Returning to Selma

On Saturday, March 7, I wrote the following brief journal entry: 

“I just heard Rev. William Barber. When he speaks, it is impossible not to be elevated to a new place. A place of love, hope, and compassion. In hearing Rev. Barber, I realized just how broken this world is, but more than that just how broken and bitter my own heart can be at times. Rev. Barber said, ‘Prophetic calling demands hope. A reimagining of community.’”

As part of a contingent from Unity Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, I traveled to Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis for the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March. I attended a Unitarian Universalist conference on racial justice and movement building. I went to workshops, heard speakers like Rev. Dr. William Barber, Rev. Jeremiah Right, and Dr. Bernice King. I visited historic places, and met people who marched in Bloody Sunday. And I left a different woman than when I arrived.

I was surprised at how run-down Selma is, block after block of vacant and abandoned buildings. One resident, Joann Bland, who was somewhere around 8 years old when she marched in Bloody Sunday, told us that took 36 years to vote the Mayor out of office. This is the same Mayor who ordered the violent police response to the peaceful march. Why did it take so long? Because the same people who had worked so hard to prevent Black people from registering to vote were now in charge of counting their votes. 

The economically depressed city of Selma impressed upon me how much more work is left to do. Now home in Minneapolis, I am humbled at the accomplishments, hard work, and sacrifice  the change makers of the Civil Rights era demonstrated. I would be lying if I said at times I didn’t feel daunted by the overwhelming work that is still left to do. 

And yet, as I search my heart I find strands of resilience, determination, hope, and even compassion. I find grit and tenacity. I find the strength and courage. I find love. And I only find these things by being in community. Working with community, pushing myself and growing myself through serving a community of people. I find myself asking, do I have what it takes to hope beyond the possible and reimagine community? Do I have what it takes to rise up to the call of my ancestors and continue the fight? And when I am tired and frustrated, I think of Medgar Evers, Viola Luizzo, Rev. James Reed, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and all those un-named organizers who sacrificed portions of their life yet had to forego the limelight because it would have meant an end to their livelihood and their children’s access to food. And I think I can do more. I must do more, because all that I have, I have because of their sacrifice. 

In love and light,

Lena K. Gardner

Lena K. Gardner is finishing her Master’s degree in Justice and Peace studies at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and works full time for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist online spiritual community. She has worked on local political campaigns, served on the board for her neighborhood organization, and volunteered for multiple organizations working mostly in the areas of racial and economic justice. Lena continually seeks new ways to reclaim our communities from the grips of oppressive systems and continue building lives and communities that are healthier, and more equitable, and racially just. She serves on the Community Innovation Grants review committee at Headwaters.