April 8- Day 39 of Lent

OPENING PRAYER: Loss is Indeed our Gain (Walter Brueggemann)

The Pushing and Shoving in the world is endless.
We are pushed and shoved.
And we do our share of pushing and shoving
in our great anxiety.
And in the middle of that
you have set down your beloved suffering son
who was like a sheep led to slaughter
who opened not his mouth.

We seem not able,
so we ask you to create space in our life
where we may ponder his suffering
and your summons for us to suffer with him,
suspecting that suffering is the only way to newness.

So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,
when we are driven to denial —
not to notice the suffering,
not to engage it,
not to acknowledge it.
So be that way of truth among us
that we should not deceive ourselves
That we shall see that loss is indeed our gain.
We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.

Amen.

THIS DAY IN HISTORY: APRIL 8, 1911

On April 8, during the morning shift at Banner Mine, 128 men were killed in an explosion. Almost all of them were prisoners of the state, and many of them were serving time for minor offenses.

In 2011, The Tuscaloosa News wrote an article which said that the explosion was “still the worst mining accident in Alabama history; the explosion at the Banner Mine 100 years ago today was an epic tragedy not only because 128 miners died, but because the accident, horrific as it was, did little to change the state’s practice of selling convicts into hard — sometimes deadly — labor.” To its credit, this same sentiment was expressed 100 years prior—four days after the accident—by the same source. On April 12, 1911, The Tuscaloosa News printed an editorial which read, “that such a thing should happen is a blot on justice. The whole thing goes to show the utter wretchedness of our convict laws and demands that in the name of right and humanity they be revised.“

Despite editorials like this and pressure from community activists, the convict-lease system remained intact in Alabama until 1928, and the Banner Mine became the sole mine for state prisoners less than a year after the explosion.

Historian Robert Ward, who co-wrote a book entitled Convicts, Coal and the Banner Mine Tragedy, wrote that “the economic interests involved could not be overridden even by the shock of the Banner explosion.” Moreover, Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name writes that just three days before the Banner explosion, two black convicts died from lack of oxygen in these same mines. Blackmon goes on to write, ”everywhere in the slave mines of Birmingham was death….Hardly any week passed when one or more dead black corpses were not dragged up from inside the earth, heaped atop the mounds of coal in the railcars, or found dead in the simple infirmaries of a prison.“

Convict leasing was a penal labor system practiced not just at the Banner Mine, but also predominately throughout the South. Through this system, “convicts” were leased out to private parties—mostly plantation owners and major industrial corporations like the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company—as cheap laborers. Mirroring slavery, the lessee—with no oversight or accountability—was responsible for feeding, clothing, housing, and ethically supervising leased “laborers.”

While convict leasing began as early as 1844 in Louisiana, the comprehensive system did not expand and take root until after the end of the Civil War. In Alabama alone, at least 200,000 African American men were leased convicts. Of the 122 prisoners killed at Banner Mine on April 8th, 1911, all but five were black. Nearly a third were serving sentences of 20 days or less for misdemeanors such as violating prohibition and vagrancy.

SCRIPTURAL REFLECTION: EZEKIEL 22:12-16

“12 In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord.

13 “‘I will surely strike my hands together at the unjust gain you have made and at the blood you have shed in your midst. 14 Will your courage endure or your hands be strong in the day I deal with you? I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.”

RESPONSE OF LAMENT AND CONFESSION: Please spend some time in personal response, crying out to God with prayers, poems, songs, or art that expresses your lament and confession. If you feel led, please share these responses with others, using #lentenlament #day39

You may close with the following:

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

CLOSING PRAYER: A Prayer for Vision and Thought (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1910)

“May God deliver us from the curse of carelessness, from thoughtless, ill-considered deed. The deliberate evil of the world, we know is great, but how much fortitude and strength and faith could we have to cure this and put it down, if only we were rid of the sickening discouraging mass of thoughtless careless acts in men who know and mean better. How willingly in all these years and now, have thousands of mothers and fathers toiled and sweat and watched from dawn till midnight over these children here, only to be rewarded- not indeed by crime, but by persistent carelessness almost worse than crime…. God, give us new vision and thought.”

Amen.

-From Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans (ed. James Melvin Washington)

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