Civil Rights Tour
The 2008 Grace Civil Rights Tour and Mission Trip:
In Search Of The Beloved Community
In a recent book the young evangelical leader Shane Claiborne warns, “If we lose the current generation of the church it won’t be because we made the Gospel too hard—it’ll be because we made it too easy.”
For too long mission trips in our mainline Christian churches have lacked a challenging, educational focus. When I learned of The Nehemiah Project’s inspirational Civil Rights Tours with youth from Milwaukee I set my heart on a similar trip for my first parish.
I believe Christian Education is best understood as ‘courage education,’ pointing to the Holy Spirit’s transformative love within human history.
The Civil Rights Movement was referred to by Thomas Merton as “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” What better literal analogy to excite the minds and hearts of our Christian young people, then, than to embark on a tour in search of what Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated as ‘The Beloved Community.’
My deep thanks to the sisters and brothers at The Nehemiah Project in Milwaukee, WI, and my father, The Rev. Ed Ruen, for providing the vision for our own Civil Rights Tour at Grace.
What follows is a day-by-day personal impression of our group experience.
Monday, July 28th: The Journey South
Early Monday morning on July 28th five senior high youth and four young adults (plus a certain bald, nearing 40 years-old pastor) climbed into a fifteen-passenger van and began a day-long journey to Memphis, TN. The senior high youth were Miriam Brabahm, Mary Mathyer, Doug and Greg Otte, and Ben Shoaf. The adults on the trip were Barbra Carqueville, Ginnifer Mastarone, Jeff Miller, Andria Morse, and myself.
After months of planning meetings, fundraisers, and two intentional pre-trip class sessions with attendees and parents (Pizza and Prep Nights), we were finally on our way.
The trip down to Memphis went smoothly, with Andria Morse and myself driving. ‘Scattergories’ was the van-game favorite. There was a general spirit of fun and excitement. Surprisingly, every time our AAA maps listed construction it never materialized. Whenever a sign announcing ‘road work ahead’ appeared we got into the habit of confidently ignoring it. Mostly, ignorance was bliss.
We arrived at Lord of Life Lutheran church in the late afternoon, and were warmly welcomed into an air-conditioned, large youth room with game tables, couches and a large screen television. (Weather check: it was over 100 degrees and 90% humidity.) The church staff recommended a good ribs place not too far away, so we piled back into the van in search of some famous (infamous?) Memphis barbeque. We found it at The Commissary, a restaurant that delivered on its promises—although at least one of our youth could not fulfill his ‘all you can eat’ ribs selection.
That night we had the first of our evening classes, including time for reviewing our schedule and budget. Our first session highlighted portions of MLK’s sermon entitled, ‘Loving Your Enemies.’ We spent time reading the sermon and then studying the corresponding commands of Jesus in Matthew, Chapter 5. We discussed further, and ended with intentional prayer.
A foundational phrase of the trip came alive that night. We considered the legacy of what Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined as ‘The Beloved Community.’ As an interracial group of young men and women in the 21st century, searching for guidance on how to live as Jesus’ disciples, would we make the cut? During our discussion it seemed we were just beginning the search for our own identity, as well as an understanding of The Beloved Community in Civil Rights history.
Tuesday, July 29th: Service
During initial trip planning our youth expressed a desire to do some service work, so we built two mission events into the educational schedule. Our first stop was the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network, a day center for families needing a safe place to receive job counseling, clothes, rental assistance, and other services. The Interfaith Hospitality Network is a national organization, and this was a Memphis branch location.
During the morning a group of five from our group went to the nearby children’s museum with a family from the center, while the rest began cleaning up their facility. Our group sponsored lunch for everyone, staff included—although we hit a bit of a snag with Jeff’s portable grill, ending up cooking hot dogs in the center’s microwave.
After lunch, we threw ourselves into finishing the cleaning job. I was very proud of the hard work and spirit of our group. As an added bonus, Jeff’s computer knowledge was a true boon as he updated the Center’s software, configuring some of their internet and network applications. We presented Amy Barnes, their Executive Director, with a check for $500.00. She was immensely grateful. Non-profits and helping ministries appreciate gifts of time and talent, of course—but a donation of money for general operating expenses is a more-than-welcome addition.
We went back to the church to rest and relax before dinner. Jeff and I were not so easily beaten when it came to his portable grill, though, so we began an adventure among various superstores to find the right size and brand of gas container. We were victorious, and returned to Lord of Life in plenty of time to have a wonderful cookout on their patio, using the remaining food we had purchased for lunch.
