by Rabbi Judith Schindler
Racial justice is preoccupying many religious leaders. As in too many other cities across the country, protests erupted in Charlotte last fall following the fatal police shooting of an African-American man. As clergy we are called to help our congregations who want to deepen their understanding of systemic issues of racism. Some of this education can occur inside our sanctuaries and social halls, and some requires building relationships across racial and religious differences outside our synagogue walls.
Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel learned that lesson well. They first met on January 14, 1963 at a Conference on Race and Religion in Chicago where they both were speaking and coincidentally quoted the exact same text from Amos (5:24) calling for “...justice [to] roll down like waters.” That moment sparked a friendship that would move them to stand together in countless other cities and settings and would inspire generations of advocates for justice to embark on a similar path of civic engagement.
This model of building relationships across racial and religious differences led me last week to participate in a Deep South pilgrimage with two churches (even though I had just visited Alabama for a Civil Rights trip with a group of women from the Jewish Federation three months before). I traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis with Charlotte’s Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church which is a predominantly African-American church and Myers Park Baptist Church, a liberal largely white church. The clergy who lead both these congregations are my partners in social justice work of our city. When I first spoke of joining them, my colleagues immediately acknowledged the legacy of Rabbi Heschel and the historic place of Jews in the fight.
What was it like to go on a Deep South pilgrimage with a black and a white Church?
It was a journey of connection and building relationships. Each morning on the bus we sang freedom songs and pondered questions with a new person sitting next to us: “When was the first time you learned about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What calls you to be here today: scripture, story or relationship?”
It was a journey of understanding another’s memories of pain. As we drove through Lowndes County, Alabama, through which the Selma-to-Montgomery March passed, Dr. Peter Wherry, Pastor of Mayfield, asked us to reflect on the fact that every tree could have been the execution place of an African-American soul, every stream could be where someone fled in fear seeking to clear the scent so that they would not be found by the police and their dogs chasing them, and every field could have been that of a sharecropper or a tenant farmer working for no wages. When we visited the museum capturing the tent cities where these sharecroppers lived after they had been kicked out of their homes and off their fields for registering to vote, the items on display there were not history but our African-American travel partners’ memories.
It was a journey of coming to understand each other’s vision for justice. Together as African-Americans and whites we crowded into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage where Coretta Scott King and her husband lived and their first two babies were born. As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, the phone calls of hate multiplied– sometimes thirty a day. We saw the remains of where a bomb hit their porch. We stood in the study attached to King’s master bedroom where he wrote. We crowded into the kitchen where Dr. King had a midnight moment of his fear leaving him knowing that whatever his fate would be, his mission of working for equal rights was his calling. Standing together, we recognized that the journey to justice was long and hard then and remains so today. It requires faith.
In some Civil Rights museums, the presence of Jews who partnered in the pursuit of Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was present, and in other museums their images and voices were painfully absent – written out of history. I shared stories of Jewish freedom riders, the role of our Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center where critical Civil Rights legislation was written, the thousands of Rosenwald schools established by the Jewish philanthropist in partnership with African-American Southern communities, and the work of Jewish refugee professors at historically black colleges, opening the minds of some of the travelers to history they never knew.
Racial justice is high up on the agenda of many liberal religious denominations in our country. Yet our vision for equality and equity cannot be actualized in isolation – collaboration is required. Social justice and religion happen on the road -- in relationships on the streets, in city halls of the community, even in courtrooms where cases are tried. The ladder of congregational civic engagement is rooted in relationships. The rungs expand to include social action, education, philanthropy, advocacy, organizing and being part of a larger movement. Each rung offers our congregants a faith that is expressed not only through uttering prayers in the pews but that is lived in the world.
Judy Schindler is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, and is co-author with Judy Seldin-Cohen of an upcoming book entitled Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America (expected publication December 2017, CCAR Press).
by Quanta Dawn Light
On the first day of our unforgettable journey with 54 wonderful souls, we were asked what led us to partake of this trip. I was thinking way back while I lived in Germany. It was 1969 when I became aware of the racial issues in the USA while living in an apartment complex with GI American families. But, now I realized that it is my current life here in the USA is more important to share.
Although, we the immigrants came here by our own choice and our daily struggles living in this society that is suffering from all sorts of prejudices against "others", our issues seem to pale into insignificance, when compared to what The African-Americans have suffered for centuries. The past is not so far away from those times of horrific abuses, inflicted upon them.
