I returned yesterday from a weeklong Civil Rights pilgrimage to the south with the interfaith senior clergy of downtown Minneapolis. A dozen of us flew to Atlanta last Sunday to journey through a part of America’s racial history. I’ll offer some initial reflections today and on three Sunday consecutive afternoons in March, the 12th, 19th, and 26th, the clergy group will share a video and speak about what proved to be a powerful and transforming experience.
The trip offered us a direct encounter with the American reality of those who have borne the brunt of its most brutal features. And it did so by telling stories. This was no intellectual exercise, a learning of dates and places and 2
important people. On the contrary, it was hearing a narrative from the standpoint of those left out of the dominant version of the history of our nation.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the power of story to challenge preconceived notions and change perspectives. A man is set upon by roadside robbers who leave him half-dead. Two religious leaders scurry by to avoid getting entangled. A Samaritan – an unwelcome, despised foreigner in that part of the world – is the only one who finally stops to help. Jesus tells the parable to teach a self-satisfied lawyer what it means to live faithfully.
The lawyer is like many in America today who assume they know the story of this country. The priest and the Levite are like those who go out of their way to avoid hearing that story. The Samaritan is like those carrying their own woundedness and trauma who understand and show solidarity with the injured and abandoned man. 3
With the parable Jesus invites the lawyer to set aside his need – and perhaps our need – for a sanitized, clear-cut, intellectualized, non-threatening version of faith, and step into the story so he can imagine his way to righteousness.
The pilgrimage to the South was like that – an intense week of listening to stories, most of which were hard to hear. We heard an American narrative that has gone untold for far too long for most of us.
Because lives matter, stories matter. Jesus tells them throughout the gospels. With his parables, he makes the case for what Walter Brueggemann calls a “prophetic imagination.” When faced with an unjust situation, the seers of old used their imagination to overcome what seemed like the intractable trajectory of history. Jesus does the same, imagining that God will make a way out of no way. To get there, prophets ancient and modern have learned to see beyond how things are and allow ourselves to hope for and work for what might be possible. 4
In the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, given the day before his assassination in April 1968, he reflected on this morning’s parable.
“We use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop,” King says,
“We say they were busy going to a church meeting…and they had to get… to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late… But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road… In the days of Jesus, it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’”
Our pilgrimage took us down several such roads. 5
“It’s possible,” King says,
“That the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking…acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to… lure them there for quick and easy seizure.”
“And so the first question the priest asked,” King says, and
“The first question the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
In King’s telling, the Samaritan uses prophetic imagination in that moment, and it leads him in a different direction from the others. His response focuses on the traumatized man, rather than on himself.
In our drive from Georgia to Alabama, as we stopped at churches, museums, and monuments, and other places made sacred by the blood of martyrs, we saw and heard how people of faith had used their own prophetic imaginations over the years. Preachers, teachers, sanitation workers, barbers, sharecroppers, maids, nurses, business owners, children, teenagers, and elders, found enough hope and enough courage within themselves to face America’s racism and not back down, even when confronted with violence.
If we do not stop to help this person, what will happen to them? America should be asking itself that question. 7
We came into Selma only days after the tornado had blown through that town. As we approached the Edmund Pettus bridge, buildings destroyed by the storm littered the streets. Walking across the bridge, we retraced the destruction left by another storm 58 years ago on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when the people marching for voting rights ran into the violent hatred of white supremacy. That was not a new storm; it began blowing in this land more than four centuries ago. Its devastation continues today.
If we do not stop to help, what will happen?
In Montgomery we entered the Legacy Museum built by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Leaving the bright daylight, we walked into a darkened room and stood before a large screen showing the ocean over which thousands of ships had sailed, laden with their human cargo, a quarter of whom were children. The laws of Britain and of our young nation – written by people of 8
faith – permitted this barbaric practice. The enslavement of Black human beings was legal because white people in power deemed it an economic necessity. In the museum in Montgomery that ocean at which we quietly stared became the final resting place for nearly two million people who did not survive the Middle Passage. (https://eji.org/)
The storm of racism in this land was fierce from the start and it continues today.
In the next room of the museum, we came face to face with ghostly visages of caged people in warehouses where they would be kept until sold. Mothers with children, husbands and wives. Teenagers and their siblings. Most enslaved individuals were separated from their families on the auction block. An enslaved woman of child-bearing age was highly valued property; on average she would give birth to nine children, almost all of whom, if they survived, would be sold at a tidy profit for their owner. As we continued walking through the dark and silent space, 9
nameless faces stared out at us from behind the bars that held them in pens.
Our nation, from south to north, was built by and built on Black bodies. No one stopped to help, and look what happened. Look what happened.
Two hours later as we neared the exit the faces behind bars were back, only this time they were real people, in our time, telling the story of the mass incarceration in America that disproportionately locks up Black men and Black women and Black children, continuing the separation of Black families today under our laws – an endless perpetuation of the generational trauma of racism.
The storm still howls through the land.
