by Nora Hacker
If you’d talked to me in the last year, you would have heard already a little (or a lot) about the justice pilgrimage I went on last May. Professors, pastors, church leaders, seminary and graduate students, and me – a middle-aged wanna-be graduate student – made up a diverse group of Christians looking to fill in our narrative gaps on the history from slavery to modern-day mass incarceration under the tutelage of our professor, Lisa Sharon Harper.
I may have talked about oppressors and the oppressed, the healing I found on the trip, or a tidbit about a museum or a speaker we had. I probably would have patted my left arm where I have a tattoo as a marker to remind me of the trip.
But there is one aspect of the journey I continue to pull out to ponder because it keeps my feet towards justice, but I can never adequately convey it in a conversation about dismantling white supremacy.
We traveled sacred ground.
That wasn’t my expectation as I read the 40 assigned pages in The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle before the trip. I read every word, but I absorbed very little of it. It was prayers and verses. I didn’t have time to pause for worship, I had classwork to finish.
Yet, as our journey went along, all my reading faded away, and all that was left was the Divine.
At The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we stood under the weight of the known names – and the unknown names – of those lynched between 1877-1950, I breathed out, “Lord, have mercy.”
My breath caught as we rounded the corner and saw the art representing the “Hands up, don’t shoot” motion of Black Lives Matter protests.
When we did our morning prayers together, we had the wrong week but the right words: “I hate those who have a divided heart,* but your law do I love.” It’s not a law of personal piety, but a law of “Love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with your God!”
At the Riverwalk in Montgomery where slave ships stopped to sell their prisoners, God was present. Through the lens of my big girl camera, I breathed in the location, the history and the pain. I accepted this trip was not only going to engage my heart and mind, but my soul too.
While my camera helped me envision the people being marched up to the arena and warehouse, I cried out to Jesus. Spiritual lament was the only option as I imagined their terror and grief. They had no power to have dominion over their own needs or to protect their beloved children.
So when we put our hands in the water on the civil rights monument as our professor Lisa read from the book of Amos 5 three times, my soul screamed out in community:
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24
There were so many more sacred moments: preaching in Martin Luther King’s first church; giving and receiving hugs flowing from hearts filled with real love; singing “This Little Light of Mine” on the bus, and “Go Tell it on the Mountain, Let My People Go,” at the Fannie Lou Hammer Institute, being just a few.
Not all of the moments of worship were corporate. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I sat in the room with the protest songs and sang every song through—twice. In that moment, it was just the Lord contending with and comforting me.
But the most profound of all days was the last full day as we drove into Ferguson. Lisa spent time speaking to us about entering with respect and an honoring attitude – not as a tourist, but as a mourner. Then, Michelle Higgins got on the bus and challenged us even further. Her honesty helped me feel the weight of the moment. She challenged us to walk a mile in their shoes as we waited for our turn to visit the tribute to Michael Brown. We were told to march up and down the street protestors had been confined to during the first Ferguson Uprising.
So I did. I prayed as I walked up and down the small section of the street outlined for us. I took my experience at rallies and protests and the visuals from Whose Streets to try to enter (still only a little) into the chaos, anger, and fear. By the time I walked down to the flowers laid for Mike Brown and saw the paved street where his blood had flowed, I could barely restrain myself from throwing my face down on the ground. But I only got down on my hands and knees. I wept inside and prayed. I stood and sang, “I woke up this morning with my eyes stayin’ on Freedom.”
Oh, Jesus, bring justice.
I have no photo in Ferguson. Not only would taking a photo have felt sacrilegious, but also, there was no need. I would never forget my visit to sacred ground, to my personal Damascus road.
The Ferguson uprising had been my conversion moment – the moment I realized no matter my sincerity in my faith and desire to love all, I lacked the knowledge needed to have the impact I intended.
Last year, it was like coming full circle to be in Ferguson for a sacred commissioning. Still, circle isn’t the right word, because nothing is complete. I still have narrative gaps to fill, conversations yet to have, and justice to continue to fight for.
This pilgrimage demanded feet on the ground justice. And while I do my imperfect best to follow that call, bits of knowledge I gleaned from the trip come up to aid me in conversation or guide me.
But what I learned most clearly in that week…
that sustains me a year later in this journey…
is the absolute conviction that wherever injustice is met with resistance…
also present is that which I can call by no other name…