“Its A Beautiful Place”

I recently went from a denominational Justice and Witness meeting to a denominational Disability Ministry meeting and Conference. As I spoke with people at my second meeting and told them that I had just come from a meeting at the Franklinton Center at Bricks I heard again and again “that is a beautiful place”. The Franklinton Center is supported by the Justice Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

 

Photo of one of the buildings at Franklinton Center

It is a beautiful place but its beauty is haunting. The Franklinton Center at Bricks in located in rural eastern North Carolina. The land upon which it sits was once a slave plantation, but it was not just any slave plantation it was the plantation, we were told, where the “rebellious” slaves newly brought ashore were taken to be “broken in” and inducted or acculturated into slavery. The historical tradition of the place includes the report that there was once a “whipping tree” on the grounds. This was once a place of torture.

 

The old dormitory at Franklinton Center

What was once a place of grave injustice and inhumanity has also been a place of hope. After the civil the property that the Franklinton Center now sits up came into the ownership of a Northern white woman named Julia Bricks. At that time a school for freed slaves was founded on the land. It was a school that educated emancipated slaves and also allowed them to work on the property to earn the funds to cover their tuition and room and board. In this way, what is now the Franklinton Center became an integral part of the surrounding community and has remained so.

 

Building used as a dinning hall at Franklinton Center

Eventually the school at Bricks was closed. However, the Franklinton Center at Bricks has remained an integral part of the surrounding communities and the people who call this area home. During the Justice and Witness Ministries meeting we were taken on a tour of the tri-county area surrounding the Franklinton Center to get to know the people there and current mission work of this place. Now, I spent some time of my youth in northern Florida and had been through some impoverished areas of the South; I am not exactly a stranger to poverty having lived below that line for part of my childhood. That being said, the communities in the three counties we saw around Franklinton Center are areas of extreme poverty—one of the towns had had the highest unemployment in the nation every year for the past twenty years. Nearly every other house in these neighborhoods were not only empty but boarded up. There was an absence of grocery stores, although there were a few fast food restaurants. There was an absence of jobs, an absence of public transportation. The schools in the three counties had been consolidated so better use public funds but some children had long bus commutes. One of the ex-mayors of one of the towns told us that half the housing in the area did not currently meet community building standards but that the town could not condemn the substandard houses because they had no other place to house people in the community. Another local community leaders explained how the local tax system had been gerrymandered after desegregation to funnel property tax funds into schools where the majority of students were Caucasian, while the schools with the majority of African American and other minority students struggled for state and federal funding. This area is one that has been called a community of “educational genocide”; I still do not know what to make of that. It is also a designated “food desert” meaning that there is little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

The pool at Franklinton Center

Hope remains at Franklinton Center. While we were there, we also met community members who are working to renew the community. There is a woman at the local community redevelopment corporation who showed us a newly built housing area is single and multi-family dwellings with community space for after school tutoring and computer labs; she showed us a commercial development they are trying to build to so local dollars can general local tax money that will stay in the county, since many have to shop in surrounding communities where goods are more available. She spoke to us about the pervasive racism in the area and how this has made it difficult to find commercial entities willing to locate in a predominately African American area. She also took us to the downtown area of one of the local communities to show us how parts of this area had been redeveloped and locally-owned businesses had begun moving in—including a pediatrician and soon a restaurant will open. We were introduced to man fighting the environmental racism inherent in the polluting nature of the region’s hog farming industry, who pointed out that while this industry supplies jobs they are jobs that often maim workers. There was also hope in meeting the principal of the local school who shared how the Franklinton Center is partnering with the local school. Hope is embodied at Franklinton Center in the center’s director Vivan Lucas who approached the local schools to create a family literacy camp using the dormitory and space at Franklinton Center. Hope abides in families of community members who can trace up to four generations who have enjoyed summer camp activities at Franklinton Center, and name children who have learned to swim at Franklinton Center which has the only pool in the tri-county area—did you know that African Americans have a higher risk of drowning because they often lack access to pools to learn to swim? Hope resides in this ground as a retreat and conference center has been developed to support its other ministries even as it teaches about the past. Hope is taking root as the Franklinton Center begins to plant fruit trees and experiment with community sustainable agriculture on its land to empower the local community to address its status as a “food desert”.

