One Sunday afternoon I read an article in The Christian Century about the newly opened Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
One Sunday morning halfway through our summer vacation traveling through Alabama we had a discussion with our children about foregoing a usual worship service to be confronted with our sins as a country. My explanation resulted in comments about how even away from the pulpit I could not stop teaching them. There were a few John Calvin jokes shared before we pulled into Montgomery.
Arriving in Montgomery we parked by a sign that told us Montgomery was the center of the Domestic Slave Trade and that the place we were parked used to be a place where humans were sold. As we read the sign silence began to descend. It was an odd silence because the city sounds did not cease, but the other noise of our lives ceased.
The museum is housed in a building that used to hold humans as they awaited the moment they would be auctioned. The day we visited, the museum was packed. We slowly made our way to each exhibit between two families. We never spoke more than the usual whispered “excuse me” and “sorry” of museum goers, yet I was completely aware of their presence. We were staring at evil laid bare, and my skin color, which was different than theirs, connected me more with the evil than with the good.
The memorial is a sacred place. We walked through the memorial reading the names and dates of our fellow humans who had been murdered because of the color of their skin. More than 4,000 names were displayed. I walked through the memorial reading of the lynchings in towns I have walked the streets, in years people I know were alive. I wondered if I would learn someone I loved was a murderer. I wondered how anyone I was walking beside could ever look at me and not hate me on sight for what white Christians had done.
As I came to the last corner of the hanging display section of the memorial I could hear water, realizing I had heard it all along. I stopped to read the wall featured in the photograph, and the tears could no longer be held inside. I took a photograph because it was allowed and turned toward the source of the water, a long wall pouring water down like a righteous stream.
I approached the water hearing in my head the words of baptism I say when I baptize babies, teenagers, and adults. I heard these words and my tears fell as I touched the water.
. . . we set this water apart to be the waters of baptism may the person who now passes through these waters be delivered from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from sin to righteousness. Grant that they will grow in compassion and humility. . .
I wanted to put my whole body in the water. I wanted someone to make the sign of the cross on my forehead and say the words of baptism to me. I wanted to be reminded that grace and forgiveness is ours to have. I wanted to know we could still have hope. I wanted to know evil would not win for one more day.
I reluctantly left the water and walked through the graveyard portion of the memorial holding my daughter’s hand. I read the invocation at the end of the memorial, wiped at my falling tears, and left with my family.
In the weeks since we visited that morning has never been far from my thoughts. One of the lessons the creators shared was their belief that With Hope we could change the world, with a determination to never forget and a belief we could be better, we could bring healing, and that evil could be stopped.
I am left with this conviction. We cannot change our past, but we can change the present and the future. In order to do that we have to know our history. We have to admit our sins, the ways the sins of others have benefited us, and our lack of commitment to working for healing. We have to admit where we have been and are if we ever expect to change, and we must change.
We cannot be who we have been.
We cannot let evil win one more day.
We must change ourselves and the world.
We must remember, have hope, be courageous, be persistent, and have faith.
One Sunday morning the Holy Spirit held me tight and forced me to see.