I am so thankful to Fred Pena for bringing Samuel Mockbee to our attention. When the saints series was originally conceived, I had in mind people who had some direct impact on who we are as a church. My thinking has since changed for the better. There are so many who labor out there in the world, who are doing work that could and should inform what we do. Even if we don’t know who they are now, we are all a part of the same ecosystem. It’s almost like there is something unseen flowing through all creation and history and we all find ourselves a part of it. Probably no one has ever thought of that before. I’ll have to come up with a name for it. In any case, Samuel Mockbee floats in the same stream as the people of Church in the Cliff.
Mockbee grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, oblivious to the racial segregation that both tore apart the world around him and made possible the privilege he enjoyed. But he was profoundly affected by the death of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers who was killed by the KKK near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Chaney had also grown up in Meridian, a scant year apart from Mockbee. Yet, their worlds never intersected in their youth. When he entered a desegregated army, he was, for the first time in his life, shoulder-to-shoulder with people of color. Over time, he became aware of all the many ways he benefited from being white. He also began to understand how those benefits came at great cost in the lives of people of color.
Following his Army service, Mockbee attended Auburn University and received his degree in architecture. As he began working as a young architect in the South, he realized that many of the victories of the civil rights movement were not present realities for impoverished people of color in the South. As an architect, he wondered what he could do to change that, to affect the material reality of people living in poverty. One thing he knew: architecture was the domain of the rich, safely distanced from poverty, and it was taught as an abstract, theoretical practice that sustains that distance.
With this in mind, Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio. Architecture students from Auburn spend a portion of their education building homes and civic buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama, one of the most impoverished counties in the South. Students work in cooperation with residents as clients to build buildings that respond to the realities of their lives. They not only design the buildings, but do the neck-down work of construction. Because their clients are in poverty, they build sustainable, low energy footprint homes. Because money is short, they use innovative building techniques that use recycled, salvaged, and waste products. Yet they are not bland boxes in which we might stow away the undesirable. Rather – to echo language that Mockbee uniquely applied to architecture – they are homes of distinct beauty, nobility, and decency.
Samuel Mockbee was certainly an imaginative person. He must have been to be so innovative with such limited means. In his paintings and assemblages, which feature his clients alongside gods and goddesses of the Alabama landscape, real objects and symbolic expression have equal weight, as if they inhabit the same world, as if they speak to one another. If we understand one, we might have a key to understanding the other, and then we might understand something about the whole. One commentator noted that Mockbee’s entire life and work “may have been simply the cast off foam from a vast imaginative sea.” Somehow, out of that fecund abyss, Samuel Mockbee formulated a vision and made it real in the lives of students and clients. He not only changed his corner of the world for the better, but created a model for how we might approach the most tenacious problems through cooperation, mutual respect, and living life together.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the life and work of St. Samuel Mockbee.
Proceed and be bold.