The God of the Bottom

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I live at one of the highest points in the city, Church Hill. This hill on 22nd and Grace (Richmond Hill) has been a place of prayer since 1866. It was likely a place of worship and prayer for Native Americans centuries before because of its view and prominence. I can see the cities sky line from one side, a 270 degree view from another and the river if I go a few blocks over. This hill is a sacred and holy place. It’s a beautiful place. People come here to have an encounter with God and when they leave their face and countenance are visibly changed. It reminds me how Moses went up on Mount Sinai and came down with the 10 commandments and his face glowing. I am also reminded of high places in one of last week’s scripture readings from Isaiah 40, which admonished the reader to go up on a high mountain and sing good tidings about God:

9 You who bring good news to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

I recognize that this hill is a high place to lift up God’s heart for the city, for prayer, for the Good News of Jesus and of God’s rest and presence. However, about 5 blocks down at the bottom of the hill, Shockhoe Bottom to be exact, I found good news in an unexpected place.

Last Tuesday, I went to Tuesday Versus, an open mic which is housed in an Ethiopian restaurant. The vibe in there is chill, full of mostly grown and sexy young black professionals. Natural hair and stylish caps and clothes prevailed. When I walked in I was hit by some R & B jams blaring from the speakers aided by a live band. The place was packed and I knew it had soul. Just how much I would learn. I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised when a few of the performers gladly took us to church. First, a tall black woman with an asymmetrical red natural hairstyle, quieted the crowd with “Thank You Lord.” Another woman, with a green fitted shirt and pants and cap atop auburn locs, took us deeper into the heart of worship with “I know I’ve been changed.” The audience participated with the chorus with “an angel in heaven done signed my name.” The call and response was lovely and the woman’s voice reverberated throughout the crowd. The song lasted about 10 minutes and gave me chills. I forgot where I was for a moment and was raising my hands and singing at the top of my lungs. The spirit had overtaken the place, more alive and present then I have experienced in a church in a long time. I was reminded how God shows up in both high and low places. He is the God of the mountain top and the God of the valley, the low places, the mangers and the bottoms. God continued to appear in a spoken word poem a gentlemen performed about God manifesting in creativity, in a woman singing of the beauty of love, in a deep, soulful voice.

Advent is a season where we are awake and waiting for God to show up. I love how the spirit moves in mysterious ways, how God shows up in unexpected places, like the savior of the world being born in a manger. Jesus was present at Tuesday Verses, in the poetry, creativity and song, in habiting the people and the place. The performers were shouting good tidings from the bottom (a low place), unafraid and with joy. I am glad that I was awake and present at this appearance of Christ amongst his people. God is with us, that is good news.

A Walk Through History

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During the third week in November, I finished Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, went to the Library of Virginia’s Exhibit “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” and walked Richmond’s Slave Trail. I learned many things, but what sticks out is that Richmond had one of the largest slave markets in the country. It is said that nearly 10,000 Africans a month were transported into and out of Richmond. This history was literally buried until a few decades ago and now it has been uncovered and highlighted. I was overwhelmed by the hypocrisy, cruelty and racism that is at the foundation our city and country. Facing the truth is not easy but uncovering these wounds seem necessary to move toward healing, toward reconciliation.

The same week, I attended the 2nd session of Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a 5-month training for individuals interested in building bridges of trust over divisions in our community. The focus of the module was the impact of history. We explored how history is always in the room when community building, and it is also entrenched in our land and culture. One of the key things that always comes to my mind as a City Planner is how the interstate highway system, urban renewal and the housing boom of the 50’s and 60’s laid the way for white flight, suburbanization, sprawl, public housing projects and disinvestment in the city. In Richmond, I-95 went right through the city and obliterated, Jackson Ward, a prominent African American neighborhood. That and other highways paved the way for whites to leave the city for the surrounding suburbs. Richmond currently has the highest concentration of poverty in the region and Church hill has almost all of the public housing (which is slated for redevelopment) in the City. This is just one example of how the past and present are connected. It’s taken many of years of racism to get to where we are in America’s racial history. We can not continue to ignore the impact of past traumas on our current situation.

On Saturday, the thirty of us took a walk through history. We started at a confederate monument at Libby Hill Park. Libby Hill was likely a sacred place for Native Americans before colonization and we could also see the docks which would have unloaded enslaved Africans. How do we reconcile the story of Native American genocide and the establishment of the US, of Confederate soldiers and enslaved Africans? I am not completely sure, but we can tell both stories. Maybe we can even acknowledge the other’s hurt and/or ill will. We do not have to agree, but we can understand, forgive and move forward.

On the other side of the river at the Manchester docks, we traversed the woods enslaved Africans would have we walked through bruised, battered and traumatized. to be auctioned off. We joined hands as we walked, descendants of slaves and slave owners, Black and White, Latino and Asian. It was cold, uncomfortable and harrowing to think about, but also a testament of how far we have come. The disparities that continue to mar our landscape speak to how far we need to go. I hope we can go that distance hand and hand, linked together by a desire to build a community of equality, trust and mutual understanding.

While at the reconciliation monument, our last stop along the slave trail, I ran my fingers over the sankofa bird embedded in the sculpture. Sankofa can mean “reach back and get it” or represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. As I think about the Africans who endured hundreds of years of slavery and the racial disparities and police brutality that exist today, I believe we need to fly on the wings of Sankofa instead of embodying ostriches with heads buried in denial and half-truths.

Thirty people begin to do that on a cold Saturday afternoon as walked through history together, hand and hand. I am encouraged that there is a diverse cohort of change agents interested in transforming the hearts and minds of disparate groups through dialogue that can lead to collective action. I believe acknowledging our history and hurts and entering into honest dialogue can begin to break down the stereotypes that lead to racial divisions, tensions and disparities that plague our cities. I was encouraged by these brave trustbuilders, their ability to face the past and willingness to move forward together.