Category: Bridge Builders

Hallowed Ground

We noticed “Hallowed Ground” signs on the highway. A bit of research led to the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area,” from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 180-mile long and 75-mile wide area contains many historic sites, with numerous events throughout the year.

I gravitate toward all things historic, but we didn’t stop at Gettysburg on this trip. Many years ago I stood where Pickett’s Charge began and looked across the broad field toward the Union line. Lee and everyone involved later agreed it was a bad idea. I put myself in the place of those soldiers, and those who awaited them. I don’t need to go back there. Once was enough.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln said, “…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have hallowed it far beyond our poor power to add or detract.” I get it, I feel the sacrifice, the honor and the tragedy, of battlegrounds. Yet, in a greater sense, all ground in the universe is hallowed, or holy.

Places in Ukraine where some Putin advisors want to target “low-yield” nuclear weapons are holy. War desecrates already holy ground, even as it illustrates valor, creates heroes and gives those who follow a sense of the holy. War’s desecration and the consecration of an ensuing peace provide the ultimate human paradox. It’s worth pondering.


A sign of hope

A recent trip through southern Pennsylvania on the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg was followed by some miles in Virginia on the Lee Highway to Appomattox. It was a peaceful, direct, one-day journey that took the survivors of Lee’s retreating army 20 months of more bloody battles. About 75 yards from Appomattox Court House, a modest room in a family’s residence was the site where Grant and Lee, each seated behind separate small tables, signed papers acknowledging the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The restored little village is part of a National Historic Park. A lone American flag is prominent on a pole at the entrance to the village. It’s a quiet, appropriate reminder that we are—at least officially–one nation. The little village reminds us that it was, and is, a costly oneness. Each day news events remind us that our oneness is still a work in progress, a unity yet to be fully realized 157 years after the surrender documents were inked. The park at Appomattox is a simple, somber witness to hope rising from the ashes of war.

A sign greets travelers that Appomattox County is “where our nation was reunited.” A more accurate statement would be, “Where our nation’s reunification began.” Big ideals, by their nature, are always works in progress, as in “liberty and justice for all.” But I wouldn’t change the sign that welcomes travelers. Leave it as it is, a reminder that though we’re an incomplete, unfinished project, something really important happened there. Our nation was reunited, even as we continue to discover the potential of a truly united nation.

From National Park Service

Staying grounded

The guys in my weekly “Fullness of Love” group kept quoting Heather Cox Richardson. I can be slow on the uptake, but when someone, or more than one, repeatedly suggests a resource, I eventually think, “I need to check out that person, website, blog, book, or periodical.”

Heather Cox Richardson writes a daily email “Letter from an American.” She reportedly has the largest number of Substack subscribers. She’s a professor of history at Boston College. She connects significant, though sometimes obscure, events in American history to what’s happening now.

After Richard Rohr, HCR is my second read of the day. She’s a resource that keeps me grounded in the best traditions of American democracy. Authoritarians, insurrections and wars don’t just happen. They have antecedents. Heather Cox Richardson helps me connect the dots.

Her August 27. 2022 letter began: In a speech Thursday night, President Joe Biden called out today’s MAGA Republicans for threatening “our personal rights and economic security…. They’re a threat to our very democracy.” Then, she provided a history lesson for context, a story I’d never heard, which began:

Biden’s calling out of today’s radical Republicans mirrors the moment on June 21, 1856, when Representative Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts, a member of the newly formed Republican Party, stood up in Congress to announce that northerners were willing to take to the battlefield to defend their way of life against the southerners who were trying to destroy it.

Burlingame, ardent Methodist abolitionist and former member of Congress, was the US ambassador to China, then (uniquely) a representative from China to the US, from “Anson Burlingame, an American Diplomat,” by Stanton Jue, American Diplomacy, September 2011

Essentially the same

I gained a new perspective yesterday about memory loss when I took my aunt for a post-surgery exam. We had multiple conversations about family members. She spoke about her mom in the present tense and minutes later talked about her mom’s funeral. My aunt has lost the relativity of time but maybe she’s gaining something the ancients described as a narrowing of the “veil” that separates the living from the departed. On a 2011 study trip to Ireland, our guide took us to some “thin” places.

