Journey to Harmony: Rev. Dr. Charles L. Gill, Pilgrim Baptist Church

A Journey to Harmony: Sankofa Reflection

Last month, I had the opportunity and distinct privilege to go on a Sankofa trip with about 30 clergy persons from the Twin Cities that were predominately African-American and Caucasian.  When one speaks of Sankofa, the speak of the West African concept of one going back in time to their roots so that they can better understand their today and move forward into a brighter tomorrow.  This trip took us to several historical sites and Civil Rights Museums in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

What stuck with me having made this trip

This trip was more than an elementary school field trip, and more complex than a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, both trips would provide one with a great deal of information, insight and understanding, this trip was indeed more complex.  I found this trip to be extremely informative as I walked through the various museums and historical sites.  However, I also found this trip to be unlike any other, in that it violated the sanctity of my safe space.  [pullquote style=”left” quote=”dark”] deeply stuffing your emotions in the dark corners of the locked storage room of your soul for which there is no key.[/pullquote] That space that you create to put distance between you and horrific memories or life events.  That space that allows you to remain distant from the painful realities of life; that space that allows you to compartmentalize select memories in the academic halls of your mind while deeply stuffing your emotions in the dark corners of the locked storage room of your soul for which there is no key.  Yet as time progressed on the trip, I found many of those emotions that I thought I securely put away, now began to leak out from under the locked door of my soul.

As an African-American who grew up in a Christian home in New York City, I watched the news, read Ebony Magazine, I remember my parents explaining some of the current events to me as a child, however on this trip I realized they could only explain so much.  How could they explain the murder of Medgar Evers in the driveway of his home?  How could they when I eagerly awaited by the door of my home, that supposed safe place, waiting for my father as he came home from work?  Then to see the dent in the refrigerator, and the hole in the kitchen wall where the bullet traveled through Evers back and exited his chest leaving him face down at the front door of his home with his wife and children inside.  [pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]No child, no family should have to go through this, but they did, why because of racial hatred.[/pullquote] Children, just like me, who were waiting for their father to come home, waiting for the front door to open, only to hear the sounds of the family car pull into the driveway, the car door close, followed by the deafening sound of a high powered rifle then silence.  No child, no family should have to go through this, but they did, why because of racial hatred.

To visit 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park and recall that Christ and the church were the seat of strength for the Civil Rights Movement.  However, on this trip I also saw how many denominations and churches refused to support the African-American in these times, though they would often preach and teach the Parable of the Good Samaritan, how the Christian is to love everyone, and the moral obligation to do what Jesus would do.  Many of these people were notably absent, and non-supportive.  However, this peaceful movement sought the betterment of a people, and there were many that fought and fought violently against it.  Such violence of American History was vividly captured by the many monuments throughout the park.  Monuments of the Kneeling Ministers in Prayer, the attacking police dogs, high powered water hoses, and bombings against African-Americans and people of good will who willingly suffered to expose the evil hatred of systemic racism and white privilege in this country.

However, what really shook me was our early morning walk down Market Street in Montgomery, Alabama.  Walking down to the Riverfront, through the tunnel to the “Great Fountain”, the same path the incoming slaves traveled on their way to the auction.  We saw, the many warehouses where the unsold slaves were stored until they sold.  This was the market of Montgomery, the capital of slave sales in America. Then we visited the Equal Justice Initiative office in Montgomery, once again I felt the violation of the sacredness of my safe place when I saw a complete wall covered with large jars of dirt with names, dates, and places on them.  [pullquote style=”left” quote=”dark”]…the residue of pain, humiliation, and shame of what my forebears experienced.[/pullquote] When I asked, what is the significance of these jars?  The reply was that each jar contains the date, and the dirt from the location where the person named on that jar was lynched.  My eyes wide open in sheer unbelief I found myself gawking at an entire wall covered, full of jars, from ceiling to floor, from wall to wall.  These images, I did not leave them behind, they stuck with me.  I also found that the residue of pain, humiliation, and shame of what my forebears experienced that too came home with me, and this residue is a residue that I cannot wash off.

What am I doing now as a result of this trip

Therefore, having this exposure, I had to find a way to process it, therefore, I preached through it, I taught it, sharing with my congregation not just the information but the emotional turmoil and struggle I experienced during the trip.  The things I learned on this trip are not in school text books, it is not taught in American History, nor African-American History, at all.  I began to process these emotions through the lenses of my faith in Christ, which made clear that: a) the Lord is faithful b) that the Lord has saving power but the Lord also has c) keeping power.  The exposure I had on this trip has reconnected my heart with my mind.  [pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]I preached through it, I taught it, sharing with my congregation… the emotional turmoil and struggle I experienced.[/pullquote] History, faith, and current events are not mere moments in time that I can store as books on a shelf never to be touched, fondled or read, only looked upon from afar.  This trip has allowed me to feel, empathize with others, and preach with a new sense of passion, purpose, and commitment.  Because of this trip, I find myself better able to minister to those with deep-seated pain, forgotten memories and those who experience events not personally but real events that have been encoded on their DNA.

The brilliance of this trip was not in the making of arrangements, though they were excellent, but in pairing up the clergy with one another.  I do not know what formula they used to determine which clergy person would be a good match with whom, but in my case, it could not have been better.  My partner, was great, his personal background and life story was vastly different from mine.  [pullquote style=”left” quote=”dark”]I find myself better able to minister to those with deep-seated pain…[/pullquote] Yet, though different, he was extremely respectful, honest with himself and me.  Therefore, our conversations were prickly at times but we gave the other license to ask honest questions, because we realized that if we do not want the horror, violence, and torture brought on by the systemic evil of white supremacy, racism, slavery, jim crow etc. that we saw exhibited during this trip, then we must do something; we must live out our faith.  We cannot keep silent.

My desires for next steps as a result of this trip

In light of the current political climate with the numerous attacks on African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, this is a trip that cannot wait.  This trip is not a luxury but a necessity if we as a nation are not to self-destruct.  I believe more adults as well as High School Students need to go on a trip like this.  It is my intention to see to it that a delegation of my young people take a Sankofa trip.  [pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]…the ugliness, and savagery of human behavior, when it goes unchecked by love and compassion.[/pullquote] This kind a trip will expose all ethnic groups to the ugliness, and savagery of human behavior, when it goes unchecked by love and compassion.  Those that make this pilgrimage will see video clips, news articles, artifacts, etc. the depravity of the human condition.  In addition, those taking this trip, with the use of guided questions will be able to deal with their own demons and fears but also engaging in healthy and respectful conversations with people of different ethnic groups, thereby becoming agents of peace and harmony.


Rev. Dr. Charles L. Gill, D.Min. is the Senior Pastor at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, MN