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Compassionate Listening in Alabama


Article originally written for Western Friend Magazine's January 2023/February 2023 issue by Vickie Aldrich, Alabama Journey Participant

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Last October, with the help of friends, Friends’ meetings, and the community college where

I teach, Tim Reed and I took the “Compassionate Listening Journey to Alabama.” This is a

fantastic trip conducted by the Compassionate Listening Project, a legacy of Quaker

peacemaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman. The Project has organized similar journeys to Israel

and Palestine for many years. This was their second journey to Alabama.


I was led to this eight-day journey by a desire to have an intensive experience with

Compassionate Listening, inspired by an introductory workshop that Leah Green led in

2008 at Intermountain Yearly Meeting. Since then, I had only participated in online

workshops and practice groups, and I wanted a deeper experience. I also felt moved to

learn more about the South and our country’s history of racism.


Tim and I began our journey by taking the train from

El Paso, Texas. As the train crossed Texas, a racial conflict erupted in the lounge car. It was

resolved with the skilled help of an Amtrak employee. Apologies were made. I felt awkward

and wondered, “How can I help?” I realized I wanted to be seen as the helpful Good White

Lady. I wondered if this desire would change during the trip.


We arrived in New Orleans in the early hours of the morning, slept a few hours, then got on

a bus to Montgomery. Sitting in the top level of the double-decker, we marveled at the

waterways, the sugar cane, and the unfamiliar birds. We arrived in Montgomery on the

afternoon of a beautiful fall day and walked a half mile from the bus station to our hotel,

where we met the rest of our group.


We were twenty participants and two facilitators from the Compassionate Listening

Project. The participants came from several places in the U.S., but about half were from the

Northeast. That evening, we held our initial gathering and learned something about each

other’s backgrounds. Some participants identified their religions: Friends, Jews,

Protestants, atheists, and “none of the above.” Our skills with Compassionate Listening

varied. The facilitators and a few others had practiced for quite a while and had

participated in similar journeys before. A small group of us only had introductory and

online experiences. And a few were brand new to Compassionate Listening. Throughout the

trip, we held frequent debriefing sessions, which included both meditation and sharing.


During the journey, we actively practiced Compassionate Listening. We did this in listening

sessions that followed a specific format. We would silently listen to one individual at a time

before giving feedback. We did not argue or make judgmental comments or questions.

Instead, we would ask clarifying or deepening questions. We were asked to listen from our

hearts. We sat in a circle while listening and debriefing. As the week went on, our circle

became a centered and gathered meeting. Our goal in listening was to understand each

person’s story, experience, and worldview.


Throughout the eight days of the journey, we also visited museums and monuments. We

walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma. Our listening sessions were

interspersed with our site visits, which allowed us to deepen our understanding of those

sites. A few stood out for me especially.


The Legacy Museum in Montgomery was one of these. Located around the corner from our

motel, we walked there as a group, then each of us went through the museum at our own

pace. As we entered the first room, the sounds and sights of ocean waves surrounded us.

We were taken on the Black journey from Africa. We walked past statues of Black people in

the waves, the history of slavery through the Civil War, and Jim Crow. We read about

people who were lynched and people who did the lynchings. We looked into the (video)

eyes of people currently incarcerated and listened to their stories through a telephone

receiver, as one does at the prison.


Later that same day, I walked about a mile to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I

walked slowly and silently past a huge display of hanging metal monuments, more than 800

of them, one for each county in the U.S. where racial lynchings took place. The names of the

people who were lynched are written on the monuments. The Legacy Museum displays jars

of dirt from the sites of lynchings. Among both the hanging monuments and the jars of dirt, I

looked for and found the family name of a former professor.


That afternoon, our group gathered in a circle for a debriefing. We spoke about what had

moved us and about information we had not known before. We could have spent a week at

the Museum. You can learn more about the museum and memorial here.



The following days were full of Whiteness. We held a listening session with people who

defended the public display of confederate monuments. We also visited the First

Confederate White House in Montgomery, where I learned that Jefferson Davis had

children. I realized I knew nothing about Southern White culture during the early years of

our country, nor the story of the Civil War from the Confederate viewpoint. I had only seen

Jefferson Davis as an answer on an exam on the Civil War that I took in high school. I had

not thought about the North invading the South. I had not considered the complexity of

White culture in the South, rich and poor, some who owned enslaved persons and some

who did not. It seems that Southern Whites came together, not before the Civil War, but

during it – and during Reconstruction. Having grown up in Colorado and having lived many

years in New Mexico, I am neither a Northerner nor a Southerner. This story was not told in

our family.


Near the end of our journey, we headed to Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We

listened to the story of a woman who had been a teenager during the voting rights marches.

I sat enthralled as she recounted her story of running from a “posse man” on horseback

with a club. When she said that she and her younger brother finally reached the refuge of

the church, I realized I had been holding my breath as I listened to her story. After the

story, we walked across the bridge and spent time walking in the park or just sitting

silently.


This was a profound journey, both internally and physically. I gained greater internal

clarity during the trip and improved my listening and speaking skills. I now have a greater

sense of the experience of Black and White people in the South. We as a nation are

thoroughly steeped in the assumptions and biases of racism, like a marinade. Racism is so

much a part of who we are that we cannot easily see it.


As Tim and I rode the train back home and shared with each other about our experiences, I

knew something in me had changed. I recognize that my biases are always present, and my

desire to be a Good White Lady is still there; but I can also pause, listen, and act from the

heart.


_________________________________________________________________________________________________


Vickie Aldrich is a member of Las Cruces Friends Meeting in New Mexico (IMYM). She is semi-retired and teaches math part-time at a community college.





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