I experienced a powerful continuity in my aunt’s 91-year-old brain. She thought the doctor’s office was on the college campus she and her sister Grace attended. In that moment, the medical facility provided an atmosphere for her to express the meaning of their relationship, which transcends time and space. Details become more dim, but the reality of her formative relationships remains essentially the same. In the big scheme of things, isn’t essence more important than details?

Yesterday’s excursion reminded me of my friend Stephen’s recent comment that artificial intelligence pales in comparison with the human brain. From a paper by Jiawei Zhang: On average, the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons and many more neuoglia which serve and support the neurons. Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synapses. Maybe our synapses mature in ways we youngsters cannot yet appreciate.

Could a brain that appears impaired operate in a different plane, look at reality from a different perspective, on a wavelength we can’t quite grasp. Two years ago, while sleeping in my aunt’s guest bedroom, she knocked on the door and said, “Midge, are you in there?” Midge (1924-2007) was her sister and my mother. We talked for a few minutes and I suggested that she may have been dreaming about Midge. The ancients viewed dreams as windows for peering through the thin “veil.”

From “What Are Thin Places?,” Thin Places Mystical Tours

A hospice to the world

Autura Eason-Williams was a wise colleague in the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. Her ability to make each person feel important was driven by her belief that everyone is a unique part of creation. She was a faithful, effective leader and friend who was graced with infectious laughter.

On Monday, her life ended tragically during an apparent carjacking in front of her home in metro Memphis that led to charges against a 15-year old and a 16-year old.

Yesterday, help came to me through words from Catherine de Hueck Doherty via “Standing Still,” a meditation by Richard Rohr, which contextualized the meaning of Autura’s life:

True silence is the speech of lovers …. a key to the immense and flaming heart of God …. in the … creative, fruitful, loving silence of final union with the Beloved…. This silence, then, will break forth in a charity that overflows in the service of the neighbor without counting the cost…. Hospitality will be deep and real, for a silent heart is a loving heart, and a loving heart is a hospice to the world.

From “Rev. Autura Eason-Williams, United Methodist pastor, shot and killed in Memphis,” by Daniel Connolly, Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 19, 2022

Respect the process

The Fullness of Loving movement began 8 months ago by my friend Joe Elmore. He says it actually began 80 years ago when he was a young boy, seeking acceptance and love. About 100 people are involved in this movement, which gathers in various occasional configurations to encourage each other to intentionally practice receiving and sharing forgiveness and love.

Our sessions remind me of Quaker meetings. Everyone is free to speak but no one is required to speak. In an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, we begin to peel back layers of pain. We also marvel at the power of forgiveness that keeps us moving forward. One person spoke of the work that’s involved with deep pain. She said, “It’s important to respect the process (of forgiveness).”

We talked about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Desmond Tutu, who said, “I am sorry” are the three hardest words to say. They may be the most liberating words we can say. Reconciliation is a process, especially if it involves transformation rather than papering over deep pain. Just like physical therapy, it may take awhile. Reconciliation is a process. It’s worth the effort.

From The Forgiveness Project

When Billy came to town

Billy Graham held five Alabama crusades. Two were at Birmingham’s Legion Field (1964, 1972), which billed itself as “the Football Capital of the South.” Three 1965 crusades were held in college towns: Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Tuskegee. His presence was a positive contribution toward racial justice.

Fifty years ago, while a young pastor and college student, I participated in Graham’s May, 1972 crusade as a volunteer “counselor.” We were local clergy recruited to be the first to go forward during Graham’s nightly invitations. We greeted those who came forward, encouraging them to find a church home.

Graham offered daytime “School of Evangelism” speakers at First United Methodist Church, including. John Bisagno and Manuel Scott. Anthea Butler rightly critiques Graham’s Christian nationalism and his slowness to embrace racial justice, but I witnessed his 1972 Birmingham efforts to end segregation, which began with his 1953 crusade in Chattanooga. Graham matured beyond the right-wing ideology he helped spread during the heyday of the Cold War. We are all mixed bags!

