BLACK LIVES MATTER

This page offers a space for GTU community members to offer reflections, poems, pictures, and other expressions related to the institutional racism in the United States which has been laid bare by the murders of Riah Milton, Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells, David McAtee, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, at the hands of the police. 

Please note: some content on this page, for example images of police violence, may be distressing to some viewers.

 

POEM & QUOTE

From Rita Sherma, Director, Center for Dharma Studies, GTU

 
 

SUFFERING

by Rachelle Syed

While many of us have been safe at home and weathering this crisis, shelter-in-place mandates have demonstrated how broken our health care and economic system is. It has been like a cold-turkey cut off from that which allows us to ignore or downgrade the destruction of our planet and the oppression of people of color, the poor, and indigenous peoples. Because of COVID-19, we have a chance to see this system far more clearly, and because of shelter in place, we can't simply turn away, even if our hearts care. The healing of our communities and world cannot be a hobby or volunteer project. It must be the goal of all of us in an intentional, consistent, and sustainable way. Even more painfully demonstrating this are the recent deaths of Amhaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, whose last words fill this painting. George's last words included a prayer to his late mother. Deep in my heart, those words ring with the full humanity of all of us, and we cannot hide from the inherent connection they remind us of. I painted his words alongside a line from the Bhavaniashtakam, a song of suffering and hope to the Divine Mother, as an expression of profound connection not just with George, but with all those the system I have benefited from seeks to oppress and eliminate. We are a human family, and we will suffer until we remember it.

Near the bottom, my handprint sadly dragged away, is an offering to George - a moment that can translate into efficacious change, right here, and right now. We all can. Will we rise to the challenge this opportunity allows us? 


Line from the Bhavaniashtakam:

गतिस्त्वं गतिस्त्वं त्वमेका भवानि

You are my Refuge, You Alone are my Refuge, Oh Mother Bhavani.

 

RELIGION & RESISTANCE

CARe Spring 2018 Exhibition

Come Let us Build a New World Together

by Danny Lyon, 1962

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

from the Albert G. Cohen Campus Ministry, Social Justice and the Environment Collection. Graduate Theological Union Archives


“I had my camera, and I ran along as this brave little group marched through the sunlit and mostly empty streets of a very small American town. With the exception of a few young black men, everyone else who was watching seemed to hate and deride the demonstrators, many of whom were children. At Cairo's only, and segregated, swimming pool, the group stopped to pray. Then they stood in the street singing, and when a blue pickup truck drove down the center of the street straight at them, a game of chicken ensued as the truck slowed and the demonstrators moved out of the way, except for one defiant thirteen- year-old girl, who stood her ground until the truck knocked her down.”

 

Michael Brown Murder Protest, 1AM, Oakland, California

by Ken Light, 2014 

©Ken Light

 

AFTER/LIFE

CARe Spring 2020 Exhibition

 
 

The Choking Kind

Mark Mitchell (2015)
Silk, reed, wool, cotton

The Choking Kind is named after the 1969 song by Joe Simon, referring to a choking, killing love. The window, covered with cascading silk flowers, represents the window of a prison, where two teenage black men--the sons of Mitchell’s friend--ended up incarcerated. Mitchell worked for months, mournfully, to make the garlands of silk peonies and wisteria, which in the Victorian language of flowers represent shame and wistfulness, respectively. Wisteria, a fast-growing vine, tends to choke anything that grows around it.

 

REV. DR. ROLAND STRINGFELLOW

CLGS African American Roundtable Issues Statement on Murder of George Floyd

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

An excerpt from The Rev. Dr. Martin L. King,  A Letter from A Birmingham Jail


1 June 2020

Many of us were already tired of being tired – tired of staying indoors – tired of being disconnected – and tired of hearing conflicting messages of what is safe and what isn’t … and now, America now has the makings of violent summer that easily could surpass the Summer of ’67 in Detroit and many other urban cities.  We need to take all of these factors into account – a pandemic mixed with high unemployment mixed with images of violence perpetrated on Black folks losing breath … and losing life.

