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A Meditation from Bishop Brooke-Davidson: We Must Go There

Mar 4, 2022 | News Releases

Going There<

Black History Month – the official calendar event – is drawing to a close. I had expected to observe it by posting a list of books that I recommend to other white folks who are delving into this vast subject and would like some suggestions.  But Black History Month took another turn for me.

Bishop Porter Taylor issued an invitation to a group of bishops last fall to form a Sacred Ground circle to experience the videos and reading and discussion together. We journeyed through the 10-session curriculum over several months. We encountered information none of us had known, though many members of the group grew up in the south in the 50’s and 60’s and most of us serve in southern dioceses. The legacy of imperialist genocide, human trafficking, enslavement, the doctrine of white supremacy, Jim Crow and the KKK, and racist mass incarceration are as evil as anything humanity has ever done, and even worse was the active engagement of the Anglican/Episcopal Church in much of it. To say it was sobering is a gross understatement. But just as shocking to us, and just as damaging to people of color, was our ignorance of so much of our own history and the continuing oppression and suffering of so many of our siblings in Christ.

Bishop Andrew Waldo had grown up as the son of an Episcopal priest in Montgomery, Alabama, and he had been piecing together much of what had happened in the Civil Rights years in his own backyard (sometimes literally – the rectory was on the same block as the Governor’s mansion). He offered to put together a pilgrimage for us, visiting historical sites and spending time at the educational venues created by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. We decided that reading and watching and talking weren’t enough: we needed to go there.

On the first day, we spent three hours at The Legacy Museum, an immersive experience of Black life in what became the U.S., from the earliest arrival of what would be millions of kidnapped Africans, to the current system of mass incarceration created to control Black citizens. Black artists and writers tell the story, vividly and powerfully, often quoting original sources. It is made all the more powerful because it is told without adverbs; that is, it simply witnesses to the facts, without moralistic gloss. None is needed. The evil and the suffering, and the source of it all, reveal themselves.

In three hours, I had made a half-decent journey through the first centuries, but ran out of time somewhere in the sixties.  I hesitate here to recount too much detail because I know that it is far more traumatic for our Black siblings than our white siblings to rehearse the brutality we witnessed in those exhibits. I can say that the trauma was relentless.

After a break, as it were, to talk about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we headed to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s a brilliantly designed memorial to the known Black victims of lynching between 1877 and 1950. It unfolds as you enter. First, you encounter names of the people, listed on large rusty metal boxes, one box per county. It occurred to me after a moment that the boxes are the size and shape of coffins. They are arranged in multiple rows, like a cemetery, that wind around corners in a sort of squared-off spiral. As I walked through them, I realized that they were all hanging, suspended – around, and then above, me. As I struggled for equilibrium, I realized that they go on – and on – and on.

I am from Texas, and I started seeing names of Texas counties. I had been brought up on the myth that yes, these things had happened, some, a long time ago, but only in East Texas – you know, those people – but that was clearly another lie of “history.” (Just to be clear, when I say “those people,” some of my ancestors are from East Texas.) The multiple rows of Texas counties turned a corner, and then, at least half a football field later, another corner. I felt dizzy. There were counties whose names I didn’t even know. Every county I had ever lived in was represented. Once again, I was shocked at the truth, and shocked at my own ignorance. Of course, the counties I now serve here in Virginia all had their boxes, their own names. And the real truth is that this giant iceberg of terror and death is just the tip of a larger iceberg, and it seems not to be over.

If you want to know the truth, at least about this, you have to go there, to places of shock and horror.

And that was just the first day. The second day we went to Selma, visiting the Jackson home, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived for six months planning the Selma-Montgomery March. In that intimate, personal setting – just an unfunded, private home preserved as a museum – we saw many artifacts from the involvement of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Ralph Bunche, and others. None was more moving than the plain galvanized bucket by a chair in the bedroom where Dr. King had washed the feet of his companions the night before Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was the beginning of the march, the part you’ve seen in photos, as people walked peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were attacked with German shepherd dogs and clubs; where young John Lewis was beaten bloody. We saw the private memorial to Viola Liuzzo, the mother of five who came from Minneapolis to help carpool Black marchers and was shot in the head by the KKK as she sped from them on the highway.

In the afternoon, we went down to Hayneville, where Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, jailed for protesting segregation, was shot dead upon his release when he stepped between the shooter and Ruby Sales, a Black teenager. Our small group ended the day with a performance artist in shackles enacting the pleading screams of an (actual) enslaved woman whose fifteenth child was being sold away from her, looking each one of us individually in the eye as she pleaded from the floor. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Going there is not easy.

There’s another kind of going there that is just as important. It takes more time, more investment, but it’s right there, where you live. It will be different for each person, depending on you and on your context, but it’s there for you to find. This is how it’s working for me right now. I have been involved in a new initiative with The Underground Kitchen, bringing disparate people together around the table to engage issues of food justice and race in Richmond. At the first dinner, I met Duane Brown, the workforce development director of CHAT (Church Hill Activities and Tutoring) near Creighton Court, and the Front Porch Café, about which I’ve written before. We got to know each other better, and over lunch at the Café last week, Duane introduced me to Pastor Mary Gleaton.

Pastor Mary was called by God to abandon her dream of suburban ministry to live across the street from Mosby Court, a Richmond housing project riddled with gang violence, and to minister mostly to the children and youth who have no stable adult to help them find a better life. From her small, dilapidated but well-loved church building, she mentors, tutors, distributes untold quantities of food, dispatches lunch bags to the homeless, teaches, and preaches. She has sponsored a drum line, a ballroom dancing class, and her own version of Daughters of the King – now co-ed – and much more. Shaking slightly as she does it, she confronts dealers mid-deal, commandeering them to deliver Mother’s Day baskets in Mosby Court. She told story after story of shootings in the projects; kids that sleep under, instead of in, beds, for fear of their lives; her work in preventing high-school pregnancies. She’s been at it there for 18 years; her 78th birthday is coming up. Everything she does is infused with Scripture, with preaching, and with the profound love of Christ. You’ll be hearing more, I hope, about Pastor Mary.

There are ways out of this mess that we are in. But we have to go there. We who could avoid it if we want to, are obligated by that very privilege to renounce the privilege, to go to the places where the true stories are told, to bear witness. We have to go to the places where the Pastor Marys are at work, leading the young people. We have to join with the risen Christ in re-making the world that humanity has broken; we must bear joy and peace and hope and justice and material resources to places of struggle and sorrow. We have to go there.

In his last few words on earth, after the Resurrection and before the Ascension, Jesus said, Go. Go into the world. Remember that I am always with you, until the end of time. And so he is – in the suffering, in the sin, in the redemption, in the renewal. If you want to see Jesus – go there. Go there.

Your companion in the journey,

Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson