6 min read

Remembering well: journeying through America’s memorials

Ian Hamlin has been the minister of a Baptist church since 1994. He previously worked in financial services.

Ian Hamlin recalls the Civil Rights landmarks and memorials, as he continues his journey in the footsteps of his hero Martin Luther King.
An imposing stone statue of Martin Luther King standing with his arms crossed.
Martin Luther King Memorial at night, Washington DC.
Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash.

Pilgrimage, according to Pete Grieg’s definition at least, is simply ‘a journey with God, in search of God’. In other words, it’s not going from somewhere God isn’t, to where he is, but does recognise the real power of place, that the presence of God, experienced in a specific location, is significant, and worthy of seeking out.  

I’ve been reluctant to call this sabbatical trip of mine, to the sites of a variety of events significant in the American journey towards civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, a pilgrimage.  It sounds overly grand and to give too strong an emphasis to the geography, rather than either the history, or the biography, of Martin Luther King himself, the inspiration of the whole journey.   

Yet, as I’ve been travelling; by plane, train, car and foot, I’ve been powerfully moved, as I’ve stood in places that have carried the weight of real pain, and extreme significance. There is genuine emotion attached to being somewhere where something happened, barely a generation ago, it leaves a legacy hanging in the air which is somehow palpable.  That’s true regardless, but it’s often helped, although sometimes hindered, by some sort of maker.  Something to let you know that this is where it was.  Beyond the purely informational, memorialising has, or can, play a potent part in demanding that attention be continually paid to the past’s relevance to the here and now. 

Selma, Alabama

A historic marker at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

A history interpration sign stands by the highway approach to a arched bridge.

Those responsible for keeping this particular story alive, across the United States have, it seems to me, done an exceptional job in providing markers and memorials that both focus and amplify the meaning of the events they commemorate.  Allow me to take you with me, briefly, to some of the places where I have stood, that you might sense something of what I have felt.   

The USA, of course, has some experience of memorialising significant, yet relatively recent events. Coming from the UK, where I’m used to public monuments largely celebrating victory, glorifying generals and affirming a pretty static sense of solid certainty, it’s refreshing to witness commemorations that provoke as many questions as they provide answers, that promote reflection and challenge, as well as inform.   

Washington DC is, of course, a city of memorials.  Some of the most well known are, strictly speaking, outside of the remit of my trip, but it seems wasteful not to visit nonetheless.  

The monuments to Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington himself are famously huge, grand and imposing, yet, to my mind at least, the most moving Presidential memorials are those to Roosevelt and Mason, the forgotten founder. Relatively small, humble even, thoughtful, the small wheelchair bound figure of Roosevelt, almost lost within his own expansive legacy, generously populated with the images of others, especially the poor, they put aside prestige for the sake of the personal.   

When it comes to war, there’s a welcome note of ambiguity, whether you are scarred by the gash in the landscape that is the Vietnam memorial or haunted by the staring eyes of the Unnamed soldiers of the Korean war, catching you accusingly with their glance, there’s no place for mere glorification here.  

Of course, the one non president remembered on the National Mall, takes me to the heart of my journey.  Martin Luther King stands, tall and majestic, emerging, literally, out of the rock face behind him.  ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’ Powerful, in every respect, but I would have to go elsewhere to find his humanity. 

Like to his birth home, in Atanta, beside the very dining table where he was told by his father that the reason the inseparable friend of his pre-school years dropped him as soon as school began, was because of the colour of his skin, and that it would happen over and over again.  Or, later, at the kitchen table of the parsonage of his first church in Montgomery, where, having cleared up the wreckage from his bombed porch, he wondered, in the middle of the night, if the burden he was carrying was too great to carry, and yet, right there, experienced an encounter with God that fuelled his every succeeding day.   

Maybe to Boston, the most recent, abstract yet tender monument to the ‘Embrace’ between him and his wife, a marriage far from perfect, yet powerfully enabling.   

Or perhaps standing in his very footsteps, marked for posterity, at the Lincoln memorial for the March on Washington, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, perhaps the most searingly evocative place of all that I visited, or behind his own beloved pulpit from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery. In each and every place, recalling all the different stories, you get a feel for the man, his pain, and yet his faith. 

Then there were the larger museums, interpretive centres and institutes, designed to show the bigger picture still.  

Like the enormously impressive National African American Museum of Art and History (NAAMAH), part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where, I joined, in quick succession, a weeping line of black American visitors, filling past Emmett Till’s open casket, then, the same crowd, cheering the recorded promise of a Dream.  

The Civil Rights Museum of Birmingham, charged with overseeing the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the place, just outside the ladies’ rest room, where a bomb exploded. killing 4 young girls, just as a service was about to begin, as well as the pretty little park opposite, with its startling sculptures of snarling police dogs and water cannons.   

There was the Legacy Museum, from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery, where you’re immediately overwhelmed by storm force waves crashing all around the walls and ceiling, enveloping you in the immersive experience of the transatlantic slave trade.  Before peering into a tiny cell and seeing a holographic figure come to life before you, a slave waiting their auction, telling you their story. Then, much more up to date, being ushered into a prison visiting room, picking up the telephone to hear the convict’s take on contemporary racial injustice.  

Birmingham, Alabama

Freedom Walk,  Kelly Ingram Park.

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

a path passes between two monoliths from which sculpted aggressive dogs emerge.

Or, just down the road, in the Rosa Parks Museum, standing at a bus stop, watching a small, tired lady being hauled off to be arrested for falling to give up her seat, before you move on, another half mile or so, to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and feel the weight of the multitude of great steel blocks, 800 of them, each representing a county in America, bearing the names of the victims of summary lynching.  

Finally, there’s the gentle water flowing over Maya Lin’s follow up piece to her Vietnam memorial, the civil rights memorial, also in Montgomery.  All of these places, and others; bitter with anger, drenched in tears, seared with hope.  Remembered, celebrated, with all their ongoing awkwardness as benchmarks in history and faith.   

In an age when the role of statues and memorials is much debated, when history, it’s said, should know its place, and yet be allowed to stand and speak its truth … these places, images, powerful exhibits and presentations, demand that the whole, painful truth shout out its reality, often in the name of the victims and the vanquished.  In doing so, they bear good witness to the events that they’re designed to speak of. They inform, but, much more than that, they move and they challenge, they create new and ongoing stories so that history is not only recalled but re-enabled in a needy present, and offered up in hope. 

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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