Civil Rights Pilgrimage: A Tale of Two Episcopal Churches

On July 19-21, 2019 St. John’s Episcopal Church and St. Michael and All Angels’ Episcopal Church boarded a bus to journey together to share one another’s stories and insights and also to learn more about the story of the South and stand in the footprints of those in the Civil Rights movement who have stood to respect the dignity of every human being. 31 individuals each walked, listened and experienced the journey differently. Some of the pilgrims did not live in the South until recently, having grown up in other areas of the USA or outside of the United States. For some, they lived the civil rights era right here in the south and even within Montgomery itself. Each person had a story to share and we all learned from the stories that were shared with us. Many steps were painful and agonizing. And we kept taking them together, listening deeply to each other and each other’s pain and sorrow at the past events and current injustices.

Below are two reflections, one from a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee and one from the rector of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church. We look forward to taking the movement of the spirit with us and continuing this journey of living out respecting the dignity of every human being.

IMG_2307.JPG

From Kathy Sullivan, member of St John’s Episcopal Church, “I am so glad I went on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage with St. John's and St. Michael's and All Angels. It was very eye-opening for me. The pilgrimage showed me more than I ever learned in school. I was struck by the amount of money involved in the slave trade. I found Dr. King's church in Montgomery to be very uplifting and The Legacy Museum to be very sobering.

The pilgrimage has made me interested in learning more. I believe that this history needs to be confronted by all in order to move toward reconciliation. I am interested in Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative. I am reading "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson and was moved by his quote, “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.”

I am especially glad for the relationships we were able to build with each person on the pilgrimage. I found I was able to have conversations about race relations that I would not have been able to have, if not for this pilgrimage with both churches.”

From Father Hugh Chapman, rector of St Michael and All Angels,

“This pilgrimage jointly shared by parishioners from both St. John’s and St. Michael and All Angels, afforded participants the opportunity to look back at our history, yes a history that included slavery, the Jim Crow era and the fight for Civil Rights, particularly here in the South and more especially in Alabama. Rev. Abi did remind us that this pilgrimage would have a transformative effect on all thirty-one souls who got on the bus. To quote her more directly, pilgrimages invite us “to expect the sacred waiting to be discovered wherever we travel.” Pilgrimages often provide those who undertake such journeys an awakening, indeed a deep wrestling sometimes with uncomfortable truths that we would rather avoid or possibly deny. We did learn that during a conversation on the trip a fellow Montgomery Episcopalian tried to convince one of our pilgrims, that what we were told and shown while in Alabama was not to be believed – just another made up story! Well, I suppose such thinking is a reflection of the times in which we live.

IMG_2335.JPG

We visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr began his ministry. It felt like hallowed ground, as we entered the office, he occupied as Pastor. Mind you, that office has remained undisturbed to this day. Our tour guide Wanda, with her infectious smile and melodic voice, turned out to be the perfect historiographer as she shared countless stories of Dexter’s Avenue Baptist Church’s journey. Whilst at Dexter, we were joined by a group of exchange students (from China and Vietnam), two of whom shared their musical gifts with us and along with our own DL LaSeur-Helfand, organist at St. Michael and All Angels.

Then it was on to the Rosa Parks Museum, where we were reminded of the pivotal role played by that seemingly graceful and non-confrontational figure, whose stubborn action ushered in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Amidst threats and other forms of intimidation, the Black populace remained resolute until their objective was achieved – to be able to sit in any seat on the bus. Dr. King was instrumental in helping to organize taxis to get folks to work and what other chores they had to complete. Not enough mention is ever made of the supportive actions of the white residents of the city, who did not penalize those who got to work late, often.

The visit to the Legacy Museum proved more gut wrenching than anything else, with the vivid images of the torture employed to keep the slave population in subjugation. These methods included whippings, lynchings and the daily threat of family separations, if the need arose for labor on another plantation. The harrowing image of a mother pleading with her laughing owner not to sell all five of her kids, will remain with me for a while to come. Perhaps more disturbing was the complicit attitude displayed by many of the white churches of the day who openly supported racial segregation and their total refusal to permit black folk (well after slavery came to end) to worship in their churches. I tried not to attach too much significance to the lone African American male who was present for worship at St. John’s Episcopal in downtown Montgomery on Sunday July 21st I was left wondering whether he was the only African American congregant, or that others just decided not to be present that day.