We are tired of being tired. And when we get tired, we have the tendency to want to give up.  Rather than catching coronavirus, we need to be careful not to catch a case of “Why Bother?”  Dr. King addressed the Christian church for its “weak, ineffectual voice” in the face of police brutality and the conditions that lead to the oppression of Black folks in America.  How eerie it is that his words read as if they were written for today.  It goes to show the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As Coordinator of the CLGS African-American Roundtable, I bring Dr. King’s words back to us for consideration as spiritual people who believe in and work for justice.  We do not know what the next few days, weeks, or months will bring, but I want us, as community caregivers, to play an important part in providing spiritual leadership during these uncertain times.  Organizing spaces for prayer and meditation (that are safe with proper social distancing), offering our buildings for rally or demonstration planning, joining in those public demonstrations wearing clerical garments or other identifiable shirts or pins from your spiritual community are some of the ways you can show you solidarity with Black and Brown people who are constant targets for violence.

My prayer is for the victims and perpetrators of violence. My prayer is also for those of us who can and should respond to the needs of our community.

 

CENTER FOR LGBTQ & GENDER STUDIES

Statement on the Murder of George Floyd

“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”

– Maya Angelou

The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS) condemns the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 and we, the staff members of CLGS, extend our heartfelt condolences to the surviving family and friends of Mr. Floyd.

To say that the killing of George Floyd is a result of the twofold plague of systemic racism and white supremacy that infects and affects our country is to state what should now be obvious to everyone: that the sin of white racism and the oppression and murder of countless Black and Brown people must come to an end and that we must commit to do the hard work of bringing an end to the evils of white racism in this nation.

In order to fight the insidious pandemic of racism in the United States, which began well before this country was founded, we name this plague for what it is: a poison that is destroying the very foundations and fabric of our society.  Moreover, we understand that it is white people who must do the work of dismantling the privilege that white people enjoy at the expense – and lives – of Black and Brown people.  For this dismantling to happen, however, so much needs to be transformed: from individual hearts and minds to the political, civic, religious, economic, educational, and cultural institutions – including queer institutions – that feed and perpetuate this racist and death-dealing mentality.

We pledge today to continue – and intensify – our commitment to the anti-racist, justice-seeking, and intersectional work that motivates us as staff members of CLGS, an LGBTQ organization dedicated “to advancing the well-being of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and transforming faith communities and the wider society by taking a leading role in shaping a new public discourse on religion and sexuality.”

This new public discourse that we seek to shape and promote is a discourse that is not only rooted in anti-racism but that moves us from talk to action and real change for our Black and Brown siblings, many of whom live daily with the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

We ask you to join us in this work.

Rev. Dr. Carla Roland Guzmán, Coordinator of the CLGS Latinx Roundtable

Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw, Coordinator of the CLGS Transgender Roundtable

Rabbi Jane Litman, Coordinator of the CLGS Jewish Roundtable

Dr. Bernard Schlager, Executive Director

Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, Coordinator of the CLGS African American Roundtable

 

BREATHING | BEING | PRAYING

by Yohana Junker

 
 

Companheires,

As you know, I have been making these breathing | Being | Praying exercises for the last months to center, to be in touch with our breath, to excavate sensations on my body that often go unnoticed, to enflesh feelings. To have feelings that think and thoughts that feel, as Claudio Carvalhaes has taught me. Coke Tani invited me to think about the shape and movement of body prayer. Years of work with the healing arts through the teachings of Caroline Vigery, Veronica Iglesias, Mae Sandra, @anaeloisas, Eliad SantosDébora A Junker, Divane Agra, aunties, grandmas, and cousins have taught me to let the body breathe, be, and pray. I transferred these knowing into to this drawing practice. And here is how it typically goes:

Take a deep breath. Take a moment to center yourself. Maybe create sacred space. Maybe meditate for a few minutes. When you feel grounded, identify a phrase that crystalizes a thought or sensation that wants to come to the surface of your skin. Write that in the center of the page. Breathe into this deeply and slowly. Trust your hand and the movement it wants to make, where it wants to take you, what it wants to reveal to you, as Elaine Panagos reminded me once. Draw one line as you breathe in and one line as you breathe out. After about 20 minutes of this exercise, do a bit of noting and writing based on the insights from the drawings.