That evening we had our scheduling meeting before class. By then, ‘group budget fever’ had completely taken hold, as the young people were excited to evaluate how we spent our funds day to day. They had already decided to buy cheaper breakfast supplies to last us through the trip, and were thrilled to have stretched our lunch supplies into dinner. It became a standard conversation during our nightly meetings, and we came home with a substantial surplus because of it. It also enabled us to give more money away to mission sites and sponsoring churches.
For class that evening we watched portions of Eyes On the Prize, the award-winning documentary series from PBS. We surveyed the time period leading up to MLK’s assassination, and broke open the context of an already-fractured Beloved Community of the late 1960’s, preparing for the National Civil Rights Museum the next morning.
Wednesday, July 30th: The Whole Story
Before departing Lord of Life we left a donation of $250.00 after two nights there, wondering if we would ever get such a great church youth room, again.
We made our way to downtown Memphis, and toured The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the old Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. It was a tremendous experience, with detailed timelines, interactive displays, and large exhibits—such as an actual bus from the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I had an opportunity to sit next to a statue of Rosa Parks in her historic protest position. It’s true: that sister did not move from her seat.
The museum seemed quite intentional about showing the marvelous tapestry of people called into the movement at different times and places.
One exhibit exemplifying The Beloved Community was a life-sized scene of the early lunch counter protests led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the late 1950’s. There were statues of white and black students sitting in solidarity at the counter, with angry whites behind them. On a screen above, actual footage of those same students being beaten and harassed played in a continuous loop.
The Museum led us through the highs and lows of the movement, finally settling on MLK’s hotel room and the nearby balcony where he was murdered. From there, we exited the main museum, and crossed the street to the adjoining facility, which featured information around the assassination plot, its execution, and aftermath.
At the foot of the Lorraine Motel balcony stands a memorial stone, quoting the following verse from the Joseph story in the book of Genesis: “They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him….and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’” Afterwards, our group spent some time discussing impressions of the museum, and asking ourselves: what has become of the dream? Where is The Beloved Community?
From there we strolled down to Beale Street and, after a few pictures with Elvis’ statue on the way, found a live blues restaurant for lunch. Then, it was off to Birmingham, Alabama, for our next adventure.
We drove straight to Shades Valley Lutheran Church, just south and east of downtown Birmingham. We were granted another fantastic youth room space—this site even larger than the last. With a late dinner of tacos and rice provided by the church as fuel, we hustled off to see the new Batman movie at a local theater. Talk about an education in non-violence!
The major hero/villain characters of The Dark Knight were all physically and emotionally traumatized in some disturbing way. Their histories of trauma formed their identities and motivations, echoing MLK’s assertion that “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” (Okay, so I’m reaching a bit, here….but I’m giving it my best shot.) It was well directed for its genre of film, with a nice redemptive touch near the end as a boat-load of prisoners took the lead in refusing to sacrifice others in similar danger—an almost biblical example of ‘the wrong people doing the right thing.’
No class that night, as we were all tired from a long day. We had an early wake-up call the next morning.
Thursday, July 31st: Service, A Beloved Community Sighting, and One Little Girl
Shades Valley Lutheran arranged for our next service-learning activity: a full morning of work with a complimenting lunchtime meeting. We were introduced to the good people at Greater Birmingham Ministries, a faith-based organizing coalition. GBM offers various direct services to combat poverty and homelessness. George Thompson, one of their outreach directors, welcomed us warmly, giving a short introduction to their organization before we tackled their backyard garden.
George had spearheaded the garden ministry himself, so he worked with us to weed, water, pick vegetables, and clean out the area. Part of GBM’s philosophy is to always partner with those they serve, and those who serve them, working together to promote mutual investment, challenging notions of traditional charity work. We toiled solidly together for two hours in the hot sun and humidity. We added a couple buckets of chicken to their potluck for a ‘social justice round table’ afterwards in their conference room.
And guess who was at that table? Yes, Lord: The Beloved Community.
After the trip I’m now more aware we northerners have a host of incorrect assumptions about race relations in the south. I’d go so far as to say we exhibit an ill-informed preening based on the perception of our role in the Civil War. Since we were the forward-thinking liberals then, we assume we must still be ahead of the curve, exhibiting superior racial attitudes. I was no exception to the assumption before I witnessed the easy way this interracial group of Christians spoke to and supported one another.
