Bus Ride for Justice
I'm taking a break this month from my ongoing Managing the Tension series to share something else I've written with you. In September, our local newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, asked me to write a brief article for the religion section. I took the opportunity to share about an experience I had in August of this year involving several other ministers in the Churches of Christ. I'd like to share that article with you.
Twenty male ministers from the Churches of Christ load up on a charter bus together - 10 are African-American and 10 are white. It kind of sounds like the set-up to a cheesy church joke, but last month it really happened. These ministers are from California, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi. I was privileged to be one of them.
The agenda for our two-day trip was simple: to visit sites from the African-American struggle for Civil Rights in Alabama while building friendships and having conversations of significance with each other along the way.
One of our leaders, Dr. David Fleer of Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, set our course and curriculum. “The prerequisite to racial reconciliation is telling the truth,” Dr. Fleer is fond of saying. And so we set out to discover and tell the truth to each other. We did so compelled by the hope that a glimpse of reconciliation might follow.
Although most of the sites on our itinerary are considered "historical locations," the American Civil Rights movement is present tense. We were reminded of this at dinner the night before we loaded the bus. However, as a group of church leaders, we don’t have to look very hard to confront this truth. "We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing 'In Christ there is no East or West,' we stand in the most segregated hour of America,” is a statement as true for many churches today as it was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed it from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in 1968. History has a habit of constantly collapsing into the present. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to make sharp distinctions between one and the other.
Dr. Jerry Taylor of Abilene Christian University in Abilene, TX, a leading voice in ongoing efforts for racial reconciliation within Churches of Christ and a fellow passenger on the bus, says often, “The first phase of integration is almost complete. Blacks and whites can occupy the same physical spaces without legal consequence. But the next phase of integration is the integration of mind, heart, and spirit.” We still have a long way to go before this phase of integration is complete.
Over the course of our two-day trip, we certainly shared physical space with one another:
We spent hours on our charter bus sharing stories, thoughts, and ideas.
We gathered in silence outside of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, honoring the memory of four young lives taken by a racially motivated bombing in 1963.
We walked up the steps to the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery and stood on the site where Jefferson Davis gave his inaugural address as the president of the Confederate States of America in 1861.
We descended those same steps to the spot where Dr. King delivered a speech in 1965 at the end of the Selma-Montgomery march standing behind a pulpit from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The same pulpit is still used for Bible studies in the basement of Dexter Avenue.
We spent the night at the Kellogg Hotel on the campus of Tuskegee University, the location of more African-American history than this one sentence blurb could ever presume to contain.
We gained an audience with Fred Gray at the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center. In addition to being one of the most significant civil rights attorneys in the history of the United States, Fred Gray has also served for most of his life as a minister in Churches of Christ. We called our trip "The Bus Ride to Justice," also the title of Gray’s excellent autobiography.
We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma following the footsteps of those who faced brutality and violence from Alabama Law Enforcement and others on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.
There were too many memorable experiences to share them all here. But the moments that stick with me most were the times when we sat around tables together. We ate and drank as brothers. We discussed our lives and our ministries and our commitment to following the way of Jesus. We listened deeply to each other’s stories. “I never knew that,” we said, again and again. As we grew to know each other, we grew to see ourselves more clearly. Sometimes the truth stung a little bit.
These were holy moments, conversations filled with joy and laughter, and more than a few tears.
Against the backdrop of the persistent racial violence, misunderstanding, and struggle in our nation, our "Bus Ride for Justice” for two days was such a small thing. A small piece of on-going movements within Churches of Christ towards racial reconciliation and an even smaller piece of God’s ultimate plan to bring all nations, tribes, and people together in Christ. But it was enough to give all of us a taste. And once you get a taste of reconciliation, you start to get a taste for it. And the taste is so sweet. Of course, we are hardly the first to discover this is true. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” exclaims the psalmist in Psalm 133.
The thing about reconciliation, like all of the gifts of God, is that it is free to anyone who asks. Reconciliation isn’t a commodity that you can buy and sell. It’s the free gift of God who has “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10). However, the path to reconciliation requires us to face the truth of our own history, the truth about each other, and the truth about ourselves. Even the things we’d rather not see or believe.
Our little two-day trip is over, but the Bus Ride for Justice continues. God won’t stop until everyone has a seat, and everything is gathered up in Christ. Wouldn’t you like to get on board?
Header image: Brown, Timothy. A Man Looks Out. November 5, 2012. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.