We heard Bryan Stevenson speak at Ebenezer Baptism Church to honor the legacy of Dr. King last Monday. He described the false narrative of racial inferiority used in 10
America to justify the enslavement of Africans. The ideology of white supremacy planted a deep lie in our nation that took root and still holds us all in bondage.
Stevenson, who is Black and has argued cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, told of a white judge assuming he was the defendant and not the lawyer, and then having to laugh along with the judge and other white men there at his own humiliation to protect his client.
“You can be a talented doctor or a lawyer or a Morehouse or Spellman student, or a pastor,” Stevenson said,
“You can be kind. You can be loving. But if you’re Black or brown you will go places in this country where you’re going to have to navigate the presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”
The presumption of dangerousness and guilt. 11
On our pilgrimage this week we heard that from people with whom we spoke, and we heard it from our fellow Minneapolis clergy who are Black. People want to ignore the lingering racial trauma endured by Black people in our nation. We do that at the risk of prolonging prejudice, stereotypes, fear, and hatred.
If we do not stop, what will happen?
We cannot quote some nice line from Martin Luther King one day – what his daughter Bernice called the “convenient King” in her remarks at Monday’s event – and then turn around the next day and refuse to allow teaching the history of American racism in our schools because it might make the students and their parents uncomfortable. The generational trauma will need healing across the generations. America needs the “inconvenient King” she said. We will uncomfortable if we want to move toward racial equality in this nation. 12
“Yes, the North won the Civil War,” Stevenson said, “But the South won the narrative” – and, I would add, that’s because the North bought into it, as well.
After the Civil War it took a century for the U.S. to ensure for Black citizens the right to vote, the basic right to vote, and even today the demographic and geographic legacy of redlining and racial covenants and substandard schools and lop-sided employment practices and discriminatory policing continue to make manifest the racial inequities in this country. Recent good news does show some improvement in the wide gaps between white and Black households, and we give thanks for that, but we have a long way to go.
The storm still rages.
It will take prophetic imagination to begin to repair the dehumanizing scourge of racism in this land. It will take telling the truth. It will take listening to painful stories of 13
real human beings. We will need to remember their names.
In Montgomery we visited the Peace and Justice Memorial, the brainchild of Stevenson. It’s a searing reminder of the victims of 20th century lynchings. Monuments resembling enormous headstones are suspended from the ceiling, as if from a tree. Each of the 800 gravestones carries the names, dates, and locations of those who died, often multiple people in one county, across the country, including in St. Louis County, Minnesota, in Duluth.
There is power in the names. There is no denying the names. The truth is in the names on those lynching monuments. Say their names. Neal Wimbush, Nathan Smith, Mary Ellis, Anthony Taylor, Claude Thompson, Elizabeth Lawrence, Emmitt Till, John Moses, Simeon Edwards, Laura Wood, and nearly 5,000 others. 14
The attempt to sanitize the racialized history of America would erase their names. Ignoring centuries of violence against enslaved people and their descendants would erase their names. Refusing to hear the cries for restorative justice would erase their names.
Say their names. In our time: Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, James Byrd, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Ma’Khia Bryant, Ahmaud Arbrey, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Amir Locke. The truth is in the names. There is no denying the names.
“Truth has been crucified,” Stevenson said. “Justice has been buried. And one day they will rise again.”
In a brilliant use of prophetic imagination, Stevenson said he hears God talking to him. “’Bryan,’” the Almighty says, “’I’m worried about what I see in the world. I don’t think they believe in grace anymore. I don’t think they believe in mercy anymore.’” 15
God could be looking down on that road outside Jericho and reach that conclusion.
Stevenson imagines God saying, “‘I think they’re going to put redemption on trial. They’re trying to prosecute grace. They’ve indicted mercy.’”
In a world without grace or mercy or redemption God is going to need advocates, Stevenson says. It’s as if God were saying, “I may need you to go to court when they put grace on trial. I may need you to represent us when they put mercy on trial.”
“I’m ready,” attorney Stevenson says. “I’m gonna want the theologians to be ready to testify. I’m gonna want the bishops to be ready. I’m gonna want the pastors and the teachers, the church mothers and deacons, the rabbis, and the imams. 16
But then, echoing the point Jesus makes in the parable, Stevenson says,
“I got to thinking and I’ve decided that it’s not gonna be the theologians. It’s not gonna be the pastors. I’ve decided that my first witnesses are gonna be the condemned, the convicted, the people who are poor, the people who are marginalized and excluded, those disfavored.”
The injured man on the road to Jericho will be called as a witness. The despised outsider who stopped to help will testify.
Here’s Stevenson again: “And I want you to know I’m not worried about the verdict. I’m not worried about the verdict. The prophet Micah has already told us what the verdict is going to be. He tells us what God requires of us is that we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” 17
The compelling power of our interfaith pilgrimage came from the stories we encountered. It was as if the group of us, religious leaders often too busy or too afraid to stop to help, were invited back to the place where harm was done.
And there we were given a chance – and we are all given a chance – to listen, and learn, and then commit ourselves to stand together against the storm and be part of ending the trauma, to do what we can to help change the story, so that we all might begin to repair the harm our nation has done.
Thanks be to God