From “A Look Back at Bill Graham in Birmingham,” BGEA, August 12, 2015

When the accent was on Loyal

History’s lessons can provide inspiration and context. One of the gifts of longevity is that I now carry a fair amount of history within me. I can remember when democrats and republicans had a modicum of respect for each other and were able to come together on big issues.

I’m old enough to remember disagreements between members of the same political party. They were held together by principles big enough to allow differences about priorities and strategies. One of the speakers at an Inaugural Gala for Jimmy Carter in 1977 was a republican named John Wayne, who said:

I have come here tonight to pay my respects to our 39th President, our new Commander-in-Chief and to wish you Godspeed, Sir, in the uncharted waters ahead.all of our hopes and dreams go into that great house with you. And everyone is with you.

I am privileged to be present and accounted for in this capitol of freedom to witness history as it happens … to watch a common man accept uncommon responsibilities he won “fair and square” by stating his case to the American people … not by bloodshed, beheadings, and riots at the palace gates.

…I am considered a member of the opposition … the Loyal Opposition … accent on Loyal. I’d have it no other way. …I add my voice to the millions of others all over the world who wish you well, Mr. President.

American actor John Wayne (Marion Mitchell Morrison) acting in Cast a Giant Shadow. 1966 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images), from “John Wayne Was Honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter a Year After His Death,” by Clayton Edwards, Outsider, February 25, 2021

Music’s healing power

Rhiannon Giddens’ April 1 appearance on Firing Line with Margaret Hoover described how banjo music came to America with African slaves. In Appalachia, European and African traditions blended to create music that can teach and heal. Giddens’ audiences are predominantly white and she described feeling “broken” by a sea of mostly black faces when she performed at Sing Sing prison.

Giddens, a performing historian, uses music as a tool to teach an American version of the human story. She finds–and imparts–powerful lessons from history that can bring healing. Though she grew up in North Carolina, she first learned of the 1898 Wilmington Insurrection through her study of music.

On Firing Line, Giddens–a mother of two–sang “At the Purchaser’s Option,” inspired by the 1797 ad depicted below, which offered a young slave woman for sale. Her 9-month-old child was available “at the purchaser’s option.” The song, which she wrote with Joseph Edward Ryan, includes this chorus:

“You can take my body; You can take my bones; You can take my blood; But not my soul.”

See also: “Rhiannon Giddens’ 21st-Century Sound Has a Long History,” by Justin Davidson, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2019; “Why These Four Banjo-Playing Women Resurrected the Songs of the Enslaved,” by Charlie Weber, Smithsonian Magazine, April 10, 2019; “To Balance on Bridges,” a 2021 audiobook by Rhiannon Giddens.

From the New York Heritage Digital Collection

Joe Thompson

Early in her music career, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band that won a Grammy in 2010 for their album, Genuine Negro Jig.

From yesterday’s post, Margaret Hoover asked her Firing Line guest about meeting Joe Thompson (1918-2012). He was “a fiddle player who was one of the last living performers carrying on black string band traditions.” It was 2005. Thompson was 86. Giddens was 28. She called his influence “foundational” for her identity as an artist. Hoover asked, “What did you learn from him?”

Giddens replied, “Oh, some things that I can put into words and some things that I probably won’t ever be able to put into words.” Thompson was “an actual living proponent of a tradition, an elder…. Joe was a community musician …. he was in service to his community. And so the idea of music as service” was imparted to the Carolina Chocolate drops (Rhiannon, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons) “by sitting at his knee.” The group asked themselves, “How can we be of service with this music?” Giddens said, “I really think that playing with Joe and learning from Joe was … why that was our part of our identity.”

Joe, as musician, was in service to his community. When I think of the long story of racism or the horrific brutality occurring now in Ukraine, I have no words. I’m not sure anyone does. Music can help.

Tomorrow: The power of music to heal.

From “It’s time to honor legendary musician Joe Thompson who linked past and future,” by Madison Taylor, Madison’s Avenue, March 6, 2018