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Racial Justice Pilgrimage: Day 4

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“There’s a kind of community we haven’t achieved yet. We can’t achieve it if we’re unwilling to tell the truth about our past.”

- Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”    

-John 14:6

 In the Gospel of John Pilate famously asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Perhaps there is no more relevant question for us today. In November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries announced their 2016 Word of the Year: post-truth. Meaning we live in a culture in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Swirling all around us are accusations of fake news, distrust of the media, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. We live on a steady diet of social media and news sources that are mostly geared toward confirming our already tightly held biases. Daily, we absorb outright lies from those in public office. Many find themselves echoing Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

Jesus certainly had plenty to say about the truth. In fact, in the Gospel of John he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Jesus’ self-declaration means that as Christians we not only believe that Jesus Christ is the truth about God, we also believe that he makes possible a people who are able to tell the truth even in a culture of lies. These days, the church is clearly not the most powerful institution in our society, but we do have one great, gracious gift to offer the world: The One who is not only the way and the life, but also makes it possible for us to the truth (John 14:6).

There is so much truth wrapped up in the American Civil Rights Movement and in the larger history of our country that needs to be claimed and told.

On Saturday our group spent time in the capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery is a place steeped in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery is where Martin Luth King Jr., John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy and so many others finally achieved their goal of marching the 54-mile route from Selma to the state capital to demand voting rights. As a result of their efforts, our country adopted one of its most important pieces of legislation, The Voting Rights Act of 1964. The street downtown is marked with reminder of those historic footprints. Montgomery is also the place of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the home of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s first and only full-time pastorate. The historic Dexter Church sits diagonally across from the majestic State capital. 

The truth is . . . Montgomery is also the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” It was on the steps of that very same capital that Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as the President of the Confederate States. It was in Montgomery that the first flag of the confederacy was unfurled.

The truth is . . . The just beyond the gaze of capital, the Alabama River curls around the city. It was up that river that free people were kidnapped and brought to America and sold into slavery. Nearly two million people died at sea during the agonizing journey. In 1820, Alabama was home to 41,879 enslaved people. By 1860, that population swelled to more than 435,000, among the largest population of enslaved black people in America. That year, Alabama’s capital city had more slave-trading spaces than it did churches and hotels.

The truth is . . . Between 1877 and 1950 more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs. Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation.

The truth is . . . The institution of slavery was built on a narrative of racial difference and white racial superiority, an insidious lie that infected, and still infects, our country—and not just individuals but systems and institutions.

The truth is . . . We are not living in a post-racial world. And reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history and finding a way forward that is thoughtful and responsible.

On Saturday afternoon, we visited the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Both are the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, and serve as mechanisms for teaching and truth-telling in Montgomery and our nation. The National Memorial holds a 6ft steel column for each county where lynching took place. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynching.

What is truth? God calls us tell the truth about whatever diminishes life and wholeness for any person—past, present, and future. This trip has provided so many opportunities to learn about truth from personal experiences, lived history, and present-day challenge.  We look forward to sharing more with you.

Posted by Rev. Sarah Johnson with

Racial Justice Pilgrimage: Day 3

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“Do not tell me that you cannot make change. You just have to say something. Never be a silent witness.”    -Joanne Bland

"Movements are like jigsaw puzzles. Everybody represents a piece. Without your piece, the change puzzle would not be complete." Joanne Bland

One thing that immersing oneself in the civil rights movement will do is dispel any notion of the “hero” narrative. That is, the courageous and heroic action of a few on behalf of the many. The truth is, the civil rights movement was the result of years of strategic planning and actions big and small by many, many ordinary people—a significant number of them women and young people.

This morning we spent time in Selma, Alabama with Joanne Bland. Born and raised in Selma, Joanne is the co-founder and former director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. As a young person, she was a highly active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and was the youngest person to have been jailed during any civil rights demonstration during that period. 

She and her sister were largely raised by their grandmother. Her mother and her younger brother had died during childbirth. Her mother ran into complications while delivering and they had to go to a hospital in Birmingham for “black blood.”  By the time medical help arrived, both mother and child had died. 

As a little girl Joanne remembers looking into the downtown window of a drugstore and seeing white children sitting behind the counter eating ice cream and wishing she could be one of them. Seeing her wishful look, her grandmother leaned down and said, “When we get freedom, you can do that too.” Joanne said, “In my mind I became a freedom fighter that day.” By the time she was 11 years old Joanne had been arrested 13 times. She and her sisters were present on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, as well as the two marches that followed on Turn Around Tuesday and the first leg of the successful March from Selma to Montgomery, experiencing the brutal beatings of marchers by police. Joanne recalls waking up in the back of a pick-up truck, having been beaten, her sisters blood dripping down onto her clothes.

Along with seven others, Joanne also integrated the white high school in Selma. Toward the end of our time she admitted, “Talking with people about my story and the history has helped me process the hate I felt toward those who hurt us. God has put me in a place to share with others so that I can be healed and so can they.”

This evening, we experienced dinner and conversation with Valda Harris Montgomery who grew up down the street from Dr. Martin Luther King and his family. The families were friends and neighbors. Valda’s father, Richard Harris, was a Tuskegee airman and then later a pharmacist. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott (which lasted 381 days) Harris worked tirelessly to coordinate the volunteer carpool service that helped black residents get around town, offering his drugstore as a makeshift dispatch hub. A room on the third floor of the house that Valda knew as “the playroom” served as the strategy room for many of the meetings of the Movement. In 1961, her family’s home also served as a shelter for 31 Freedom Riders (including John Lewis), who came after a bloody battle at a Greyhound bus stop in Montgomery. Valda told us, “Growing up, this was normal life. It wasn’t until I was an older adult, that I realized all of these things had historical significance. To us, it wasn’t history. It was just life.”

Behind towering figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., were everyday people whose courage and daily choices made change in our country. 

Standing on a concrete slab just down the street from Brown Chapel A.M.E in Selma, Joanne had us pick up a rock. She told us that this broken concrete was the place where John Lewis had gathered the marchers before walking across the Edmond Pettus Bridge.

She said, “You take this rock home and you put it somewhere you can see it. And any time you see injustice against any human being, remember that rock and the people who stood in this place, and then get up and do something.”

A day filled with reminders of the power and responsibility that we all share.

Posted by Rev. Sarah Johnson with

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