The insights that accompanied this particular drawing today developed for me as a series of questions:

What am I committing to doing today? Within the next week? Next month? Next semester? Next year? Next decade? What will be my commitment as I do my life’s work?

I will continue to call for justice and gather resources. For Breonna Taylor. I will continue to breathe; continue to care for myself and communities. I will financially support the work of Oluwatomisin Oredein (venmo @Oluwatomisin_Oredein) one of the most brilliant educators and scholars I know. The work of Tamisha Tyler (Venmo: @Tamisha_Tyler), another badass scholar. Check her #WhyIsSheSoDope Series. I will continue to redistribute income. Donate to bail funds. I will give up white power and privilege.

Continue to undo and give up the power proximity to whiteness has afforded me. I will carry Cheryl Harris’s words with me and share it widely, every day: the Americanization project is fundamentally anti-black—the LAW has afforded holders of whiteness the same privileges afforded to other types of properties, as it’s an aspect of identity and a property interest used to exercise power.

I will continue to question:

After the performance is over when the streets are empty when our throats can’t chant words anymore, our eyes can’t cry, our arms can’t hold up signs any longer, what is left? Who am I? How will we show up?


Ericka Hart (venmo: @ericka-hart)—non-binary Sex educator, Racial, Social, Gender justice disruptor—asks us with white privilege what are we going to do? Will we give up power? Authority? Visibility? Will we understand that our whiteness and commitment to it is lethal? Will we admit our complicity in anti-blackness and racism? Are we willing to lose friends, have difficult conversations, put bodies on the line, lose our jobs? Be rendered as the dissenting voices wherever we go?

Will we redistribute income? Will we pass on job opportunities? Will we demand our Black siblings are properly compensated? Will we work toward reparation? Will we continue to confront whiteness in our board of directors, the board of trustees, our institutions? Will we work toward reimagining and recreating community strategies for life beyond capitalism, for safety, emergency response, collective care that does not require police presence? Will we continue to fight for abolition? Will we advocate for Black presence? Will we reach for our pockets? Will we follow Black leadership? Will we check on Black friends? Will we protect Black lives? Will we not rest until our families friends and communities are educated about the implications of anti-blackness?

Black Friends:
You have the right to be, and to be free, and to be safe, and to be feeling, and to be creating, and to be dreaming, and to be healed, and to be resting. I will not stop fighting for these rights. I continue to offer reiki sessions. Hit me up if you need one. #healersforblacklives #whitenessislethal

 

LIVING OUT LOUD

from Ellen Peterson

I was struck by how this speaks to our current environment; the essay is on homelessness, but the concept is far greater. It points to the need for us to first see the other as a human being with fears, hopes, love and pain and then to connect.


“This is a difficult problem, and some wise and compassionate people are working hard at it.  But in the main I think we work around it, just as we walk around it when it is lying on the sidewalk or sitting in the bus terminal—the problem, that is.  It has been customary to take people’s pain and lessen our own participation in it by turning it into an issue, not a collection of human beings.  We turn an adjective into a noun:  the poor, not poor people; the homeless, not Ann or the man who lives in the box or the woman who sleeps on the subway grate.”


Quindlen, Anna, Living Out Loud (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 181. 

 

I NEED TO BREATHE

by GM.M'Imwonyo Mbui

I can't breathe! 
"Why so"—you ask? 
But how could I? 
With your knee 
Firmly on my neck,  
Hard pressed to the ground! 
I need to Breathe! 


