the magnitude of their wrong actions, attitudes that make the act of forgiveness seem to be a bridge too far.

There will be some in our society who, just as those who turned away from George Wallace’s attempts at reconciliation, will dismiss such efforts as inadequate or ill-conceived. Such a move will be their loss, as well as the community’s. (Not to mention contrary to Matthew’s Gospel of the need to forgive).

As one African American business leader wrote of her interactions with Wallace, ‘How do we move forward if we won’t forgive? If we won’t believe that type of change is possible?’

I believe that the human heart has room for only so many different emotions, and that a spirit filled with resentment will eventually harden to the point where there is room for little else. We can never know what truly motivates those seeking reconciliation. We can only base our actions on words we hear and acts we see.  Judgement of what is in the heart is left to God.

 

The near future is going to be hard.

Regardless of your political views, recent events portend an immediate future threatened by expressions of deep anger, hurt, and resentment. I will leave it to others to argue who lit this fire, but the fact is that we will have to deal with the emotional ashes that are to follow the happenings of Charlottesville.

But there are examples where acknowledgement of past wrongdoings have, as in the case of George Wallace,  led to enough of a sense of reconciliation that allowed all parties to move forward.

I don’t know if a community can apologize for the past, and we cannot know the true intentions of the generation of the early 1900’s that erected monuments to Confederate warriors. But we do know the motivations of this generation in this community. A monument that dominates the city-scape in a place of honor no less visible than that reserved for Confederate generals and presidents,  with a message that combines an acknowledgement of past injustices with hoped-for reconciliation, is at the very least, one step further away from the past, one step closer to a different future.

 

Only forgiveness ends this.

There are some Catholic teachings that are hard to comprehend. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t that much of a stretch.

There are no ambiguities, no different interpretations of scripture that can lead one to any conclusion other than the requirement to seek repentance for wrongdoing, and to grant forgiveness when asked.

Whether we are talking about personal hurts, or a history of events where society falls short, no true reconciliation, no permanent healing, no true victory over injustice comes without the trio of acknowledgement, repentance, and forgiveness.

As far as our communities are concerned, we may tear down statues erected by past generations out of anger, but perhaps we are better served by public expressions of today’s aspirations that hold a promise greater than the Confederacy’s ‘Lost Cause’ could ever stand for.

Such a statement would be the first step towards the repentance and forgiveness that will finally end this madness.

‘…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…’  Matthew – 6:12.

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References:

 

Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech: referenced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech

Look Away – A History of the Confederate States of America. William Davis, published by Simon and Schuster, 2002

Monument Avenue: Referenced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monument_Avenue

Forgiving George Wallace: Referenced from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/16/opinion/forgiving-george-wallace.html

 

What George Wallace Taught Me About Forgiveness: Referenced from

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trudy-bourgeois/what-george-wallace-taugh_b_6647468.html

 

Wallace talk at Dexter Avenue Church: referenced from

http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/theme/4372

 

On hypocrites and planks in the eye: Gospel of Matthew – 7:5

 

On forgiving 77 times: Gospel of Matthew – 18:22

 

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giftI spend a good deal of time writing about things that the Church does that rile my sensibilities. It is easy how someone who reads my blog may think that I don’t really like being Catholic – one could even ask why I even continue to hang on to a faith tradition that often causes me so much heartburn.

But while I admit an obsession with this quixotic effort to argue that the Church’s greatest challenges are rooted in things other than modernism or secularism, I am just as firm in my belief that any good in me (assuming some good does exist) is because of my Catholic background.

Which brings me to the topic of ThanksGifting. (No – it’s not misspelled).

We are in the season between Thanksgiving, where we give thanks to all we have received, and Christmas, a season where we mark Jesus’ birth and accommodate the practice of gift-giving as a nod to more secular traditions.

I personally think we would be well-served if we merged the two holidays into one month-long season of ‘ThanksGifting’. Rather than concluding our expressions of gratitude with the end of Turkey Day football, I suggest we spend an entire month reflecting on the gifts we have received, the gifts made possible by our faith and our religious tradition. It may even make us better gift givers if we think of the most important gifts we’ve received.

