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.
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.
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