I believe strongly that the souls of those who have subjected their fellowmen, must be spiritually suffering throughout eternity. Perhaps, that is the definition of being in eternal fire. The soul being in despair and filled with regrets for leaving such legacy of racism, behind and not being able to erase those actions that has caused millions, long lasting pain.
I can relate in different but less malign ways , to being alienated, ignored, patronized, denied work and treated as less than and being followed with suspicion in supermarkets and the list goes on. Sometimes being looked at with resentments by those who suffered in building this nation. Now, us the immigrants, taking jobs and having better lives than those who were treated with such malice and oppression. This is not a contests of who suffer the most, or a self-pity for being subjected to discrimination and prejudicial treatment by the native public. Now, we must do our best to be bridge builders, even if we are all injured in different ways.
This is why I am deeply indebted to Myers Park Baptist Church and Mayfield Missionary Baptist church in making efforts to make the prophecies in The Holy Bible a reality. In Revelation 22 John's vision states the following
"The River and the Tree of Life
22 Then he showed me a river of the water of life, [a]clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of [b]the Lamb, 2 in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve [c]kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
My subjective understanding of this verse is what Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God" and both verses when synthesized, tells me that the wonderful people who are committed to bring peace and brotherhood in the world are "the healing leaves of the nations". So, this trip was not the end, but first beginning in the process of healing our city and spreading love and unity in our nation and the world. Life is a workshop and not a showcase and the process of healing can be painful sometimes, like a bitter pill, injection with needles or getting surgeries, not fun, but it is all about becoming a healthy society. In this workshop, we must endure and overcome and be patient with each other's failures and keep on going with honesty, candor, and authenticity of our feelings.
Again, I am deeply grateful and humbled to have been included in this amazing journey and feel committed towards our personal and community healing. Recognition of the darkness of the past will help us build bright futures for the generations to come. God bless you all.
by Fran Morrison
For days the words of “We shall overcome” continued to run through my conscience. I would awake at night and the words would come forth. The tune would find its way into my brain as I went about my day. As I drove places, the visual and deep visceral memory of standing in a circle, holding hands with new friends, with our white and black voices singing in unison those empowering words at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I will never, ever forget that experience.
Another deeply moving experience was walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge hand in hand with a Mayfield Baptist member singing and praying together. I knew that I would never come close to the courage, commitment and faith of those who walked that bridge and whom we saw and heard through pictures, films, voices, and words at each museum and memorial site while learning how so many put their lives on the line.
Now, several weeks removed from the trip, I find that I am looking through a different lens when I have opportunities to interact, engage, or even just casually pass by my brothers and sisters of color. I have a greater understanding and respect for their history. I am more aware of our systemic issues that keep racial injustices thriving. I have a yearning for more honest and sincere relationship-building opportunities. I get it, now. For a long time - I thought I was seeing, respecting & understanding - but I know now I was not even close.
Making the trip doubly hard, during the bus travels, I tried to continue reading “Waking up White” by Debby Irving. I saw myself in so many places. I was initially embarrassed to be white & angry that my parents had not talked more with me and my siblings about what was happening around us. Later in my reading, I began to feel informed and able to be more cognizant of my own racial and implicit bias - to name it and to be committed to educating myself more fully as to what that really meant. I want to move beyond my blindness and begin to consciously and intentionally be more aware of my own thoughts and action patterns around race. And I know that I will need forgiveness when I miss the mark, and encouragement coupled with relationship to begin and continue the walk.
I have such gratitude for the opportunity for this trip, its dreamers and organizers of what it might offer, the courageous eclectic pilgrims who traveled together, the sacred stories shared, the raw emotion that touched all of us, and the bonded community of faithful followers who returned to Charlotte humbled, changed, and wanting more.
by Frank Massey
We traveled deep into the south, into the heart of Dixie. Black and white, we traveled together, an act that would have been dangerous, if not impossible 50 years ago. The deeper I traveled into the week and into the south, the deeper I traveled down into my own memories. The visceral responses at the “lunch counter” and the “enslavement” experiences exposed memories long forgotten, buried deep in the recesses of my mind, psyche, and indeed in every fiber of my being.
