Startling observation from my quarantine drive

The Rev. Jon Chalmers
The Rev. Jon Chalmers

Today’s guest columnist is The Rev. Jon Chalmers.

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Judging from the license plates along the gravel road to Hargrove Shoals along the Cahaba River in Bibb County, my quarantine driven desire for a road trip was shared by many in our community.

I suspect the annual appearance of the Cahaba Lilies has rarely been more celebrated by more people than this year; and they did not disappoint.

Indulging my fondness for local history and travel off the beaten path, I returned to Birmingham using back roads in Bibb and Shelby County that I hoped would show me the southern end of the Birmingham Mineral Railroad route and the old mining communities like Marvel.  I thought I would see continuity of landscape with where the Lilies are found.  What I found startled me.  Clear-cut tree farms, gas wells, and working coalmines created a landscape that seemed best described in the moment as apocalyptic.  Blackened ground and piles of scrub wood competed for my attention along with warnings of trespass and blasting.  I wanted to leave faster than my pickup could safely navigate the rutted roads.  I know well Alabama’s economic reliance on extractive industries but their juxtaposition with the Lilies and the proximity to Birmingham surprised me even when I know better.

Not that long ago, seeing such industrial scenes would not have required driving obscure roads in neighboring counties.  Large swaths of Redmont and Mountain Brook are built, literally, in the remnants of extractive industry.  The crown jewels of our natural quality of life, Ruffner Mountain and Red Mountain Park, were, not that long ago, similar apocalyptic landscapes that repelled rather than attracted.  They are at the northern end of the same historic Mineral Railroad whose path I was looking for on the way back from seeing the Cahaba Lilies.  Many of the trails we enjoy today in the middle of our community are literally the old railbed.

Walking the Ridge and Valley Trail at Ruffner shows a savvy hiker a fairly complete history of extractive mining technologies even while now being in nature.   The Red Mountain trails are punctuated with evidence of the industrial past.  The evidence of the past is there even as we treasure the beauty today.  The former apocalyptic landscapes were in the middle of Birmingham but they now pull people toward them rather than pushing us away.

I love the two parks.  They give us opportunities for recreation and rejuvenation.  They are important elements of my quality of life.  However, they also give me hope.  Both parks are products of improbable public-private partnerships between corporate, non-profit, and government institutions.  Both were created by a shared desire to heal the landscape and improve the common good.  Both represent an integrated ecology that demonstrates the constructive interplay between nature and culture over time.  Both have turned eyesore artifacts of the industrial past into gifts for the future.  I am so impressed and appreciative of their presence in our community.

Our industrial legacy landscapes are healing through creative and shared work.  Our industrial legacy neighborhoods remain far more challenged.  As pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Gate City, literally in the shadow of Ruffner Mountain, I know that a few yards of physical distance separate the beauty of Ruffner with another landscape that few find attractive and appealing.  As president of Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School, I know that our students live in communities that are themselves legacies of Birmingham’s industrial past and mere blocks from the healthcare industries of Birmingham’s economic future.

My great-grandfather moved from the lowlands of Scotland to Birmingham in 1906 in search of economic opportunity.  There were those who came here before him who did not have the same access to personal growth and progress that he experienced.  Starting as a teenage bricklayer, he grew to lead a major industrial plant, ironically, perhaps, in the same Ensley community that hosted Holy Family Cristo Rey until last year.

Judging from the license plates found along 280 on any given morning, there are still those who come from afar to seek the opportunities of the Magic City.  The irony, of course, is that people who grow up in the shadows of our industrial past rarely are prepared to take advantage of our economic futures.  Birmingham has a long history of deciding who will win and who will lose before any personal effort or merit is put on the table.  That has frustrated our development and enraged our communities and our people.  It has lost us opportunities for a better future.  Birmingham remains a place where those who grow up here don’t always have the opportunities of those who arrive here.  That should pose a moral challenge to us all.

Too often, we think of progress as a zero-sum game; that for some to win, others must lose.  We see this time and again in the competition for scarce resources and even scarcer attention.  Our history and our loyalties constrain our collaboration, who we will work with in our efforts to achieve a better future for ourselves and our neighbors. But we are better and stronger together than we are apart.  We can look to the experience of our landscape, to Ruffner and to Red, for example of the great work that is done when we come together around shared work.

Recently, our conversations seem to be more aligned on what my theological tradition calls a ‘preferential option,’ the idea that those whose life and flourishing are most at-risk deserve our focused attention.  There seems to be more consensus in our area than I have experienced before around salient needs and opportunities.  This is itself an opportunity for action.

A year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. King wrote a small book titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  It seems that the same question and the same options could be posed to us in this place and time.  The mountain parks are good examples for us to recognize our shared quality of life and our shared destiny.  They provide a pattern and an example for us to follow.  We choose community over chaos, ecology over separation, and joy in the progress of all people.

The Rev. Jon Chalmers is president of Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School and pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church.  A graduate of the University of Alabama, Harvard, and Yale; he is a proud member of the Leadership Birmingham Class of 2020, the best and most viral class ever.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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2 thoughts on “Startling observation from my quarantine drive”

  1. The observations and thoughts of Father Jon Chalmers are truly outstanding. I am able to connect completely with his thoughts as they are within my own primary areas of interest: exploring countryside back roads and trails by hiking and driving, history of Birmingham and Alabama, and religion. I grew up in Birmingham as a Baptist, now I am Anglican, always thinking of the connections and the impact of the actions of people. My family arrived in Birmingham 1914. For the benefit of such a city as Birmingham, all should be well understood in order to improve the chances of its being a better city, the best that it can.
    Repeating myself, a bigger city might not be better, but worse. It is about the quality of people’s experience living in the place of interest. When being bigger is because of increased opportunities for a better, and a broader variety of good things to see and do, then that is a worthwhile reason for wanting to be bigger. In a may Father Jon’s message tell me he is sating that also.
    I looked up the Holy Rosary Church in Gate City, a place I have known since early boyhood, as we drove from my Mountain Brook home to visit my uncle, the family doctor in Woodlawn. Oh the things to see: Mr. Ruffner, Avondale park, Connor Steel, a mill right at the center of Woodlawn itself. Unfortunately now gone is his home in Woodlawn where also at times the only grandparent I knew, my grandmother lived. The Church is historic and very lovely indeed.
    If the Birmingham we hope for develops further within the realm of this thinking I believe it will become a truly great city indeed.

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