Field near Franklinton Center

 

There is on the grounds of Franklinton Center a tree called “the tree of life” it is a symbol to commemorate the whipping tree that once shadowed these grounds. As our meeting at Franklinton Center came to a close, we stood on a platform beside this tree of life to worship. In the Communion liturgy there was a pause to read the names of some slaves who had been transferred as property of the plantation from one family to another—how deeply I felt the brokenness of humanity and deeply I yearned for the new covent of hope of that meal, as I stood before that tree commemorating the tree upon which so much blood was shed. This place bears a resemblance to our most sacred story, does it not?

As I stood in silence with others after that meal, I looked out at the vast empty field beyond the tree. The land was grassy field on one side, cotton field on the other, train track in the not too distance, and the surrounding community was hungry. Still it is a beautiful place. It is a terrible, beautiful place. A place that wants to imbibe hope as it blooms out of the roots of its past. It is a land rooted in time past and present that reminds us of how far we have come and yet so far we have to go. It is a place that teaches us that hope is as much as verb as it is noun and calls us to continue the work for all types of justice in a world where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”.

field #2 near Franklinton Center

While I do not normally use this site to advertise or fundraise, the work of Franklinton Center is too important to not make it known that the center needs financial support, including the kind that come from holding your event there, as well as prayers

Justice is a very real issue at Franklinton Center.

For more information about Franklinton Center, or to learn how to donate click: Franklinton Center/UCC

Advertisements

Presence and Praying for Peace

Two nights ago I attended a candlelight vigil, I had received a text message about it earlier in the day and knew only that a man had been beaten. The text cam from my husband who had heard about this through his volunteer/community ties. From the context of the message I received I suspected hate of some form had to with the beating. I did not have much to go on, but I was moved enough to go to the vigil, and to wear my vestments, although no one had asked me to.

When I arrived at the vigil it was a small gathering and this surprised me, but not for long. I soon found the “organizer” of the event and spoke with him. It turns out that the man who had been beaten, Jason, had been living in a local canyon and someone had beaten him in the head with a rock. No words were said at the vigil no statements made or prayers pronounced. Rather people stood around and talked quietly with others that they knew as they held candles, while Jason fought for his life in the hospital. Many the people gathered knew Jason, some were from the local GLBT community. It was simply a gathering of solidarity.

Shortly after I arrived I was approached by a man in a collar. Turns out this man who spoke with me was a gay Independent American Catholic priest who had left the Roman Catholic Church disheartened by what appeared to be the Catholic Church’s refusal or inability to protect victims of the sexual abuse scandal. The priest reported to me that he was there because he knew Jason; the priest explained that he had met Jason while teaching in the local community. Both the priest and I were there simply to show our solidarity with the victim of this senseless crime and his chosen family, as Jason lay in a hospital bed, reportedly, with a very poor prognosis. We were there to provide presence to those who had gathered; all those who had gathered had gathered to be present.

Later in the evening a group of people came out of the hospital and physically leaned on some of those who had gathered for the vigil. They were Jason’s chosen family. One of the women in this group spoke with me and thanked me for being there. I did not do anything, but I was there. It was a reminder for me of how powerful our simple presence can be for others in time of crises.

So what about the vestments? I thought about this, particularly as the media came in and took pictures of the gathering. It may seem presumptuous, and perhaps it could be seen as such. At moments I felt a bit odd standing there, holding a candle in my clergy robe. But it was not presumptuous. It was not presumptuous because in many ways this event was the parable of the good Samaritan made real in the contemporary context. Here was a man and his extended community in crises and of course it was the role of the clergy to stop and bear witness to the pain of the other in crises. I was not there to fix anything I could not do that. But I could bear witness.

That is not the only reason I was there, though. We live in a society of great violence and marginalization of the poor, the GLBT community, the disability community, those who live with mental illness, those who struggle with addiction or propensity toward violence, and anyone else who steps beyond our norms. The truth is I do not know if Jason belonged to any of these categories expect being poor–he was living in the canyon. I do know, however, that we can not continue to accept senseless and extreme violence toward others within our community and continue to consider our society civilized, period. So I wore my vestments to show that God is with all who suffer, and that the marginalized are noticed by the communities who seek to bring God into the world. I wore my vestments, and I was there silently witnessing the suffering senseless violence perpetrates on its victims and on the community around the victims of violence. I did not offer to pray and I was not asked to pray; Jason’s family told the reporter who covered the “story” they were praying for his recovery. It was a gathering of presence and silent prayer. My prayer was one of peace not only for Jason, but for the community immediately around him, and our larger community that has become so fractured that such violence can occur without community uproar but rather be noted on the evening news before we all tuck into bed for a brief night’s sleep. God help us all.
A photo of  Jason, a homeless man who was beaten in the head with a rock, a candlelight vigil held in his honor.