Moses stood in the backyard at Manna House reading from the Book of Revelation about the fall of Babylon. Around us were men and women and two children sitting at picnic tables, benches, and a few lawn chairs. We were all there, seeking sanctuary from the streets of perhaps the most powerful empire in history. Empire lives on the deadly malignancy of despising the vulnerable, of creating a system in which persons are expendable.
Moses read, “After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. And the angel cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” (Revelation 18:1-2).
I walked toward the back of the yard where we somehow got into a conversation about where people are from.
I had never heard of the first two, and the guests from each said they were too small to be of any importance. I had to look them up. The power of cell phones and Google went to work.
Brewton, Alabama got its start as a mill town. Two sources of water run through the town, Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek. Trees were harvested and lumber was produced. The usual celebration of commerce continued in the history for a while, as the town became wealthy, with timber barons building fine houses. Then a turn to something different. I read out loud from the short Wikipedia article, “In October 1934, Claude Neal, a 23-year-old African-American man arrested for the murder of a local young white woman in Greenwood, Florida, was moved to the jail in Brewton for safekeeping. After a lynch mob learned where he was being held, about 100 men came to Brewton in 30 cars and kidnapped him from the jail. He was smuggled back into Jackson County, Florida, where announcements of his planned lynching were broadcast on the radio. Neal was tortured, shot and hanged by a small group near the Chattahoochee River before his body was taken before a crowd of thousands. His body was later hanged from a tree in the Marianna courthouse square. Whites later rioted in Marianna, prompting the Florida governor to order more than 100 troops to town to put down the violence. More than 200 people were injured, mostly black, but including two police officers. Black-owned houses were looted and burned in the riots.”
The backyard got quiet. White guests shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, especially the one from Brewton. African American guests were shaking their heads.
“I never heard that story before,” said the guest from Brewton, “I’m not fond of that history.”
“You scratch a bit here and there and that stuff comes out, all the time,” said an African American guest.
“What about Valdalia? Let’s move on,” said an African American guest, “I know that stuff too well.”
I could not find a Wikipedia article on Vidalia, Arkansas.
“Try Cherry Valley,” the guest from there suggested helpfully. Sure enough an article appeared. Total population these days of about 600. Four famous residents over time. One seemed worth learning more about, Pat Hare, blues musician. He left Cherry Valley and came to Memphis where he recorded at Sun Studio. I noted this, “His guitar solo on James Cotton’s electric blues record ‘Cotton Crop Blues’ (1954) was the first recorded use of heavily distorted power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music.” Hare spent the last 16 years of his life in prison, where he formed a band named ‘Sounds Incarcerated.’”
“Never heard of him,” said the white guest from Vidalia.
We listened to one of his recordings.
“That’s definitely a man with the blues,” said an African American guest, “He could have been from my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’m Choctaw. They tried to run us all out, but some of us stayed.”
“Were you there when those three Civil Rights Workers were murdered in 1964?” I asked.
“Yes, a bad time, but all the times then were bad for us. You had to stay low.”
I was back in the Book of Revelation. Babylon, “a dwelling place for demons.” And the author of Revelation had this advice, seek a sanctuary, “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and let you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5).
Come out, indeed. Resist empire. Create sanctuary. Practice hospitality. Find another way.