catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 9 :: 2009.04.24 — 2009.05.08


No un-growth


I am obsessed with all things natural and growing for their infinite parallels to life’s journey, but mainly trees.  I take pictures of them everywhere I go, draw them, write about them.  For whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to the life in trees.

Last summer I traveled to Atlanta for an event called Urban Fest.  Every other summer or so, Mission Year, a volunteer organization I participated in, invites all of their current volunteer members and alumni from all over the country to come together for a weekend.  For several days, we fellowship, learn and discuss with one another about the joys and struggles of living intentionally in urban settings. 

One afternoon during the weekend gathering, a group of us headed to downtown Atlanta to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. I remember not having many expectations for the visit, but being very excited at the same time.  During my Mission Year, I lived in a west side Chicago neighborhood that is predominantly African American.  The apartment I lived in was actually just a few blocks from the lot that Martin Luther King Jr. resided on with his family for a year in hopes of creating awareness of housing injustices in Chicago, many of which still exist today in these under-resourced urban communities.  My experience living as a minority in that community prompted consideration of my own racial identity and the implications and dynamics of race in America.  So I guess I was looking forward to this visit to the MLK Jr. Center as a sort of rite of passage for myself as a more socially and racially aware white American.

Thinking back to that visit, I can’t tell you much about the various historical knowledge I read or the artwork or sculptures featured there.  It was all very enlightening and enchanting.  But the emotional epiphany I experienced has clouded such details in my memory. 

It began when I entered into the Memorial room that documented the death of Martin Luther King Jr.  It is a medium-sized room, painted white with a car stationed in the middle.  Lining the walls, a chronological series of photographs tell the story of this legendary man’s tragic assassination.  Not three photos into the exhibit, and my throat tightened.  There was a photograph showing a picket line of African American men holding simple white posters reading, “I am a man, too.”  My emotions overcame me and I honestly don’t know how I held it together long enough to make it three-fourths of the way through the room.  Picture after picture, I felt the sting of self-hatred and guilt and sorrow all pressing on the insides of my chest.  Through streaming tears, I could not take my eyes off the pictures, but I knew I could not look at them any more.  I had to leave.  I physically could not stay in that building any longer.

Stepping outside, the humid Atlanta breeze felt like a breath of fresh air as I let a sigh of relief escape from my body.  My muscles relaxed a little, the tears slowed.

As I walked down the sidewalk that led away from the building, I noticed footprints in the cement blocks composing the walkway.  Looking closer, I realized that each set of footprints belonged to an individual who was influential in the civil rights movement.  When I stopped at Rosa Parks, I stood there for a long time.  Thinking, looking, resting.  Then I noticed the row of trees lining the walkway.  I was struck with the simple yet profound message the trees were sharing with me.  The amazing strength of the bark as it grows upwards.  The rings of growth, naked to the eye below the rough exterior of bark, that mark the age and maturity of each tree, representing the strength within.  In that moment, I realized the significance in that trees cannot un-grow in their strength.  Once they are planted, and given the right amount of foundational nutrition and sunlight and water to begin growing, there is nothing that sapling can do to un-grow the growth that has occurred.  Each tree has no influence on the potential of its growth; once set in motion, growth must proceed. 

During my experience living in Chicago with Mission Year, there were just the right elements to provide growth in my own life.  The need to seek justice, to seek peace, to seek reconc

iliation is no longer something I can go back on, something I can ignore.  The awareness and social conscience within me is now alive and growing, marked within my soul.  No matter what I do or don’t do, my growth has happened and I cannot un-do it.

Thank God for the gift of growth in all things alive.

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