I want to live! 
“Then why don't you"—you spout? 
But how can I? 
With my entire bein' 
Hopelessly pinned down 
With no space to move 
Nor to Breathe! 
 
I want to thrive!  
"Then go for it!" you taunt? 
Yet how could I? 
With the System's Knee 
So strategically pinned 
To rob me of life 
As I can't Breathe! 
 
"What System"—you retort? 
How could you tell? 
Even if I re-tell  
Since the System  
And your-Self 
Are one and the same thing 
That curtails my Breath  
So I can't Breathe! 
 
O the System?  
It is that intricate web  
Of incessant policing 
That stems from  
Endemic suspicion, and 
Fear of those cloaked in 
The accursed garment of  
Un-cleansable Blackness 
Which makes it so 
Very hard to Breathe! 
 
And the agents of 
The bullish System? 
Are you. And you. And you 
Who stiffen up whenever 
I happen in so ungodly 
A proximity that threatens  
To dismantle the Walls 
That keep us asunder 
Lest we mix and mingle 
And in some way discover 
Though Black ‘n dark I be 
That I am as human too 
Hence deserve to Breathe!  
 
O and then the Knee?  
It is that weird smirk 
You don on yo' pale face 
That says so clearly 
Albeit without a word 
"You are not welcome here!" 
Or if turns out I am 
Then my presence becomes 
So unbearable a torture 
For both you and I 
Making it all too hard 
For us both to Breathe! 
 
“Is that all for de' Knee?” 
How I wish it was! 
Except that it is 
So much more 
The instructor's pen too; 
All so angry and raving 
With red ink aplenty 
'Dat so menacingly surveys 
My essay for blights 
And if there be not many 
Then  follow the Praise,  
Tempered in guise 
"How do you write so well?" 
Or its close relative 
"How you so articulate?" 
As if 'tis a crime to dare 
Master the manners of  
The Palace in which  
Only the Elect dwell 
With my kinfolk and I 
Locked out and down 
Makin' it real hard to Breathe! 
 
So get yo' Knee off 
Of my life-givin' throb! 
For while the System 
Serves you well 
I dream not to partake 
Lest I be mistaken  
For some lurking imposter 
In my humble lot so I abide 
My only plea I live to make  
Get off my neck NOW! 

For I Need to Breathe!! 
 
Penned by 
G.M.M'Imwonyo Mbui 
May 31, 2020. 

 
Encounter.png

The Encounter (Virtual Community)

by Galen Cortes

Through the pathways of our dreams

Passing through the bright colors and shades of green

Our hearts beat in affection

Our minds leap into action


We can touch what we feel

We can smell what is in the air

Then we decided

And together we come out from this isolation


(When two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name in virtual reality, He is online.)

 

My Farewell

by Galen Cortes

dedicated to everyone who struggles for justice, peace and communion

I have ascended peaks of mountains

while listening to the howls of the wind of change

I have crossed the fastest lane

Searching for direction but nowhere it brings,

Will this remain the same?


I have scaled walls of freedom

Knowing when to run and learning how to jump over a fence

I am afraid, and I am panting

Would this be my end?


If only I can share my heart

You will feel what is burning inside

A strong desire for living and sharing

Where shades or colors flow into the same veins

I have approached legion of angels

Made acquaintances with the devil

Born in the dark, but warm by the light

And called to be strong


Once you said, “There are no enemies, only friends who forget to love.”

By saying that, you remind me of your ever-tender presence

And for many years you sheltered me under your wings

Nothing can separate us now from your reassuring embrace.

My Mother, to be with you, is to rest.

 

DR. ALISON M. BENDERS

Quilting as Spiritual Practice and the Possibility of Redemption

 
 

Quilts are layered coverings. They are sandwiches of practical warmth stitched into uncommon beauty. Quilts are quintessential expressions of ordinary holiness. They patch together disparate colors into coherent meaning, even serving as theological expressions of our human condition. 


