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Racial Justice Pilgrimage: Glendora and Jackson, Mississippi

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“And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” -Genesis 4

“If these waters could talk, what would they say?”
- Johnny B. Thomas, Mayor of Glendora Mississippi

The town of Glendora, Mississippi (population 150) is considered by many to be the birthplace of American Civil Rights movement. It was in Glendora that fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till was murdered by two white men Ray Bryant and J.W. Milam for supposedly whistling or speaking to a white woman. On August 28, 1955, Emmitt was dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night, tortured, shot, and throw into the Black Bayou, his body affixed to the fan from a local cotton gin.

Emmitt’s death is horrific tragedy. And yet, even more horrific is the knowledge that it was not unique. Black men and women were regularly murdered for “stepping out of line” or for no reason at all, their bodies dumped into the rivers and bayous of the Mississippi Delta. Mississippi was the deadliest state in the union for killings and lynching of black Americans (Texas is not far behind at number three). What made Emmitt’s death different was the courageous decision of his mother Mamie Till to insist that after her son’s body was dragged from the river that he not be buried immediately (an attempt by authorities to cover up what happened) and that his body be shipped back to Chicago and the casket left open. While an open casket was a common practice at funerals in the African American tradition, Mamie insisted that her son’s casket be left open so that the world could see what they had done to him.

When Rosa Parks was arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she is reported to have said that while she thought about going to the back of the bus, she saw Emmett Till’s face and she couldn’t do it.

We spent significant time this morning at the Emmitt Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora, on the site that commemorates Till’s death, including a museum and the locations where his body was dumped and where it was found. The landscape is bare and haunting as if it too cries out of the horrors that it was forced to participate in. The cotton fields linger as reminders of the legacy of king cotton, slavery, and sharecropping.

Amazingly, the Mayor of Glendora, Johnny B. Thomas, was in the neighborhood when we arrived and spent time with us at the museum and along the river. 

PHPC Elder Pat Nobles walks the bridge where Emmitt Till’s body was dumped in the river; Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas visits with the group. 

He shared his history and experience with Glendora, as well as his hopes for the community. Thomas’s father was one of several black men forced to participate in Emmitt’s murder—another common practice. 

It was a heavy morning. And yet, in the midst of the violence there are signs of hope and God’s relentless redemption. Mayor Thomas continues to advocate for Glendora’s residents, seventy percent who are young people, and to tell the story of Emmitt Till for the world. Glendora is also one the many birthplaces of the blues, music grounded in oppression that became an expression of liberty and freedom. 

“We have moved through slavery to Jim Crow, and in many ways today there is no difference. We must create mechanisms of healing. We must ensure that yesterday is not forgotten so that that tomorrow may be better.”

-Mayor Thomas

 

 

Racial Justice and Equity Pilgrimage: Why travel?

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And we’re off!

This afternoon, a group of members and friends of Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church boarded a charter bus to begin our trip on the church’s first-ever racial justice and equity pilgrimage to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Our travels will take us through historical locations and touchpoints of the civil rights movement, visiting with those closest to the movement and many who participated in it. 

The first leg of our journey is the long drive from Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi where we will officially begin our touring Thursday morning.

As we loaded the bus earlier in the day, one of our fellow travelers confessed that she had shared with her neighbor about the trip. In particular she mentioned that while she was very much looking forward to our travels, she joked that it might not always be fun. Her neighbor responded, “Well, if it is not going to be fun, why go?”

It is a good question. Why travel on a racial justice and equity pilgrimage—a trip that will be enriching but likely also challenging?

I think there are two big reasons: one pedagogical (educational) and the other theological.

One of the most obvious reason for a travel trip like this one is that traveling is one of the best ways to learn. It is one thing to read about something in a book or talk about it as a part of small group or a Sunday school class. It is another to be able to travel somewhere and see and experience that which you have read about. It adds a whole different dimension to learning when you can experience the sights, sounds, smells, landscape, and relationships that come from visiting places and engaging with local people.

I am also a big believer in the idea that sometimes in order to learn, to see what God would have us see, we have to leave the people and places that we are most familiar with and journey outside of our comfort zone. It is in the moments of displacement, disorientation, and in the journey from one place to the next that God can and does help us to see in new ways. In other words, we often learn by leaving.

In addition to both of those things, there is also a magic that can happen on trips. We let ourselves detach from the schedules of our daily lives. We find a new rhythm with a group of people we may not have known before we boarded the bus. And if we are intentional, the Spirit of God feels a little bit closer.

A recent article in the Atlantic Magazine touched on about the unique way that pilgrimage travel in particular invites individuals to learn and grow. The author writes, “In their heightened psychological awareness, pilgrims develop a sense of communitas, in which strangers on the same journey feel a sense of kinship with one another, allowing cultures to cross paths both real and symbolic. They return home with a renewed sense of hope.”

Jesus often taught this way. When he called the disciples he said, “Come, follow me.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus responds to two disciples of John the Baptist who are seeking answers and direction (literal and figurative) by saying, “Come and See” (John 1:39-41).

One of the best ways to learn and grow (no matter how challenging) is to answer Jesus’ call to, “Come and see.”

But why specifically a racial justice and equity pilgrimage? That answer is theological. 

As a congregation, we recently adopted a new vision statement: “Trusting all belong to God, living like we belong to one another.” Undergirding that statement is the theological claim that all people are made in the image of God and therefore worthy of dignity, value, and respect (Gen 1:27). The statement also claims that as people of faith we are called to live out that core truth, and to participate in the Kingdom of God that has come near in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Racial inequality of any kind is a violation of that core Christian conviction that all persons are made in the image of God, and that we are called to live out the good news that in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come near.

Traveling through the history of the civil rights movement, is an opportunity to listen and learn, as well as to bear witness to the stories of those who experienced and stood against the injustice of racial prejudice and inequality in our country. It also is an opportunity to make connections between the injustice of the past and the injustice of the present. The work of racial justice and equity continues in present day. And the church is called to that work, as messy and challenging as it is. 

For many, there remains a tension as to whether faith and the church should stick to the spiritual and the heavenly and stay out of the earthly, social, and political. 

It is certainly true that otherworldly concerns have a significant place in faithful life. Faith nor the church can never eliminate the questions of the soul or ultimate concern. When religion overlooks this basic fact, it is reduced to an ethical system in which eternity is absorbed into time and God is relegated to a sort of meaningless figment of the imagination.

But just like faith cannot abandon the spiritual, it cannot abandon the earthly either. Religion, faith, the church must deal with the heavenly and the earthly. It must speak to humankinds’ eternal destiny and its earthly and social condition.

In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, documenting the period leading up to and including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King writes, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind that Marxists like to see—an opiate of the people (23).

 Rev. Dr. William Barber puts it this way, “Not to be concerned with public policy and politics is a form of pastoral malpractice. Because it is an attempt to think that we can minister to people inside the church without knowing or confronting the situations that are causing many of their pastoral needs outside the church.”

Dr. Cornell West famously said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

It is a rich and challenging opportunity.

I hope you will continue to journey with us.

 

 

Posted by Rev. Sarah Johnson with

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