I stand convicted - convicted of my silence. Wednesday afternoon, after an introduction and presentation in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four girls were killed by a bomb planted at the church, we gathered in front of a memorial to those four souls. As we stood in a circle before that memorial and sang “Were you there?” I was convicted. When asked to share one word at the conclusion of the hymn, I spoke out of the silence, “Yes.” Yes, I was there when they crucified our Lord. Yes, I’m there each time I stay silent when there is an injustice. Yes, I’m there each time I don’t stand with another person who is being discriminated against or persecuted unjustly. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these powerful words, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth103571.html)
I can no longer remain silent. I confess my sin of silence, ask forgiveness, and will work to transform to the person I am created to be. I will speak up for justice.
by Tammie Lesesne
(transcript of Tammie's testimony shared during Worship at Myers Park Baptist on May 28, 2017)
This pilgrimage was the culmination of tough, reflective conversation in our series called Awakening to Racial Injustice. It would have been a potent culmination if just MPBC members took this pilgrimage.
It was potent to experience the chaotic, terrifying sounds of a simulated lunch counter sit-in at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
It was potent to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, remembering the horrific billy clubs and attack dogs that met the marchers who literally put their lives on the line.
It was beyond potent to be in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where 4 innocent girls were hate-bombed to death, and to hear an eyewitness account of the moment Dr. King learned of this act of terrorism. We linked arms in the sanctuary and sang We Shall Overcome, and had fulsome prayer in Kelly Ingram Park, where children who marched were arrested by the hundreds!
It was overwhelmingly potent to be at the Lorraine in Memphis where Dr King took his last breath.
But here is the most potent and extraordinary thing: being with the beautiful, open, welcoming, reconciling souls from Mayfield Memorial. Journeying with those who are now our friends gave me a seismic jolt. We marched, ate, and drove interminable miles together. We wept, raged, went silent, then sang and prayed together. And we talked. And talked! We went down into the detritus together.
How little have I stood next to, and listened deeply to, those who carry both fresh and generational scars of racial indignities and inequities and violence, whose lives are permeated and shaped by that reality. One new friend, I learned, has a master's degree in organizational development. Her experience in corporate America was so demeaning that she could not endure there, and had to find a completely different way to work. And that doesn't even tell the bigger story of her family's life.
After traveling with our brothers and sisters from Mayfield and experiencing this pilgrimage through their eyes, I believe they would have a different title. Not Awakening. They are excruciatingly woke. We at Myers Park are the ones trying to get woke. I can't even presume to offer a title they might use. And here's what I'm reflecting on now: It was literally and figuratively in the sanctuary of black churches where traumatized, victimized people grew the civil rights movement. And it was in a small handful of white churches and synagogues that the responsibility for creating a more just America began to be shouldered.
So, how do WE go forward with greater consciousness and commitment, at this timely moment when our community is trying to face the lack of opportunity for our most disadvantaged souls? That's for all of us to determine. Will we work for transformation, within ourselves and in our community?
This work of conjoined religious groups, the true Beloved Community, is in my mind and heart. Can we be inspired by the prophet Amos, quoted ringingly by Dr. King: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Pilgrims, please stand. We are members at Myers Park and Mayfield, along with Pentecostal, Bahai, Quaker and Jew. We are all seeds. Water these seeds, so we can grow in redemptive love and action.
By Bobbie Campbell
On Saturday I wrote a bad poem
about our journey with lots of words,
long words with many syllables,
Latinate my teacher says, good
for description, bad for feeling.
So it’s Monday and here’s the poem
I want to write, the one about how
fifty-five folk, half black, half white
journeyed to the Deep South on a bus,
how at first we were super polite,
not sure what it would be like
but as days wore on, as we visited
sites where horrific things took place,
submitted to simulated enactments
of counter sit-ins, slaves selected
to live or die on ships to the New World,
we began to talk, to laugh, to cry,
to try to comfort. Here’s what I couldn’t say
then. My DNA contains both
Bull Connor and Rosa Parks.
I might not have aimed a fire hose
but I’m capable of turning a blind eye,
of justifying my nice house, neighborhood,
schools, of having no clue that white
privilege is the reason why.
But no more. This trip has changed
how I see. And the grace of forgiveness
from my new friends, their warmth,
their faith, their hard-won
resilience and resistance have filled
me with the courage to keep on
seeing, speaking up, working
for the next right thing. I’m not alone
on this path where there’s no turning back.
The Awakening Series seeks to engage the intersections of culture and faith, particularly around areas of injustice and moral responsibility. Through faith formation opportunities that address issues of our daily lives, we are working to create shalom (wholeness, equity, justice, and peace) for all.