Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

“Selma” left me speechless, but I can’t stay that way.

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Speechless. That is how the film “Selma” left me. The horror of the hate and the violence…speechless. The awe of the man that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was…speechless. The talent of the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, and the performance of the man who wore King’s shoes, David Oyelowo…speechless. The weight of a struggle that, as a white man from a predominantly white, rural area of Southwestern PA, I will never fully understand…speechless.

What “Selma” also did, however, was remind me that as a follower of Jesus, in the face of the strife of my brothers and sisters, I am not able to remain speechless. I must, then, attempt to understand. How is this accomplished, though? Luckily, “Selma” also answers that question.

We must enter the lives of people who are different from us. We must be in community, community driven by love, love that is not exclusive. When we are in community we must then open our ears and listen. Listen to people like author and Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, Lisa Sharon Harper, who said in a piece called “The Other Lie” that followed the events in Ferguson,

“Every human being on the face of the earth…every person on the street, and every single person in Ferguson—is made in the image of God. That means, all things being equal, every single person on earth was created with the command and the capacity to exercise Genesis 1:26-27 dominion, which means to steward or in modern terms, to exercise agency or lead. To diminish the ability of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God in them—and to diminish God’s image on earth. And the fastest and surest way to diminish the ability of humans to exercise agency, to lead, is through poverty or oppression.”

We must listen to people like my colleague and friend, Cole Arthur, who struck an important nerve as she cried through her keyboard,

“I tell myself that the last thing the world needs is another black voice telling it to pay attention to black voices. So I read every other voice I can find. And I cry. And I pray. And I theatrically punch my headboard. And I keep my voice tucked deep between the lies that I don’t matter and nothing will change.

But as I lay here trying to tuck that voice a little deeper, a little farther back, it begins to scream. Like nothing you’ve ever heard because it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt. Because Eric Garner… and I can’t breathe. And Trayvon Martin and I have a little brother and I can’t breathe. And he had his hands up and I’m typing with mine, and no one can breathe– no one can think– no one can live if, despite all our best efforts, at the end of the day, the color of my skin ignites so much fear in a person, that they’d rather kill me than speak words to me.”

As your ears, eyes, and heart are open to the struggle that these women are describing you will realize that you do not have to fully understand this struggle the way that your brothers and sisters do to love them, to sit next to them, to advocate for them, to affirm the dignity they are given as living, breathing children of God.

Oh what it must have been like to be in the presence of Dr. King. It becomes very easy for him to become a video clip or a sound byte to us, but “Selma” never lets him be that. He is Dr. King, a Nobel Prize winning, well educated preacher, but he is also Martin. He was a man, an imperfect man, but a man that spent years of his life leading like very few can. He had to be on every minute of every day.

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The events that happened in Selma seem like they should be foreign to us, a distant memory, but as the film unfolded I heard the echoes of these tragedies all around me. Specifically, a moment when a young, black man is slain by a point blank shot from an Alabama State trooper, and my mind travelled to a little over a year ago when I watched another movie called, “Fruitvale Station (worth looking up if you haven’t seen it).”

In “Selma,” Dr. King visits that slain young man’s grandfather and assured him that as much as he’s cried for his grandchild that was taken far too soon, “God was the first to cry.” A reminder that on top of being a Nobel laureate, leader, academic, and husband, Dr. King was also a pastor. My prayer is that those words will supply comfort and peace to my friends and I want them to know that I am behind God in that line ready to cry with you.

Lisa Sharon Harper’s full article

Cole Arthur’s full post