A Love That Does Justice

On Easter Sunday 2017, Spiritus Christi Catholic Church in Rochester, New York sponsored a diverse team of parishioners who hardly knew each other to travel south. We jumped in vans to visit six cities in six days, committed to sleeping on church floors as we learned about racism as it was and as it is. As we set out to become anti-racist ambassadors, we were inspired by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, the progress we’ve made toward equality, and the ongoing, nationwide pattern of violence against unarmed Black Americans. We were also compelled to act by the stark truths of persistent inequalities including wealth and education gaps and the over-policing and mass incarceration of people of color. Along the way, we hoped to support African-American teachers by delivering resources to help in their classrooms and beyond.

As we traveled to each destination, we captured images of what we thought, felt, and experienced, looking for inspiration, deep truths, and new ideas and approaches to tear down the walls of injustice in our own communities.

Our first stop was Columbus, Ohio, where a Black Lives Matter sign hangs in the window of St. Phillip Episcopal Church. We visited the site of the police killing of 13-year-old Tyre King (September 2016), which stood next to a park. There, as we gathered, we encountered Cory, a parole officer who described King’s heartbreaking story. Cory said that he’d undertaken his work with idealism and a compassionate commitment to change, but cynicism set in. My heart sank as he told our group that, “I now believe as the police do, and that is that all youth encountered are equally dangerous.” I wondered, “If that is where you start with every Black youth, where do you go from there?” Constructing worldviews comprised of “us” versus “them” was resulting in executions; I felt stung to the soul knowing that all Black lives are at risk unless we remove the use of deadly force from policing handbooks. Before we left, our group held hands to pray, remembering and underscoring the significance of and our love for Tyre King’s young life.

Tammy and Molly, organizers from the People’s Justice Project, met us back at St. Phillip’s. They told us of growing up Black in this community, struggling against addiction and frayed social networks. The demonizing and criminalizing of their very selves included scrutiny from the police and court systems and community apathy and denial of their humanity. Columbus’s budget, they reported, earmarked 75% of city funds for public safety—which they interpreted as funding the targeting of Black and Brown bodies. Little money was left to help build successful lives through human services. Tammy and Molly called on us to do more, ask more questions, analyze deeper, and challenge current assumptions toward change.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

The Spiritus Christi Race Convoy: Senah Agbledzo, Ray Barber, Greg Bouie, Jordan Brown, Myra Brown, Clarence Cibella, Gabriella Cibella, Dick Gutnecht, Susan Gutknecht, Zaydra Harper, Nevlyn Harper, Steve Heveron-Smith, Don Menges, Mike O’Reilly, Lorinda Parks, Melissa Parrish, Nadae Parrish, Dave Prescott, Denise Quamina, Juliet Rice, Alvin Simpson, Simba Vance, Laurie Weed, Rachel Yovanovich, Elinor Yovanovich.

Next, we visited J.E. Moss Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. There, we read to the children, built relationships, and acted out stories to help make our commonalities clear. Building such connections feels intuitively like crucial work.

It was on to Alabama. In Birmingham, we went to the Police and Civil Rights Institute, learning about how the city’s then-police chief A.C. Roper was blending his spirituality and vision for justice into a model of community policing. We also visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where, on September 15, 1963, four 12-year-old girls were murdered and one injured in a racial terror bombing. Our team made historical connections at the Institute around the struggles Black Americans have undertaken to demand equality.

We visited the Equal Justice Initiative founded by executive director Bryon Stevenson in Montgomery. There we listened to the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent Black man jailed for 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. In the back of the room loomed 4,000 jars containing dirt from lynching sites across 12 Southern states. These were the beginnings of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally, The Lynching Museum) that would open in late April 2018.

Having witnessed a plantation, ridden in the back of the bus, traced the freedom riders’ paths, and walked the historic Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, we arrived at the University of Alabama. There, we met SORRA, the Students on Race Relations Assembly, is an art-based activist organization of 8th graders. As its young members excavated their history and engaged with our youth, we rededicated our lives to end racism for and with them.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

This phrase, displayed in the window of St. Philip Episcopal Church in Columbus, OH, reminds us that all lives are not treated as equally important when police answer a call or a judge hands down their sentence.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, we interviewed residents about their hopes for ending racism: some were hopeful, but most were skeptical. Returning home, we were welcomed by locals. Our convoy had taught us the importance of standing in the courage of our ideals. As parishioners of a primarily White church in a primarily Black neighborhood, we must work tirelessly to end racism where we live. To become our best selves, we must humbly hold ourselves accountable and be open to being held to account when we yield to our worst selves. We must open ourselves to others’ pain, speak out against injustice, and construct the future in which we want to live. Our first order of business is creating our own Civil Rights Park and setting up a Black Community Focus Fund to address racial disparities in our own city.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

The park where Tyre King was murdered in Columbus, OH, was a heartbreaking place. There were no children playing outside anywhere nearby.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Tammy and Molly, from the People’s Justice Project, fight for racial justice. To White people, they said, “Stay in the room!” When you’re uncomfortable, when your skin is getting red and blotchy from embarassment because you said the wrong thing, stay! Stay and learn!

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© Don Menges, used with permission

At J.E. Moss Elementary School in Nashville, TN, Pastor Brown says, “I connected wtih the group of kids with hoods on. We were claiming what we had in common!”

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Meeting with the Birmingham Police Department, with then-Chief Roper at center, we learned how they were making intentional attempts to sustain efforts to understand the history of racism and implicit bias and take steps to restore public trust.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Jordan Brown in the Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, AL.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Lorinda Parks reflects, “We learned from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail that White churches, as a rule, were not standing in solidarity with the push for equal voting rights. Then, six months later, this Black church was bombed. Four Black girls were killed. I wonder if it would have made a difference in history if White churches had stood proud and strong alongside this struggle from the start? As a White person, I do have an important role: to stand in solidarity.”

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© Don Menges, used with permission

A sculpture honors the four angels killed in the 16th Street Church Bombing.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

A stained glass window donated by the people of Wales to the 16th Street Baptist Church after the 1963 bombing. The right hand symbolizes oppression while the left asks for forgiveness. The words “You do it to me” refer to a Biblical parable.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

At the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, AL, an exhibit called “The Fabric of Race” by Renee Billingslea brought me to tears. The names on these tagged shirts stirred a deep sense of grief for the loss of these souls and those we continue to lose in the struggle for Black lives.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

The soil that would later be part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project (“The Lynching Memorial”), these jars are filled with dirt from the sites where men, women, and children were lynched during Reconstruction following the Civil War.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Commemorating police brutality in Birmingham, AL, our group saw White hands on Black bodies, using authority, fear, and the power of the institution of policing. There was no public safety for this child.

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© Don Menges, used with permission

Convoy participants pose with SORRA members in Tuscaloosa, AL—a lot of wisdom on these stairs, forging a way forward out of racism!

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