Our pilgrimage concluded with a tour to the National Memorial for Justice and Peace where on full display were the names of those who were lynched as well as jars containing remnants of the aforementioned. On that somber afternoon, we were joined by hordes of persons including young people who solemnly read the names of the martyred. I left Montgomery more convinced that the Christian Church needs to atone for our complicity as we openly defended the institution of slavery or just remained silent in the face of such atrocity. This atonement must include our complete rejection of all forms of segregation and the continuing injustices that are very much evident with us, even here in Tallahassee.”

As pilgrimage leader, I am so grateful for this group of individuals who traveled and listened to each other deeply, welcomed friendship and saw firsthand the history we have inherited and the work that needs to be done for racial healing in our world. I look forward to where this pilgrimage leads in conversations and relationships as we realize the work that needs to be done.

-The Reverend Abi Moon, Associate Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church

Montgomery Trip

On June 17 and 18, a diverse group of Tallahassee citizens will travel to Montgomery, AL to visit several civil rights sites.

We represent at least 22 organizations.
We are interracial.
We are intergenerational--8 students, 11 adults, 43 seniors.
We are interfaith--Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and no particular faith.
We reflect our community.

Five students (3 from FAMU and 2 from FSU) are participating through a grant offered by First Presbyterian Church (4) and by one of their members who is on the Compassion and Social Justice Committee (1).  An additional traveler received a grant from the donations offered by fellow travelers to assure anyone that wanted to attend would be able.

Our first day will be focused specifically on the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  We will visit the Legacy Museum which tracks the history of African Americans from slavery through Jim Crow to the era of mass incarceration.  After the museum we will visit the Peace and Justice Memorial which EJI opened last year.  This is a national memorial to commemorate the victims of lynching in the United States. The memorial is intended to acknowledge past racial terrorism and advocate for social justice in America. Following our time at the memorial, we will attend a briefing by staff of EJI to hear about their work with death penalty prisoners and how the memorial and museum grew out of that work.  With 62 people joining this trip, it is our hope that many will join our efforts to bring the duplicate column commemorating Leon County's lynching victims from the Peace and Justice Memorial back to our community.

The following day we will visit several sites important to the Civil Rights movement before we head home.  By the time we leave, we'll have heard the stories of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King and his first church, and seen the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial listing all those who gave their lives during this era; we will be familiar with EJI and their work for social justice; and we will be reminded that there is still much work to be done. Our time together will be one of learning, reflection, and possibly a new perspective.

This fall we will work to bring together several of the participants for a panel discussion about our experiences to be held at First Presbyterian Church.  Further information will be coming about that program once school has begun again.

EJI Approval

We are thrilled to announce that our proposal to the Equal Justice Initiative has officially been accepted! We are so excited that we will be moving forward as partners with them in this project. In their acceptance of our proposal they wrote:

Thank you for submitting your Proposal of Interest. We greatly appreciate the time you took to organize with other supporters, discuss answers to our questions, and translate your vision into words.

After reviewing your proposal, our team has decided that we would like to move forward with supporting your coalition’s historical marker project. We also look forward to supporting your coalition’s facilitation of related public education and engagement activities including the high school essay contest and the marker unveiling ceremony.

You can read the acceptance of our proposal here and our full proposal here. We could not be more thrilled to partner with EJI and join with them in their incredible work. Working with EJI means we will have greater access to resources to assist in the process of aquiring the duplicate monument from EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the narrative marker, and, perhaps most importantly, the important long-term work of crafting educational programs that will help ensure our work will have significant and lasting impact far beyond the erection of the markers.

This project is the work of our whole community and we are excited about accomplishing this small but important step. We will continue to move forward together as we seek to foster further dialogue and seek more partners in the project. Be on the lookout for more community events in the near future to continue to spread awareness of the project and bring in more people as partners.