I quilt. I quilt for the satisfaction of using my hands after a long day of administrative meetings and emails. I quilt as an alternate way to express meaning, rather than using text. I quilt as a spiritual discipline to understand and express where I find grace. Let me share the story of the Civil Rights quilt that has been my companion and solace for at least a year now.  Gradually, the quilt has coalesced in my imagination from scraps of fabric and scraps of reading into a vivid vision of redemption. 


The Civil Rights quilt interprets a flag I saw once.  A picture of the Civil Rights Movement Historical Flag, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (April 4, 1968), appeared in the St. Columba Parish Bulletin a few years ago.  During February, the flag hangs in the church sanctuary.  Mildred Scott McConnell of Oakland, California, a parishioner of St. Columba, designed the flag to express her love and gratitude for the people who had given their lives in the Movement. 


I created initially this small 10” by 16” quilted replica of the flag to replicate McConnell’s bold statement about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.  The dark blue band of sky stands for the people who were loyal to the movement. I think of women walking to their housekeeping jobs during the Montgomery boycott, of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham and the fierce fire hoses, of clergy and congregants striding on the Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River on Bloody Sunday, and of the Freedom Riders on buses in the hot southern summer of 1961. I recollect the nameless heroes who walked, prayed, protested and marched as loyal witnesses for justice in this roiling period of US history.


The buoyant yellow signifies the Movement’s successes.  These include busing to integrate segregated schools and the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in. The searing red represents blood spilled, lives extinguished.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reigns in our memories as one of a long, tragic list of lives sacrificed for justice.


McConnell depicted Tennessee’s green hills and valleys in the verdant center swath of the flag.  Green also brings to mind fields of cotton, cane or tobacco.  Green is vibrant life, but the fields also meant spirit-crushing, backbreaking labor for people condemned to plant and harvest crops as slaves and sharecroppers. At the base of the flag, under the lush green fields, lies the rusty, clay soil stretching through the deep southern planation lands. The blood, sweat and tears of innumerable lives are buried in the rusty soils of the South, even as these acres birthed an unquenchable thirst for freedom.  


The spray of stars forms the Drinking Gourd, the Big Dipper constellation, and signifies (sometimes more in myth than in actuality) enslaved people’s yearning to migrate north where they might claim freedom for themselves.  Ms. McConnell specifically identified six states to honor their citizens in the Civil Rights struggle: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, District of Columbia, Illinois, and Tennessee.  These states were the vanguard of the Movement that ignited our nation from south to north, from east to west between World War II and the Vietnam War.


The Civil Rights flag summoned my imagination when I taught the course Race, Theology and Justice in fall 2018.  Together with ten students from the Jesuit School of Theology and a companion instructor, we journeyed to the Deep South for a week to see for ourselves the sites of the Movement.  We dubbed our class pilgrimage a holy remembrance, as we recalled American black ancestors – enslaved - who died of overwork and beatings on 19th century New Orleans sugar plantations.  At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, we prayed through silent witness for the people lynched during the Jim Crow terror years, vestiges of which continue to threaten the lives of black and brown youth in our nation today. During that pilgrimage, we also venerated the heroes and loyalists honored on the Civil Rights flag as we whispered worshipfully in the reconstructed sanctuary of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.  Later, we stood in hushed respect before the tombs of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta. Beside the cascading water, we read: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am 5:24). 


Interpreting the Civil Rights flag as a quilt became a spiritual exercise for me after our pilgrimage.  Now finished, it continues to invite me into deeper prayer and connects me with our nation’s long, very slow march toward racial justice.  Let me explain.

Constructing the Layered Quilt

With the small reproduction quilt completed as prototype, I set about making a larger interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement Historical Flag.  In creating this Civil Rights quilt, I imposed certain boundaries upon its construction to keep me mindful of the struggle for racial justice in our nation and our heartbreaking history of treating people as property.  Here is my  66” by 41” interpretation of the Civil Rights flag showing its layered mosaic of colors and shapes.


