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“This is significant,” said John Perkins as he looked out on a group of thirty Twin Cities area pastors. It was, he said, the equal participation of black and white that struck him as unusual.
We had met with Dr. Perkins at the midpoint of a journey to some of the most important sites of the Civil Rights era. Together we traveled from Montgomery, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, to Selma, where police charged a peaceful group of protestors marching to exercise their right to vote. From the Jackson, Mississippi home of Medger Evers, the NAACP leader who was shot in the back by a white supremacist, to the 16th Street Baptist Church were four middle school aged girls were killed when a bomb went off outside this historic Birmingham church. And to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
But more than visit historic sites we had the opportunity to learn, to understand, to mourn, repent and pray, asking God to help us build bridges and together speak up for healing and harmony within the church.
As we traveled, I was humbled by the courage of the early Civil Rights leaders, an extraordinary group of men and women who worked tirelessly with great wisdom and courage to advance the cause of racial justice and equality for all.
I was humbled by the shame of what one man can do to another based only by the color of his skin. Perhaps the most sobering moment on our journey was walking through the Riverfront Tunnel that leads away from the Montgomery boat landing to an area where slave auctions once took place. Tears filled our eyes as we imagined the pain of those African slaves, stripped of their clothes and dignity while being treated like so much property. I couldn’t help but wonder what I, a white man, might have done or not done had I been there. With shame I doubted that I would have had the moral insight or courage to do what was right.
Finally, I found hope in the grace of God that empowers us to work for harmony within the church. The greatest divide in our culture may be between black and white, a divide that grieves God. But I learned from my new friends that we need not despair. That there are those on both sides committed to the vision St. John described in Revelation 7; the vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” crying “out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” A vision not just for some by-and-by, but for now.
Our journey had us look back in order to look forward. Back to slavery and Jim Crow and forward to tomorrow. As Dr. Perkins reminded us, reconciliation starts with the church. The Gospel shows us both the depth of our sin and the vastness of God’s grace. It affirms the inherent dignity of all those created in God’s image and our need for his grace. In this we stand as brothers and sisters, working together for reconciliation.
Our prayer as we ended this journey is that we would begin a new one. That we would work to bring down the walls that divide us. For those of us in the white church it starts with acknowledging that indifference is as dangerous as prejudice. And so we must commit to build bridges of relationship, then coming together to work together with our brothers and sisters in the African-American church.
When King Solomon dedicated the first Temple in Jerusalem, God appeared to him and spoke words of warning. If you forsake me, he said, then I will allow disaster to come your way. But “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14) Lord, may this be true in our day.