I have had a really hard time writing during this past week. Mostly, in the midst of all the protests on behalf of our Black brothers and sisters, it seems like my words are not the most important words right now. It really feels like talking about any pilgrimage I have been on, whether literal or figurative, needs to take a back seat to the stories of the painful journeys of African Americans in this nation over the last 400 years. It is not that I don’t have any thoughts or feelings. It is just that I am trying not to have those reflections take first place right now. Over the years of my life, my voice has been loud enough.
So even as I reenter this conversation about about pilgrimage—I want to reflect on an experience that was for me a kind of invitation into a small portion of Black American experience. As I mentioned in the previous post, in October I was part of an 8-day event called the Living Legacy Pilgrimage — something that has its roots in the Unitarian Universalist Church and its work for Civil Rights in our nation. Here is the how the event is described on their website:
The Living Legacy Pilgrimage is a journey to meet the people, hear the stories, and visit the sites that changed the world in the Civil Rights Movement…The Pilgrimage is much more than a civil rights history tour. In addition to visiting historic sites, we meet veterans, many of them unsung heroes and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
I brought back a small stone from that trip that we were invited to take from the lot behind the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama. This church is the site from which the Selma to Montgomery Marches for Voting Rights began and were organized. Brown Chapel was the starting point for “Bloody Sunday,” when on March 7, 1965 marchers made their way to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to peacefully protest, were met on the other side of the bridge and were violently stopped by sheriff’s deputies and state troopers. Tear gas, billy clubs and dogs were used against the marchers. Onlookers cheered the police and waved Confederate flags. That day 50 people were injured and one person died.
After we picked up our stones, we were asked to imagine people who were at Brown Chapel on some of the days surrounding those marches and protests. People like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. People like (now Congressman) John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams who led the march on Bloody Sunday. People like Amelia Boynton, a march organizer. People like Lynda Blackmon Lowery, a 14 year old girl injured in the protest. Those stones witnessed these and many other women, men, and children as they sought rights and freedoms that for too long had been withheld. The stones we took were there on those days and for many days and years before. The stones have stories to tell.
Pilgrimages often take us to ancient places. We walk on old cobbled roads. We marvel at rugged brick buildings. We wander down dusty corridors. But a real pilgrimage is never a history tour. A real pilgrimage is not an Instagram photo op. Though pilgrims engage the past—we do it with the purpose of transforming the present. We say the names and hear the stories of trauma so that we will not lose sight of what it means to be human and how we have been (and still can be) guilty of inhuman acts.
So we said their names and saw the memorials to their lives and deaths. Emmet Till. Viola Liuzzo. Jimmy Lee Jackson. Medgar Evers. James Chaney. James Reeb. Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. And more than 4400 black people (named and unnamed) lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950 as listed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
History can be painful. For some it can be debilitating. For many of us it was long ago and far away. But on a pilgrimage like this, the past is real. The stones are not just telling stories of the past but giving us warnings for the present.
Today the streets of our American cities are witnessing to both new brutality and stubborn hope. There is fresh trauma at the hands of those with the power to do violence and the world is shouting out new names of those killed by the police. A few of these names and short descriptions of their final moments were referenced in a recent Code Switch Podcast (from National Public Radio) called “A Decade Of Watching Black People Die“:
Eric Garner had just broken up a fight, according to witness testimony.
Ezell Ford was walking in his neighborhood.
Michelle Cusseaux was changing the lock on her home’s door when police arrived to take her to a mental health facility.
Tamir Rice was playing in a park.
Natasha McKenna was having a schizophrenic episode when she was tazed in Fairfax, Va.
Bettie Jones answered the door to let Chicago police officers in to help her upstairs neighbor, who had called 911 to resolve a domestic dispute.
Philando Castile was driving home from dinner with his girlfriend.
Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his living room in Dallas.
Atatiana Jefferson was babysitting her nephew at home in Fort Worth, Texas.
Eric Reason was pulling into a parking spot at a local chicken and fish shop.
Dominique Clayton was sleeping in her bed.
Breonna Taylor was also asleep in her bed.
And George Floyd was at the grocery store.
Pilgrimage is not just traveling to places that signify revered but irrelevant memories. Pilgrimage is saying names, visiting places, and embracing historic happenings to see what they have to tell us about our lives and our world and how we might be transformed in this very moment.
Spiritual Practice: Listen to Black Voices
There is a very simple (but intensely challenging) practice I am both recommending and seeking to embed in my life. Listen. Especially now—listen to black voices. Our nation’s character and our lives are formed by the reality of Black lives.
There are a hundred ways to do this. Here are three quotes from voices of people I listened to or read this week…
From writer Jonathan Capehart talking about “white fragility” in the Washington Post:
Then there are the repetitive interactions with white people that threaten to build to a psychic death by myriad cuts.
I’ve seen white women clutch their purses and watched white men tap their back pockets to see if their wallets are still there. I’ve sat alone on a packed rush-hour commuter train back to the suburbs. I’ve had people assume I work at the store/restaurant/hotel I was in. I’ve had my space invaded because I’m not really seen by white people. I’ve been followed in stores because I’m seen as a thief or a threat. I’ve been mistaken for someone else black who looks nothing like me. I’ve had my experiences discounted or dismissed. I’ve watched others rise to positions I know I could do better. I fear leaving home for any duration of time without my driver’s license, health insurance card and a Washington Post business card with my husband’s phone number on it just in case I have a run-in with law enforcement or a stranger who calls the police. And I feel unsafe in my own country because the president of the United States delights in pouring gasoline on America’s four-century-old fire.
From songwriter and storyteller Courtney Ariel in Sojourners Magazine, writing in August of 2017 in an article titled “For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Our Allies”:
Please try not to, “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” your way into being an ally when atrocities like the events in Charleston, S.C.,and Charlottesville, Va., happen. People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome you. I want for you to come into a place of awareness. However, your shock and outrage at the existence of racism in America echoes the fact that you have lived an entire life with the luxury of indifference about the lives of marginalized/disenfranchised folks. Please take several seats.
What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”
There are few better spiritual practices than listening. It is time to listen to our Black sisters and brothers. It is time to understand their world.