The guest speakers (two men—one white, one black) were from an affiliate group working to address systemic injustices in Alabama. Their intentionality, professionalism, and spiritualism were notable throughout their presentation, and the ensuing group discussion. How thrilling to see The Beloved Community alive and kicking in that small and humble place, with people of different ages, genders and colors moved by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We had an appointment to keep, so we said our goodbyes, dropping off another check for $500.00 into a surprised and thankful Mr. Thompson’s hands.
We drove on to Chris McNair’s Photo Studio for a tour and conversation, an event arranged by our contact at Shades Valley. Mr. McNair is himself a practicing Lutheran, and was at the time when his eleven-year old daughter, Denise, was murdered along with three other little girls. Denise was taken from him in the galvanizing tragedy of the 16th St. Baptist Church terrorist bombing of 1963.
Mr. McNair ushered us into his memorial room for Denise. We silently and slowly absorbed the photos and collected documents on display. We saw the remains of her clothes and other items from the day she was murdered. She was a bright and loving spirit, always willing to serve others, said her father.
Mr. McNair then sat with our group and told his story. It was the first of three important first-person accounts on the tour. Afterwards, he explained many photographs he had taken of King, and other figures active in the movement.
Mr. McNair communicated two important impressions to the group: 1) He asserted whites and blacks must continue to reach for one another, and that the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement was correct and worth preserving. However, 2) he could not forgive the whites who had murdered Denise, and still harbored anger for white society from the time period.
When we got into the van I asked one of the high-school students what he thought of the experience. He immediately replied, “That was the best thing we did so far on the trip.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because he was there. He lived through it.”
As promised to the group before the tour, we planned some fun and games, as well. We drove out to Alabama Adventure Park for an afternoon and evening of waterslides and amusement park rides. My favorite moment was on top of the Ferris Wheel while a storm rode the horizon, tendrils of lighting playing across the sky. I said to my fellow adult sponsor, Ginnifer, “This is incredibly beautiful, but shouldn’t we get off this thing immediately?” I’m pleased to report: No lightning-strike-on-Ferris-Wheel deaths that evening.
During class back at the church (after one of many frustrating side trips home, losing-then-finding-then-losing our way around cities in Tennessee and Alabama—thank God for Jeff’s magic Blackberry) we took up a more detailed discussion about the efficacy of Christian non-violence, watching portions of the documentary, ‘Sisters of Selma.’ The film documents Roman Catholic Nuns of various orders during their Civil Rights witness. After the screening we worked in themes from Batman during our discussion, which made for an interesting cross-reference. We closed with prayer, knowing the next day was an even earlier one yet, filled with more tours, museums, and—almost unbelievably—an end in sight.
Friday, August 1st: What Bridge Are You Standing On, Now?
We left another $250.00 donation with Shades Valley for their hospitality (they had also sponsored two of our meals), and set out very early for Selma, AL. It was in Selma where we found the deepest challenge of the trip so far.
At 9 a.m. Joanne Bland, the director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, met us down the street from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and climbed into our car. She was a SNCC child-activist at the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery actions. Beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday when state police turned back marchers after they crossed the Pettis Bridge, she went on to march again the following Tuesday. According to Joanne, the police did not stop at the bridge—they mercilessly beat people all the way back across, daring so far as to attack marchers in their sponsoring churches. As a SNCC participant, she was arrested over ten times. She was also the youngest marcher jailed at eleven years of age.
She took us to sites where people of faith and their allies gathered for prayer, training, and sermons. She assembled us in a playing field to the side of the Brown Chapel AME Church where marchers lined up and received instructions. Ms. Bland asked us to pick up stones that she then named as real actors in those heady days, beseeching us to keep them close, recalling the tangible history of the movement. We drove around to see the Selma courthouse and places of extreme poverty and wealth. She asked us to consider how much had really changed.
The trip took on new significance when she lined us up, two by two, near the Selma side of the Pettis Bridge and called out for a ‘Hosea Williams.’ Someone from our group stepped forward. She then called for a ‘John Lewis,’ and someone else answered the call. She directed us to cross the bridge together, two by two, led by a symbolic Hosea and John, just as they had on March 7th, 1965. We marched as a hopeful reflection of The Beloved Community, even breaking into a little song (‘This Little Light of Mine’) as we met up with Joanne on the other side. Our spirits were high.
Again, The Community showed its face. At the other side exists a mural depicting some principal martyrs of the marches: the white Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, beaten to death by whites after the “Turn Around” Tuesday march following Bloody Sunday. His face appeared near that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African-American civil rights hero shot by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965. They were joined by Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife so moved by the injustice of Bloody Sunday she answered MLK’s call for whites to join the struggle in the south, and in so doing became a heroine and martyr of the movement, herself (Liuzzo was murdered by the KKK while transporting civil rights workers back from the third and triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery). Centering the mural was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In one of our viewing sessions of Eyes on the Prize Coretta Scott King remembered the day everyone arrived at the Capitol in Montgomery, after the third attempt marching from Selma: “I kept thinking about ten years earlier, how we were . . . just blacks [in the movement] . . . . [But the Selma to Montgomery march] had Catholic priests, and nuns, and you had other clergy, and you had a lot of white people. It was really a beautiful thing to pass Dexter Avenue Church [where King had preached while in Montgomery] and go toward the capitol marching together.”
After our tour of Freedom Park, we crossed back over the bridge, and joined Joanne for lunch. As we ate and talked we were reminded of pervasive misunderstandings the Civil Rights Movement sought to address. Sister Joanne remains an activist, and she challenged us to place ourselves in the continuing struggle for racial justice. Her insistent statements and questions were uncomfortable for some, empowering to others—and I could feel tension rising at the table. Before we said goodbye, I led us all in prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit to heal us, lead us, and provide understanding.
In the van I turned to the group and said something like this: “I believe what we just experienced with sister Joanne was an opportunity to go deeper into this tour. Everything we discuss in terms of racism and difference is welcome. All I need to know is that, at the end of the truth-telling, we’re going to hold hands and call upon the power of love to see us through.” All agreed, and we made our way to Montgomery along the same highway the marchers did in 1965, a bit more informed—and perhaps not quite as naïve as we had been thus far about The Beloved Community.
In Montgomery we visited the Rosa Parks museum, discovering that not only was she worshipping at a Lutheran church at the time of her personal protest, the minister—Robert Graetz—was a powerful white ally during the bus boycott. His house was firebombed twice as one of the few white clergy to organize and support the Civil Rights struggle in Montgomery.
From the Montgomery Advertiser, January 10th, 1956, Graetz said, "I have been told that I am a kind of symbol to my people (Graetz was the pastor of an all-black Lutheran church). Many of them had long ago concluded that it was scarcely possible for a white person to be a Christian. But now they know that, with some of us, Christianity is more than pious profession of the lips."
The museum dispelled the great myth of Rosa as a quiet, tired seamstress who, on a whim, decided to keep her seat on the bus that day in 1955. In fact, Rosa was the local secretary of the NAACP, and had attended organizing trainings at the Highlander Folk School. Rosa was a Christian activist, primed for the right moment. We were all impressed with her story, as well as the fantastic organization and displays of the museum.
On we went some six blocks up the street to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, our last site of the tour. Dexter was King’s first and only solo call, as he eventually returned to his father’s church, Ebenezer in Atlanta, when his duties as head of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) became paramount. What impressed me most about King’s Dexter history was that his was, in many ways, the opposite myth of Rosa Parks.
When MLK came to Dexter it was his first call, and like any first call pastor (present company excluded, of course) he was not there to immediately get into trouble. King was not anywhere on record pushing for integration prior to his arrival. Even when he framed the early demands of the bus boycott there was no call for an explicit end to segregation. While he had read Gandhi at seminary he expressed serious misgivings about non-violence as a practical strategy. King was a stunning academic, and already a great preacher, but he had not been involved in protests, or any kind of civil disobedience. He was an academically liberal, realistically moderate, young black pastor.
This is a crucial point. One of MLK’s most powerful pieces of writing is his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ where he castigates the ‘white moderate’ as the most vexing barricade to racial justice. How ironic that King himself was, at first, a decidedly black moderate. Activists like Rosa Parks were just as impatient with Birmingham preachers like MLK as he came to be with his white, moderate clergymen. Perhaps there is hope for all ‘in the middle’ out there who, when called, may be some of the most effective leaders in the struggle for justice. In fact, all moderates had better be running scared, considering King’s rapid transformation.
When asked to head up the Montgomery Improvement Association King tentatively accepted, thinking it to be a temporary leadership position. He was convinced the ‘people of goodwill’ in Birmingham would immediately respond to the MIA’s requests. Little did he know the work of the Holy Spirit would lead him on a remarkable journey, and toward eventual martyrdom.
A defining transformational moment came after MLK received one of the countless threatening phone calls to his home as the boycott wore on—just prior to the first bombing of his parsonage. He couldn’t sleep because of fear for himself and his young family. King struggled for an exit strategy, an escape hatch from the boycott and its terrible implications. He went into the kitchen, made coffee, and prayed to Jesus for guidance at the kitchen table.
