Shaping Up at Amelia Island James 1:2-4; 19-25 September 3, 2017 Shelly Wilson
Maybe you’ve written them–those reports at the beginning of school–what I did on my summer vacation. This year, we went to Amelia Island for a week and stayed in a nice vacation rental place, whose owners are the Love family–which we also loved, and I did what I do on vacation–swam and beached and rode my bike. I also couldn’t help doing what probably most of us do incessantly these days…mulling about the shape of the world.
Our new worship theme was about to open–The Shape of Things to Come–so while I was at Amelia Island, I asked Susan Johnson if she would dream on it and she wrote back immediately and said, “I’m in.” It began as sketches–Air miles, she calls it, for these are the shapes of land and sky and water and the evolution of human relationships as she began to see them from the window of an airplane. You can read Susan’s beautiful reflections about her work in this month’s newsletter. In part she wrote, “When I think of UCG and how we are shaping and reshaping who we are and how we serve one another and our community I think of beautiful organic forms. I see wildly vibrant colors and a place for me to share my voice and story…You have to invest a lot of time in the work to create something beautiful. Tre enough, in art and in life…every day we are reminded—we’ve got our work cut out for us to understand ourselves truly and our service to the world, given the shape the world is in. Sometimes life these days, the longing for love, the despair, the anger, the fear, the floods of waters rising—-indeed seems like a “mad mission” as Amanda sang it–trying to have persistence and the resiliency to make something beautiful. How to reshape an environment that seems boxed in by the quadrilateral of avarice and prejudice and denial and pretense. Mercy. It’s a lot.
So on vacation, I rode and rode my bike by the beautiful sea wondering about the times we live in and how we got here and how Susan might illustrate that, praying to understand how we might shape and be shaped by what would be to come. And as I was thinking and riding, it felt providential, I saw a sign for American Beach, so I turned on a side road to go there. American Beach was the first beach in Florida that welcomed black Americans and offered a haven of safety during Jim Crow segregation. It was founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis. He ironically named the area American Beach because he and others felt that in the United States of America a beach should be open to everyone. After integration, the invasion of wealthy white investors, and Hurricane Dora, the beach lost customers, and as many residents could not afford to rebuild, they abandoned or sold their properties. Today the community is preserved because a small group of owners and descendants fought relentlessly to protect it. And though it is a fraction of its original acreage, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in the center of the historic district, opened in 2014, is the American Beach Museum.
So, I learned what I could by riding up and down the streets and looking at the historic district signs scattered through the neighborhoods, small remembrances of the lives of those whose summer vacation at the beach was always there because just up the way, a kind of border wall in the form of a giant rope literally lined the sand and floated ominously in the sparkling water like a sea monster, keeping black and white apart.
Our cruel history is long, I thought, for about the millionth time, as I bumped my bike over a rise and into the American Beach musuem’s parking lot. The curator smiled and welcomed me into the hallway and pointed me toward the self-guided tour full of maps showing the paths of slave ships, plats of plantations and then of communities founded by the persons formerly enslaved, and the photos and postcards from the heyday of American Beach. And a film. Thankfully, someone recorded the area’s most famous resident, an environmentalist and racial justice activist, MaVynee Betsch, nicknamed “the Beach Lady.” She was born in Jacksonville, the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and an opera singer in Europe. But in 1975, Betsch moved home to American Beach, gave away her considerable fortune to environmental organizations, moved into a tiny RV on the edge of the beach and made it her life’s mission to preserve and protect American Beach from development and her people’s history from annihilation. The Dalai Lama awarded her the Unsung Hero of Compassion Award for her work.
Fun fact. She also grew her hair for over twenty years to demonstrate that the body could grow and flourish without consuming animal protein and at her death it measured over seven feet long. I stared at the hair for a long time, for she had asked her friends to preserve the braid after her death and it is there, in a glass case. The museum was her dream, but she did not live to see it completed.
