Sunday, September 15, 2013

When there are no words

Today, September 15, marks the 50th anniversary of a horrific event in our nation's history: the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which took the lives of 4 young girls. All in the name of hatred.

Several years back, friends and I drove to Memphis for a wedding, and as such, had the opportunity to go through Birmingham as part of our drive. We drove right by the site, and I found that I could not say a word, except for a quietly muttered "wow" ....... I felt a sense of history, of significance. But more than that, I thought of it as holy ground, of sacred space, a place where there were no words that could possibly match what I felt in my heart. Later that weekend, while we were in Memphis, we drove by the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, and again, I couldn't utter a coherent phrase -- and felt the same gravity I felt at the church.

Sometimes, there are no words that can convey what the heart feels. I grew up after these events, was born a full 18 months after Dr. King's assassination. I'm a child of the South, but I think of myself as a child of the New South. My parents were part of that generation with one foot in their history and one foot in the future. They grew up in the era where segregation was the norm, but you were still expected to treat everyone kindly. I suppose the families were like many during that time -- more concerned with survival than with the larger questions of social justice.

Holy ground. The phrase isn't quite right, but it is all I can think of. My heart didn't have the right words. How do you succinctly speak of a sorrow for something that happened only 6 years before your birth but which seems like a distant incident on another world? How do you say how sad you are without it coming across as patronizing or condescending -- after all, you are still a Caucasian from the South, no matter that you have nothing to do with that horrid past. What phrase conveys all that, and the sorrow for the lives lost there, and all the lives lost due to hatred?

And even now, how do we deal with the hatred that still exists -- hatred that still makes brother kill brother, that makes us hate the other because (insert silly reason here). Because he or she is a different race, different religion, different belief system? Just because he or she reminds us of someone in our past who wronged us, and therefore we don't give them the chance? Or of the hatred that never expresses itself to the point of actual physical wrong, but which weaves its way into our thinking?

I'd like to believe that words have no power except that which we assign to them -- for example, there are certain words that I *hate* to hear, which means in some way that word has power over me -- but there are some phrases in any language which are hate words: slurs about someone's orientation, religion, background, or any other differentiation. Words that certain groups use among themselves to denote someone of another (fill in the blank). I read one of those words in a recent FB post, and since it was in another language, I looked it up. Per Urban Dictionary, it was a word of derogatory slang. Instantly, I was crushed. This person had suddenly lumped people into a category based on their background -- I'm sure the rationale was "well, it's been done to us." In one word, it became Us vs. Them. To say I was hurt was an understatement, and honestly, it's made me rethink a lot of things.

It took me back to Birmingham to a solemn brick building, to a cinderblock motel in Memphis. To a place where I am an outsider but one with a broken heart for all the hatred that existed then -- a hatred enough to kill four little girls who just happened to be at church a little early that day. A hatred that still turns the world into Us vs. Them.

And for that sort of sorrow, there are no words.

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