I have never visited the Holy Land. Friends who have, tell me they never read the Scriptures in the same way again. Even though they knew the stories, being physically present to the sacred places gave them a whole new appreciation. My participation this week in a pilgrimage through Alabama, visiting key places in the Civil Rights Movement, as part of a group sponsored by Episcopal Divinity School, brought me to a similar new depth of understanding. I was a child during those history making days of the 1960s but I studied that era extensively as an adult. I was especially taken by the story of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian who gave his life in that struggle. Although I never made the commitment he did, I shared his idealism, his hope that Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven could be realized.
I entered the journey knowing the stories, but hearing the stories where they took place helped them enter my soul. Walking in prayer through Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where Sheriff Bull Connor had his police attack protesters with vicious dogs and where he had water canons turned on the marchers, gave me a sense of witness to the horrific events, as did entering the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb killed four children getting ready for Sunday School. Walking over Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, knowing that “Bloody Sunday” occurred at the end of that walk, was prayer in motion. When I knelt on the ground in Haynesville, where Jonathan was gunned down by Thomas Coleman, taking a bullet intended for 16-year-old Ruby Sales, I felt the spirit of one who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross. Our multidimensional souls allow us to be horrified and inspired at the same time.
There is another Holy Land/Gospel similarity. The Gospels were written about fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most scholars date Mark to around 70 A.D., Matthew and Luke to 80-85, John in the 90’s. The Evangelists wrote to preserve the community’s memory of Jesus and to keep the message and Spirit of Jesus alive and vibrant in a new time. The new time was living the faith without the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70. Could it be that we are retelling the Civil Rights stories fifty years later, not just for history’s sake, but so that we might embrace the message of that time – be inspired to work for justice in a new era? Our society does not look like it did in the ’50s and ’60s, just as the Judeo-Christian faith expression did not look like it did in the Temple era – a time in which they expected the imminent return of Christ. The Gospels invited believers to “be” the Body of Christ. The sacrifices of so many, fifty years ago, did achieve so much. But the work of the Civil Rights Movement is far from done, even though some may have thought it was. The attempt to roll back voting rights, the mass incarceration of black men (The New Jim Crow), income inequality are just a few examples. Bishops Against Gun Violence speak about the “Unholy Trinity” – poverty, racism and guns.
Telling the stories of Jesus and the Prophets has never been viewed as interesting stories from long ago. They are the Living Word because they comfort and challenge us now. They require a response. In the same way, the stories of the Civil Rights Movement ask something of us beyond historical study. They invite us first to an awareness of the reality of the present time, and then to action for a world where Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope is not reserved for Heaven.
A few months ago I was on a panel with Ruby Sales – the woman Tom Coleman aimed the gun at. I was saying the fight against climate change was not making progress because churches were not getting behind it, as they did in the Civil Rights Movement. Ruby leaned in to me and said “the churches failed to lead in the Civil Rights movement.” I heard her but that was not my understanding of history. I grew up with priest mentors who were all about social justice. On this pilgrimage I learned Ruby had the facts and I did not. Far less than 10 per cent of the churches in our country overall and in the South as a region took part in the Civil Rights Movement. We have outstanding saints who acted on their faith – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jonathan Daniels, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks and thousands of others. As powerful as that witness is, the fact is that most churches sat out the Civil Rights Movement. May we not sit on the sidelines this time. I say that not knowing exactly what that participation looks like, but knowing it begins for me with awareness.
And maybe if you and I can grow in awareness, and hang on to the idealism of Jonathan Daniels who remains forever young, a path of action for justice will be revealed to us in the “beloved community” that Jonathan described in a Bible he gave to friends on Easter Sunday 1965: “We dream of a beloved community in which white men and black men, old men and young men, whole men and sick men, will join hands in the way of the Cross and find there the life broken, shared and renewed for them all, the unspeakable glory of God.”