I stared for even longer at the photo of what used to be the free community of Franklintown, FL and the graveyard and a list of names–the descendants of those precious people who had been bought and sold. Finally, the curator came to check on me, and I asked him, “Where is this cemetery that is mentioned–the Franklintown cemetery?” “Yeah,” he said slowly, “Well, you know, that whole point used to be a plantation. Then it was a free town.” Long pause. “Now it’s a sub- division of luxury homes–Plantation Point, they call it.” “And the cemetery?” I said. “Did they just…?” “No,” he answered. “It’s still in there, the houses built all around it, backyards, driveways, houses, all around it.” I said, “So can people visit it?” “No, it used to be open but people threw trash in there and vandalized the graves. So now it is just in there betwixt and between all the houses with a fence and a lock on the gate. Don’t know if anyone sees it anymore. Descendants of the slaves…they can still be buried in there. Back behind the million dollar homes.” He turned to go, but when he reached the door, he turned back and with a small ironic smile, added, “But you could see it if you really want to. The gate has a lock but it is not locked. You’d just have go through somebody’s backyard to get over there. He’d probably say yes if it was you were at his door.”
On Google maps there is no road to it, only the giant subdivision with its cul de sacs and green spaces, no Franklintown cemetery. It is listed by the name of the slave owner, Harrison. I rode around the houses and peered into backyards with their high fences and beautiful furniture and was almost giving up when I saw the little gate, hidden behind, on the edge of two yards. A car sat in a nearby driveway, so I knocked on the massive front door of the house. A friendly voice boomed, “Hello, and what I can do for you on this hot day?” I said I’d like to visit the cemetery and could I walk on his land to get over there to it? He spread the hand that did not hold a drink in an expansive gesture, “Sure! Knock yourself out!” and as he moved back to close the door, he shouted cheerfully, “Enjoy!”
I didn’t. Enjoy. But I was thankful that the lock, open as the curator had told me, fell away in my hands and that I could go in awhile to say prayers, to whisper gratitude for their lives and for those who had loved them, and prayers of forgiveness for the ways I use power and privilege to make others’ experiences invisible.
As I rode back to the Love family’s condo, I thought again of the quotation from Leon Uris’ epic novel Trinity. He wrote these words of Ireland, but it seems to me they are also true of Florida, of the United States of America, “There is no future, just the past happening over and over again.” But it does not have to be. That is what I thought about on my summer vacation on Amelia Island, once a central port in the slave trade and also the home of unsung heroes of compassion. It is not inevitable that the shape of things of come is the shape of the repressive past. You and I get to choose the shape of our relationships with one another. And that gives me hope.
No matter the threats of violence, no matter the pain of the present, no matter who is in public office, no matter what others may do, the Scriptures and the unsung heroes of compassion past and present remind me–you and I choose the quality of the shape of our responses to what is. We may seek and find wisdom inside us, in Earth, from God, and in the examples of others. As Talia will invite us to see next week, there are, in every time and place, neighbors who shape community.
On this sign by the 60 foot high sand dune system the Beach Lady helped to save is printed what she frequently said and always lived, “Getting the most from the least and living peacefully in harmony with nature is the most rewarding life.” The passage from James invites us to be not just hearers of goodness, but also doers. I want to be a doer of that word of simplicity and harmony, maybe you do, too. I want to face squarely our past and live awake into these times, in order to help create something beautiful—seeing, as poet Lucille Clifton puts it, “not just the shapes of things, but oh, at last, the things themselves.”
Like in Susan’s art, this journey toward wholeness is a creative adventure. Sometimes, when the pain is strong, it’s easy only to see the cuttings and scraps and leftover papers and sticky paste. But we are always creating and being remade by the people and catastrophes and joys and births and deaths and the mercies we are privileged to extend to, and receive from, one another. We can get shaped up anywhere, anytime, on an airplane, at work, at home, sick or well, on vacation, working for justice and peace, made bit by bit, more aware, less racist, more awake, less prideful, more available, less greedy, more giving, more beautiful and whole even when we are inundated by pain. It is always happening, the shaping of things to come. We are the living art project—even when life feels all curled up and thin like paper cuttings on an artist’s floor.
Susan wrote a song, too, and these lyrics are the perfect way to close the sermon and to invite us to continue to seek and to shape with awareness and with hope all that is to come. May they be our prayer:
When your past won’t let you breathe
Regret and shame are what you know
The kindest thing to do is lay it down
Embrace the power of your choice
to sing your song and find your voice
And speak your truth
with the story that you hold
Who are you not to be beautiful?
Painted by the very brush of God
Who are you not to be beautiful
with brushstrokes of your joys and your scars
May we help to shape the world in beauty and in peace. Amen.