Camden, Gees Bend, and Journeys

Black Eyed Susans in Wilcox County, Alabama

Every day is an adventure when you are a parish priest. Earlier this year, Holy Comforter received a wonderfully generous gift from a sister parish, St. Paul’s, Carlowville. We have an old van that allows us to transport food in bulk from the Montgomery Food Bank once a week to support our feeding ministries. I have driven our van a couple of times with teeth rattling and my heart in my mouth. It was scary enough that I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes tight and step on the accelerator to get there already. St. Paul’s wanted to help us buy a new van. Then, one of our parishioners who has a tremendous amount of experience writing grants put in an application for one of the Covid recovery grants provided by our state. We received the full amount we applied for. We had what we needed to buy a van!

The thing was—there were no secondhand vans to be had. None. Anyone who’s been in the market for a used vehicle this year knows what I am talking about. We agreed we’d sit tight and wait—praying to all the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist saints for our old faithful van to hold on. As the day was ending on Thursday, one of the parishioners who was instrumental in us receiving the gift from St Paul’s texted me. She’d found me a van through a friend and car dealer in Camden. A flurry of pictures followed, all of them looking really promising. The window to jump on this opportunity was small and several pieces had to be put in place, all while our wonderful parish administrator has a bad case of shingles. It certainly was a zingy-kind of exciting!

Enough fell in place to find me driving down to Camden on Friday morning. Camden is the birthplace of Jeff Sessions and the county seat of Wilcox County. It is also a river town that’s experiencing something of a revival downtown. To get there, I drove for an hour past bank after bank of dazzling Black-eyed Susans, aflame in the sunlight. The van is great, the vestry has done its due diligence and approved the purchase ; Now all that’s left is to wire money on Monday and figure out how to get the van up to Montgomery.

This was not my first visit to Camden. In fact, soon after we moved up here, we took some friends to a place across the Alabama River. Gees Bend is where the river folds on itself so there is a relatively small peninsula that became world famous in the late 70’s when “The Quilts of Gees Bend” were discovered. The first time we set out to find it, we drove and drove and drove through back country roads until we finally got to a little spit of land that felt like it was at the end of the world, so cut off and isolated from what people like I know of life. The quilts and quilting were amazing and then, to top it all off, we discovered there was a ferry we could take that would carry us across the Alabama River to Camden. I have never met a boat ride I didn’t love and this one was magical.

Gees Bend Ferry Docked in Camden

What I didn’t know was that, like so much else in Alabama, that ferry had a complicated history. After the Voting Rights Act became law, the women of Gees Bend went all out to get people from their small community registered to vote. They would have to do so in Camden. And because the times were what they were, as the first elections they could vote in came close, the ferry was closed down, stopped running between Gees Bend and Camden, making it much, much more difficult for people to get to the voting booth. The people of Gees Bend did what they had to do—drive, ride or walk 40 miles each way, to and from Camden on election day. They had a few mules they used to work the hardscrabble red clay of Alabama and older folks got to ride the mules to get to vote. This all brought a lot of national attention, and even a visit from Martin Luther King.

And then the unthinkable happened on April 4th of 1968. When the family and close friends of Dr. King planned his funeral, they remembered the mules of Gees Bend. It was those mules that pulled the simple farm wagon that carried Martin Luther King’s casket down the streets of Atlanta.

There are so many kinds of journeys; some of them are so brutally hard and so remarkable for what they teach me about grit, determination and what being human really looks like. My ride to Camden, with a quick stop at the Gees Bend Ferry dock, was so easy and pleasant. The only hardship I encountered was having to get my tires checked because the pressure warning light came on while I was there. And ever since Friday, all I can think about is the journey, the walking, not for the sake or pleasure of walking; some lives don’t afford that luxury. Walking to cast a vote.

2 thoughts on “Camden, Gees Bend, and Journeys

  1. So many things to unpack here. First off I’m glad you got your van. Secondly, the flowers are beautiful. And then there is Camden – birthplace of Jeff Sessions, voting rights violations and the mules. Thanks you for the story and the legacy of the mule. An animal that can’t procreate and is known as a beast of burden. It sounds like those mules solved some problems and bore the pain of carrying a great man. Great story!

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