So for my part, here is my first ThanksGifting testimony.

I give thanks for the gift of Sister Mary Thaddeus’ laughter.

I attended a Catholic elementary school, Queen of Martyrs school, located outside of Buffalo. It was primarily staffed by the Felician Sisters who, at that time, wore the very traditional habits that exposed only their face and hands (and the occasional handkerchief they used to stuff up their sleeves). Contrary to popular myth, we were never smacked with rulers nor pummeled by those white cords they had with them. But, they always LOOKED like they wanted to be tested – wanted some wisecracking kid to make one false move that would result in a premature visit to the hereafter.

All I knew was that I had to keep on the straight and narrow – basically, staying out of their way in order to survive and make it to high school. I never really knew anything about the nuns who taught me; I never really thought they were ‘real people’ for that matter – they were nuns – ‘sisters of Christ’…. and not to be toyed with.

That all changed one spring day of the school picnic held at the nearby town park. There, on a warm, sunny afternoon, we heard this shriek of laughter from a nearby grove. There, as we watched in amazement, was Sr. Mary Thaddeus riding a bicycle down a hill, heading towards a picnic table loaded with cans of Vernor’s ginger ale and a table full of Hostess SnoBalls (those round, pink spongy cupcakes filled with creme) . She successfully avoided the picnic table – but continued this deep, genuine belly laugh as she continued down the hill and rode into the distance (yes, she did later return to her duties).

I didn’t think any nuns knew how to ride a bicycle.

It may have been the logic of a child at work, but after seeing a laughing nun on a bicycle, I really saw the religious women who taught me as something more than a faces framed by white linen. While I certainly continued to ‘toe the line’ in class (most of the time), I no longer was afraid to ask the nuns questions about my faith and my religion — Sr. Thaddeus’ laughter made the nuns in my school more approachable – even when I pushed the boundaries with my questions. Yes, I certainly respected the nuns (they still had those cords), but Sr. Thaddeus’ laughter showed me a human side that spoke to their roles as teachers and mentors. And as these nuns became more human in my eyes, I feared less, and learned more.

Thank you Sr. Thaddeus, wherever you are.

I give thanks to Mr. ‘Woj’ for throwing me the ball.

There is nothing that an overweight high school kid fears more than the thought of gym class. The prospect of changing clothes in a locker room where the other guys weigh 60% of your body weight is enough to make one begin sweating two class periods before gym (as if sitting through pre-calculus itself wasn’t enough to make one sweat).

I was one such student at St. Mary’s HIgh School in Lancaster, NY. During my early years at that school, I was a dweeby little chunkster surrounded by guys who excelled at basketball, football, baseball, dodgeball, and almost any other kind of sport that involved physical skill. Back then, gym class consisted of taking up teams and playing any of the aforementioned sports. My job was to roll into a corner, lie low and not get in the way. It worked most of the time.

During our class’ football games, the gym teacher, ‘Mr. Woj’, coach of almost any activity that involved smelly clothes, served as quarterback. On one chilly day, my team had the ball on the opponent’s 20 yard line and I was told to line up as a receiver on the left end. I went as far away from the center as I could, almost reaching the sideline. The ball was snapped, and I meandered into the end zone – of course, no one was covering me because I was, well, inept.

You can probably guess what happened next – as I was standing in the end zone, reflecting on the bad grade I received in pre-calculus, I saw Mr. Woj heave the ball in my direction. It was nothing less than a Charlie Brown episode. ‘He threw me the ball!’ I remembered thinking, ‘What is that man thinking?’. It may have been a football, but as it approached, it grew to the size of Halley’s Comet – approaching at supersonic speeds. I briefly thought of ducking to get out of the way, but my competitive spirit took hold, I jumped and winced slightly as I felt the ball slam into my chest.

Truth be told, I don’t even remember if I held onto the ball. I’d like to think that I did, because I don’t remember getting mugged by my teammates afterwards. Circumstantial evidence of success perhaps, but I’ll take it.

