By Scott Dickison
“My hope — and my fear — is that I’ll feel responsible.”
This was the response of one of our members two Friday evenings ago when a group of us met with some friends from our covenant partners, the First Baptist Church on New Street to prepare for our pilgrimage to Montgomery, Ala., funded through a generous grant from our partners at the New Baptist Covenant.
We would leave the next morning to embark on this journey together to experience some of the Civil Rights cites there, highlighted by a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This stirring memorial, which opened earlier this year, was built to honor the over 4,000 known victims of lynching in America and the untold number of other victims of racial violence in this country.
The memorial is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization led by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the Unite States. EJI believes mass incarceration is rooted in our nation’s history of racial violence, beginning with slavery, continuing through Jim Crow, and taking on new, legalized forms post-Civil Rights Era. The accompanying Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery traces this history in powerful, often gut-wrenching detail.
We knew this experience would be emotionally and spiritually demanding and that making this journey together would be even riskier. So we followed the pattern we established three years ago when our two churches covenanted together to grow in relationship—a pattern which itself follows the one of Jesus when he gathered with his friends around a table that final night. We ate supper together.
After reviewing the itinerary for the day ahead, we went around the table and shared our hopes and fears for what we would see and experience the next day. I can still feel the sudden tenderness and vulnerability of the room as we voiced these things before God and each other, somehow making them real.
Of course, the content of our sharing differed, importantly, depending on the congregation we represented. For those of us from majority white congregation, our hopes and fears were some version of the quote I shared at the start: that we would feel responsible, knowing this responsibility would bring pain, but also the conditions necessary for confession, repentance, and healing. For those from our partner church, the hopes and fears were rooted in the unearthing of painful memories of injustice, anger, and fear passed down through the years.
Yet, all of these were rooted in the same truth that led the Equal Justice Initiative to build this memorial in the first place, which writer Richard Rohr has said so well: if pain is not transformed, it will be transmitted. In other words, if we cannot fully address and accept, and, when necessary, atone for the pain of our past, that same pain will be passed down.
There is more for us to process about this trip, which we will begin to do together when we meet again this coming Sunday, again around a meal. I’m hopeful this shared experience will lead us into the next phase of our covenant together, in which we will need to dig deeper into this painful history in order to confront our painful present. But whatever lies ahead for our two congregations and the life together we continue to uncover, we may look back and say it began that night, around that table, with that bread broken and those cups shared, and those memories offered and received.
And those familiar words will take on new and deep meaning, “As often as you do these things…”
— Scott Dickison is pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga.