On November 7, 2019, I sat down with staff in my Members of Congress offices in Washington D.C. and said, “I’m done. I’m done with the supposed safety and freedom of my cisgender, heterosexual, white, U.S. Citizen, woman of Christian faith self being used to prevent the flourishing of all other people.”
How did I (who insists on company for errands) end up on Capitol Hill, 2,800 miles from home, meeting with staffers, bold and alone?
It started with a question, “Why are the people of Ferguson so upset?” In August 2014, while my Facebook feed filled with people condemning the uprising and outrage, I kept thinking, “But why?” It led me down a rabbit hole of links. Every answer brought more questions, such as, “What does Black Lives Matter mean?” “What is happening?”
I spent years gathering more information and reached only one conclusion: “There is so much going on that I don’t understand.”
Then, in 2016, my demographic overwhelmingly voted to elect a man that opposed everything I thought mattered to my faith — integrity, morality, kindness, and compassion. One can slice the numbers lots of different ways, but the question I kept coming back to was, “What created the difference between white Evangelicals —81% for — and Black Evangelicals, 95% against?” That line wasn’t created by a difference in beliefs about God or the Bible …but in how we applied belief to our lives.
So I started going to marches and rallies. I started talking to my friends, family, and church about racism and white supremacy. I read and read and read—Just Mercy, The Warmth of Other Suns and Divided by Faith, just to name a few of the books.
I had so many pieces, but no guidance on how they all went together.
So I leapt at the chance when Lisa Sharon Harper announced her pilgrimage and class called “The Gospel and Politics of Race.” Someone who wants to talk about faith, politics and race, all at the same time? Sign me up!
And in May 2018, I traveled from Montgomery, Alabama, to Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ferguson, Missouri, tracing the path of slavery to mass incarceration of today. We were asked to consider the question, “What is the good news for people held in slavery, or for Fannie Lou Hamer, or for slave holders, or for Bull Connors — then and today?”
While walking the land where Fannie Lou Hamer, Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Michael Brown had lived, walked, and died, something almost magical, certainly sacred, happened. The head knowledge I’d been gaining and the tears I’d cried as I faced my own complicity knit together to settle deep into my bones.
I started to get a glimpse of how Bible-knowing, Jesus-loving, dedicated Christians had separated their beliefs from their practice. We’d created theology to justify slavery …and passed it down for generations after generations disconnected from its corrupted history.
If Jesus only came to free us in spirit, then bondage of body, either through slavery or mass incarceration, doesn’t matter.
When I returned from the pilgrimage, my family left our old church. There are lots of reasons, but truly the biggest reason was not about them, but about my need to find local Christians doing the work I could learn from. I needed to find more people who saw how history informs the present, and who believe that part of following Jesus means pursuing the liberation of all people now, on this side of death.
I could no longer keep my Christian faith, my political activism, and my anti-racism passion separate and flourish myself.
While still in the midst of finding and building that community locally, Freedom Road announced its third Ruby Woo Pilgrimage, promising “a sacred journey through the intersectional story of the struggle of women for equal rights in the U.S.”
I signed up, and in November 2019, I joined a group of 22 women in Syracuse, New York. We traveled through the state, all the way to Atlantic City, New Jersey, before ending in Washington, D.C. Along the way we examined ways solidarity held together or fell apart; we constantly asked and answered the question, “What does it mean to be an ally?” We read about how white women used anti-immigrant language in order to advance their own claim to the vote. We learned about Mabel Ping-Yua Lee, who as a Chinese immigrant fought for women’s suffrage, even though the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented her from benefitting from it until 1952.
Walking those places, standing where people protested outside the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and seeing where Fannie Lou Hamer gave her moving speech arguing for the morality of the Mississippi Freedom Party …well, it was empowering, profound, and motivating.
But the trip was made even more precious by the indescribable tenderness of having powerful women of faith hold my story, whilst giving me the unfathomable honor of holding their story too.
And while the end of my second holy pilgrimage in no way signals the end of my journey, when it came time to go to the Hill and advocate for women’s rights, it felt easy. I met with my Members of Congress staff alone, but I joined my voice with others, lifting up specific bills that benefit refugees, immigrants, Indigenous women and many others. I was not there looking out merely for my own interests.
Because some things I know without question — I want to be free, for “my liberation is most definitely bound up with yours.”