What was important was that someone actually threw me the ball. Someone expected me to catch it.  Just having someone do that meant more than an ‘A’ in pre-calc. I never, ever again thought that my role was to ‘hide’ during gym class, and during any other school activity, for that matter. When Mr. Woj threw me the ball, it was as though he was saying that there will come times that I will be asked to contribute to something, regardless of my abilities or shortcomings. When Mr. Woj threw me the ball, he gave me a gift that told me that my days of hiding were over.

As difficult as high school was, there were many days like that at St. Mary’s. In many ways, it was no different than any other high school with the challenges associated with an uncontrollable herd of pre-adults. But most of the time, St. Mary’s teachers reminded us of life’s (of God’s) expectations of us – that we were expected to contribute our talents and skills in service to the greater good.

And when God throws you the ball, you don’t duck.

Thank you Mr. Woj, wherever you are.

I give thanks to the St. Joseph’s University Parish community for a gift that kept me in the flock.

My adulthood was generally a time a great challenge from the perspective of my faith. I found that I had so many questions but so few answers from the parish priests I encountered. I have always viewed my faith as less a practice of obedience and more a journey of exploration So it should be no surprise that I eventually felt that I no longer fit in the Catholic family, and gave serious thought to leaving.

At the darkest time of this period, a neighbor suggested a visit to St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo. I had nothing to lose – so one Sunday I chose to see what that church had to offer.

The music minister at that time was one Harold Harden – and he and his choir did this bluesy rendition of ‘Taste and See’ that stopped my retreat from faith dead in its tracks. True, the Mass isn’t supposed to be ‘entertainment’, but different people need to be reached in different ways. And on the day I walked into St. Joe’s, God found my weak spot in music.

The liturgy at St. Joe’s also featured homilies that were devoid of ‘theo-babble’; the words delivered from that pulpit made the gospel real and its message relevant. The message was consistent – never judgmental – but always delivering a challenge to make the gospel’s promise something real though service and ministry.

My time at St. Joseph’s didn’t completely ‘fix’ my problems of faith, but that parish gave me a gift that I needed most at that time – St. Joe’s gave me a reason to stay in the game.

Thank you St. Joseph’s (and Harold, wherever you are).

I give thanks to ‘Jon D’ and my Richmond faith community for the gift of acceptance.

I mentioned that my stay at St. Joe’s managed to ‘stop the bleeding’ in terms of my faith journey. But my struggles with faith still continued as I tried to reconcile my questioning nature with my faith’s emphasis on loyalty to teachings that I frankly did not understand.

A couple of years ago, while leaving Mass at my current parish in Richmond, VA, my glance was caught by of one of those many special-event recruiters that lie in wait for unsuspecting prey who wander into their path.

Jon D’s package was the Christ Renews His Parish retreat, and in a moment of weakness, I agreed to participate, if for no other reason, to get past him and on my way to Applebee’s.

During the CRHP retreat, we were invited to open any page of the New Testament and to consider if the reading had any relevance in our personal lives.

I opened the book to a random chapter, looked down, and saw John, chapter 20. I read about doubting Thomas.

Now some folks may say that this miracle should teach me to never doubt (“Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”). But for some reason, that’s not the message I felt – I don’t know where it came from, but I honestly sensed that somewhere, someone said to me, “You are who you are – don’t worry about it. You’re still here, and that is all that matters.”

The gift I received that weekend is a gift of acceptance of who I am. I now understand that even the best of us sometimes find ourselves wrestling with God. Jacob did it (and things turned out pretty good for him), Thomas questioned (and he ended up a martyred saint), and even St. Thomas Aquinas spent time challenging St. Augustine’s writings. It looks as though I’m not alone in wondering ‘why and how’ – even within the framework of Catholicism. And that gift gives me comfort.

Thank you Jon D – and all my faith buddies in Richmond.

**********

So there it is. As much as I think and write about the challenges facing Catholicism of the modern world, I still believe in giving thanks to those who helped form me – those folks who delivered messages through the institutions built and supported by our Church.

Thank you to those who taught me to laugh with those who I once feared, who taught me that God has expectations from which I cannot hide, who taught me that the gospel is relevant when put into practice, and to those who taught me that while wrestling with God is OK, walking away from the contest is not.

Happy ThanksGifting to all.


References:
Genesis: 32 22-32
John: 20 24-29
Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica

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