I have the great blessing of spending a week in North Carolina with 70 young people from all around the United States, South Africa and Botswana. We studied the art of non-violence, the sin of racism, the Civil Rights Movement and what we are called to do as part of the Jesus Movement that seeks to transform the world into God’s dream.
LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING is a powerful hymn written by James Weldon Johnson over one hundred years ago in an effort to give voice to God’s grace bringing liberty to an enslaved people in America. I will never forget being in the House of Bishops when Michael Curry’s election was announced and we spontaneously sang this hymn. I’ll use some of the lyrics as a focus for describing the power of Freedom Ride 2015.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.”
We went to places that told of a dark past of suffering for an enslaved people. One such place was Stagville, a huge plantation of 900 slaves that has been preserved as a historical site. Owned by a prominent Episcopalian, Duncan Cameron, the primitive houses were actually better than most in the South as the owners did not want the slaves getting sick, thereby decreasing their value. After the Civil War the plantation continued as it was before Emancipation. The newly freed slaves worked the land as poor sharecroppers always in debt to the landowner. Another museum described how voting by blacks was suppressed (we were there as laws suppressing voting were being debated in the North Carolina legislature) and the pain of the Jim Crow era.
One of the team leaders, Michelle Lainer, gave us a great insight into what we might feel based on these experiences. This could make African-Americans feel bitter. It could make white Americans feel ashamed. But beyond bitterness and shame is witness. We are all now a witness to our history, a witness to our culture of racism. Black and white share this history, we share this culture. Now what will we do together, as witnesses to the truth?
“Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us.”
The young people who went on this Freedom Ride fill me with hope. They are energetic, compassionate, prayerful, joyful and highly sensitive to inequality of all kinds. These witnesses are going to do great things.
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.”
We all know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rightfully so. But how much do we know about the thousands of men and women, black and white, who sacrificed so much for a cause they recognized to be greater than themselves? This week acquainted and reacquainted our young people with many of those heroic stories. I know the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds me when I pray that great All Saints preface on November 1 – and on many other occasions outside of All Saints Day (don’t tell the bishop) – has been dramatically expanded.
“Keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God where we met thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”
We learned the “10 Commitments” of Dr. King – printed on a card that those who followed him on the non-violent path of resistance in Birmingham, Alabama had to sign in 1963. The first commitment is “Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”
The work of social justice must be soaked in prayer and for Christians, grounded in Christ. Prayer – often in the form of praise music – was everywhere this week.
“May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.”
Our native land is the kingdom of God – where Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope comes to fulfillment. These are hard days in our world for race relations, immigrants, refugees and indeed for our Mother Earth. But we embrace those issues and more, filled with hope because we believe in a God greater than ourselves, in a God who makes all things new.
Editor’s note: We are especially grateful to the Diocese of Northern California for the use of their photos.