Back in April of 2019, eight of us from St. Elisabeth’s traveled to Alabama for a pilgrimage centered on civil rights and racial justice. We spent time at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Some of you may remember the journal entries and spoken reflections that were shared from the pilgrims; it’s difficult to put into words how impactful and transformational that journey was for all of us.
The trip, and our time here at St. E’s in Glencoe spent preparing for it, has been on my mind so much lately. I’m embarrassed that it wasn’t on my mind in a more consistent and pressing way before the murders of our black siblings in the past few weeks. My busy life and multiple transitions here at church took away my need to have these issues at the forefront of my mind for quite some time. If that isn’t a textbook example of white privilege, I don’t know what is. I haven’t needed to worry about many of the systemic injustices that affect my friends of color because they don’t directly affect me as a white person. But black bodies in this country don’t have that luxury – many of them are fighting for their very living breath on a daily basis. As Christians, we proclaim through our baptismal covenant that we strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Our life and salvation is tied up in the very life and salvation of all of God’s people. If one member is hurting, we all are hurting. So, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what does and doesn’t “directly” affect me. It is taking some re-framing of my life and privilege to align with how Jesus call us to live our lives. That is a daily struggle… but it’s something that is worth struggling with every day.
I looked back at my journal from the pilgrimage, and a lot of what I was dealing with then was sorting through my feelings. At the Legacy Museum, for example, they used incredible imagery and technology to tell the story of the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation, and the racial hierarchy that still exists in America today, especially around mass incarceration.
Here’s an excerpt from my journal: “I’m having a hard time looking down at the color of my skin and wondering how so many people throughout history, and even today, think I am superior, smarter, and more worthy of dignity, respect, and grace because I am white. I don’t know what to do with the sorrow it causes me. So, I’m choosing to simply sit with it for now. I’m using this pilgrimage not to jump to conclusions, not to seek out fast answers, and not to plan what I can do to change things as soon as I get back to Chicago. Rather, I’m using this time to pay attention. I want to see what has happened and is happening to our black siblings. I want to hear the pain and sadness, the frustration and desperation. I want to feel the ground beneath my feet and know, in my bones, the terror that has happened on this land. I want to pay my respects to the heroic Civil Rights Leaders who risked their lives for justice and grieve the thousands that have been murdered because of their skin color. And while all of that is happening, I want (or really, I need) Jesus to walk with me.”
These past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with my feelings a lot of seeking out black voices to listen to and learn from. But, after to listening to the Family Action Network’s discussion with Robin DiAngelo and Marcus Campbell on white fragility last Friday, and reading an interview in The Undefeated with Ibram X. Kendi, I’m realizing that my privilege has allowed me sit around, even in my own discomfort, for too long. “Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism,” Kendi says. “Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, not the other way around.” DiAngelo and Campbell agree, and assert that wallowing in our feelings will not get us there, either. What we need to do, they argue, is use the power and privilege that many of us white folks are discovering we have to fight for systemic, legislative, and political change. The time is to do that is now. We can’t wait any longer.
We are all going to be challenged by this call to action. It’s going to be a long journey, not a sprint. We will need to have difficult conversations with ourselves and others, and push the boundaries of the power we hold in the institutions we are part of. It may seem impossible, but I know it’s not. I know it’s not because God has shown us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that turning the world upside-down and creating a new order in the name of love and justice is possible. Our faith calls us to this very work.
I vividly remember the moment that the eight of us sang the words to this Black Spiritual while taking a moment to pray in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church last April. Now, it will be my prayer as I’m on my journey of action for systemic change and anti-racism in the world around me. “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”
To learn more about St. Elisabeth’s work for racial justice, link HERE.