According to King, Jesus became more real in that moment than any other time in his life. He heard the voice of the Lord saying to him, “Martin, stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. I will be with you always, and never leave you alone. No, never alone.” From that moment on, with a new reliance on the power of God’s love and hope, this young liberal moderate became the visionary leader of a non-violent, Christian civil disobedience we so casually reference today.
The leader of our Dexter Tour was a third figure providing yet another valuable first-person perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. She herself was still a member at Dexter, and her parents were active when King was pastor, and beyond. She told us a little referenced, remarkable story.
George Wallace, the staunchly segregationist Governor of Alabama during many civil rights struggles, contacted churches in Montgomery with an intention to reconcile and seek forgiveness some years after the attempt on his life. Speaking to her parents from college, our guide was more than suspicious of his intentions. But her parents, who were with Wallace at the time of his visits, insisted there was real repentance, and a spirit-filled reconciliation between himself and the African-American community.
During the Q&A portion of the tour I repeated some of Joanne Bland’s challenges, asking our guide what she thought about the victories and failures of the Civil Rights Movement. How should we address institutionalized racism, today? While she did not deny racism’s existence, our tour leader asserted there was certainly no overt racism like that of the 1950’s in Montgomery, nor anywhere else in her experience. Viewed from that perspective she felt the movement had achieved astounding things, and that we should all be proud of its achievements.
With this response the group now possessed a third opinion from an African-American Christian who participated in or lived through the struggle. It was an important reminder: there is no ‘official’ story or interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement. By searching out and welcoming diverse impressions we hopefully come closer to an informed understanding.
Our educational and service-learning activities were at an end. We’d experienced the fullest day, yet. It was with great relief that we drove several miles to the only hotel we stayed in on the tour. That night we went to dinner, and I recall watching the group laugh and enjoy one another as we shared stories and memories.
We had one final meeting that night before bed. I asked everyone for a highlight from the trip. For some, it was the personal testimonies. For others, the walk across the bridge. One participant was particularly moved by the memorial for Denise McNair.
When asked for my own highlight, I said, ‘I share an appreciation for all your moments, but the truth is, the best ones for me were when I observed you as engaged, and learning.’
When I saw courage education in action I was filled with hope, and a deep satisfaction.
Saturday, August 2nd: Home to Grace
Up early, again—this time to make the 14-plus hour trip back to E-Town. All went well, with only a small stretch of construction. After going through the final numbers we had enough left over to donate $150 to that Sunday’s Chicago Uptown food offering, pushing up our overall donation total to $1,650.00 We agreed the rest should be seed money for our next summer trip. We were back around 7pm to meet parents and partners, and get home for some well-deserved rest.
We cannot thank Grace Lutheran enough for its generosity of spirit and financial assistance. We raised $6,000.00 in seven months. This meant no participant’s parents or any young adult attendee had to pay anything to go on the trip. It was a joy filling out checks for the service sites and churches. Grace has shown, once again, that it values its youth, and the development of courage education. On behalf of the whole group, I offer my thanks and praise.
As an invitation for further discussion and prayer, I ask: Where is The Beloved Community—and how do we honor this Christian intention of the Civil Rights Movement?
The following quote from a 1974 article from the Christian Century takes us in the right direction:
“In speaking about the possibility of actualizing the Beloved community in history, King attempted to avoid what he called ‘a superficial optimism’ upon the one hand, and ‘a crippling pessimism’ on the other. He knew that the solution of social problems is a slow process. At the same time, he was confident that, through God’s help and human effort, social progress could be made. He said in a definitive passage:
‘Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness. And though the Kingdom of God may remain not yet as universal reality in history, in the present it may exist in such isolated forms as in judgment, in personal devotion, and in some group life. . . Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in his universe. As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it.’ -Struggle to Love (Harper & Row, 1961), p. 64.
Thus, though acutely aware that the Beloved Community is ‘not yet,’ but in the future— perhaps even the distant future—Martin Luther King believed that it would eventually be actualized, and already saw approximations of it. That is why he worked unceasingly for the realization of his dream and never lost hope that ‘there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land’ His hope was rooted in his faith in the power of God to achieve his purpose among humankind within history.” - Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr.
I’m looking forward to the next reflection of ‘the great camp meeting,’ dear sisters and brothers: I’ll see you at the welcome table on Sunday morning.
The Peace and Joy of Christ,