My self-imposed rule for the project was that I would not purchase any new fabric to construct it.  Quilt-making in the US has traditionally been a pragmatic craft, and only more recently an elective hobby for self-fulfillment. Patchwork quilt tops call out dramatically for our attention but, at their most basic, quilts have served as warm protection against frigid nights in cabins and homes without modern central heating. Women in past centuries fashioned quilts with fabrics salvaged from outworn clothing and grain sacks, or from scraps left over after clothes were cut from fresh yardage. New fabrics were a rare find in most households and an exceptional luxury for poor people. Women hoarded, stashed, swapped and shared especially unique fabrics to embellish their coverings, turning the quotidian into exquisite masterpieces of artistry and skilled needlework.


So, following this rule, I used only fabrics I already owned to piece together both the front and the back of the quilt.  Since my stash of fabrics did not include unmixed expanses of blue, green and rust fabric, I set out to patch together the lengths I needed.  Figure 2, above, reveals the amalgamation of complementary and contrasting colors that I combined into the main bands.  The process included selecting enough scraps within the right color range and then sewing minuscule tiles of all shapes into ever-larger swaths. In ritual repetition, I trimmed, aligned and resewed the colored patches into wider strips, evening out the intensity and angles of the pieces. This technique invites our eyes to travel back and forth, wandering up and down the quilt, resting and restarting. The randomness of the layout naturally forces us to seek patterns and associations among the pieces. While not pictured here, the quilt backing is also pieced, but with less artistry using larger chunks of leftover fabric, regardless of color or pattern.


The last step of the crafting process was actually quilting the covering.  Quilting is the top-stitching that anchors the quilt layers together.  Ornamental quilt stitching requires extraordinary virtuosity with a needle or, more recently, with a sophisticated sewing machine. I machine-quilted the project in straight horizontal rows, anywhere from three quarters to one inch apart, using thread from my sewing drawer that matched the color bands. The pattern of the parallel quilted rows is a common technique for expedient completion of quilts for daily use. While simple in concept, even this elementary design demanded my undistracted attention to move the bulky fabric layers under the needle uniformly. It also required of me a dogged persistence to complete the hundreds of lines necessary to secure the layers together.   


The final step in quilt-making is binding the raw edges of the quilted blanket into a smooth finished frame. Here I used black binding, visible as a quarter-inch border around the whole project.  I sewed the binding to the back of the quilt with tiny, invisible hand-stitches so that the binding would not distract from the quilt’s overall form and color. Concentrating on this, stitch by stitch, became my centering prayer as I secured the four sides of the flag to its completion.


Quilting Meaning into the Layers

Anyone who practices spiritual exercises, of whatever sort, will appreciate the value of an undistracted, quiet focus when discursive thought is stilled.  In the stillness, we can attend to God’s grace in our everyday lives. The Civil Rights quilt has been this kind of spiritual exercise for me. Creating it has allowed me to rest in God while also articulating my own theology in visual form.


First, my choices of color and shape express theological positions that are part of my most deeply held convictions. The tiles and scraps of fabric joined into bold bands of color signify the diversity-in-unity of our human community. No individual lives apart from community. At our best, we cooperate toward a shared future of well-being, just as the pieces in the quilt share a graced beauty that none alone could embody. Related to this, the mosaic is a comment on the racial hierarchy in our nation. In the US, race is a social construct, a label of ‘black’ or ‘white’ that we employ as shorthand judgments of value. As the bands reveal, while we can reduce scrap colors simply to blue, yellow, red, green and rust, the individual pieces belie facile categorization. The fabrics are complex and varied within each band. Some scraps have patterns within them; others display a solitary hue for emphasis or to delight the eye. The same is true for our population in the US, with our mixed ancestries and varied features.  Unfortunately, we spontaneously reduce people to color judgments that mask subtle evaluations of personal worthiness. Symbolically, the even rows of quilting simulate crop rows in the field, again recalling the context of chattel slavery at the most racially exploitative era of our grim history of race. 


Second, my construction techniques communicate the way I understand the interconnectedness of the cosmos and our moral responsibility within it.  Specifically, the repeated, creative joining of scraps mimics the way our lives intersect, enhance, and amplify our values – at our best.  In the fluid, creative construction process, I tried to imitate the fruitfulness of Grace lovingly drawing out our best. God does not work by predestination, but by inviting humanity into open co-creative responsibility with God for the world. Additionally, the three quilt layers, a beautiful top, a hidden layer of warm cotton, and a sturdy backing, are secured to each other, just like the moments of our history are layered inescapably one upon the other. Past layers often haunt and constrain us; they are hard to redeem and overcome for that very reason. For example, the slave society of the ante-bellum South remains alive in our language today. A prisoner chain gang is simply the later articulation of black men chained together in a coffle, captured, with iron linking them at waist, feet and sometimes neck, and forced to march south for cotton planters’ greed. In the same way, the layers of the quilt secured together represent our ancestors’ past choices, which cannot be ignored. They can only be overcome when we notice them and redeem them positively into new meanings. Justice – love alive in community -  is the path for any real redemption of our past.


Third, redemption to me is also about God’s grace pouring into our lives to create goodness from suffering. Creating this beautiful quilt has meant hours and hours of concentration and dedication.  Piecing the top of the Civil Rights quilt required shaping one section at a time. I then examined it for quality and consistency against the prior sections. I held up each section to evaluate it alongside my artistic vision for the quilt.  While I made mistakes, the steady but patternless construction process required continuous attention to coherency at each stage and as a whole. Like discerning God’s grace in our lives, the process of creating this quilt required me to pay attention. Cultivating daily attentiveness has fostered in me a greater ability to discern the holy, redemptive meaning on the horizon in our current times. It also trained me to work toward redemption in small, calculated steps.  The Civil Rights quilt is my evidence that, in the long run, persistence matters. 


Finally, and most importantly, the whole project has satisfied my spirit because I felt myself grasped by a transcending meaning.  The Civil Rights quilt repeatedly drew me out of myself into the deep colors, light and dark, slivers and swatches.  I tried to lean into this graced and gritty theme in our nation’s past as the Spirit led me. Through the quilt, working in and through my own skills, I grasped how the power of the Civil Rights Movement can still shape our response to the racial sins of our day. The quilt worked on my imagination as repeatedly I took it up and hid it away, in the long birthing process of any artistic work.  The consuming concentration required for fine stitching allowed my spirit to wander through the moments of the Movement and wonder at the courage of our ancestors in those days.  Even away from the project, it corralled my thoughts to find new sewing skills and techniques through which the meaning of the Movement might speak more forcefully.  The last challenge I met was mastering a thread painting technique to embroider the stars in the blue sky. While I tried carefully to follow the placing that McConnell created, my husband looking over my shoulder saw the Drinking Gourd, which had eluded my vision since I started the quilt. Now I cannot mistake the North Star in the blue sky, a beacon hope directing our spirits toward the possibility of future redemption. 

The Civil Rights quilt has been a spiritual, theological and personal exercise for me.  Even completed, it never ceases to astonish me with new connections – not because of my work, but because it connects me to the Civil Rights Movement.  As Mildred Scott McConnell reminded us so gracefully thirty years ago, this was a heroic time in our nation’s history.  It was a time when a rainbow of people quilted themselves into single force striving to redeem hope out of our long legacy of racial injustice.  Contemplating their heroism, which I have stitched into this quilt, the stars of the Big Dipper beckon us to amplify God’s merciful grace until justice and righteousness stream into our relationships and redeem our nation anew.

The generations of quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama epitomize the essence of resilience and self-expression in scrap-saturated quilts See Wallach, Amie.  The Fabric of Their Lives.  Smithsonian Magazine, October 2006, accessed May 13, 2020, at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fabric-of-their-lives-132757004/.

 
Suffering (detail)

Rachelle Syed