Sankofa Reflection 2017: Pastor Andrew Gross, Bethel Twin Cities
Undone and Put Back Together
I was undone and put back together by this Sankofa Pilgrimage.
I was undone and put back together by this Sankofa Pilgrimage. I wish I could summarize it in a more descriptive way, but “undone” and “put back together” seem like the most accurate way to talk about it.
I knew beforehand that it would be more like a sacred pilgrimage than a tourist adventure so I tried to prepare my heart that way. Sankofa is a uniquely American pilgrimage because, even though racism can be found on every continent and in every human heart, it has played itself out so specifically in the US as a Caucasian/African American conflict.
My main desire going into it was that I might find some hope for the Caucasian/African American tensions in my own congregation and in St. Paul. My congregation where I pastor has been attempting these last 20 years to be a multi-ethnic community. But despite all our progress, I think the “Black-White” divide remains our most formidable and daunting obstacle. How could I find this hope when it seems as though ethnic and racial tensions have amped up in the last year? How could I lead a congregation to model ethnic and racial harmony in such an atmosphere?
I tried to approach this experience by humbly opening my hands and inviting God to help me learn and absorb whatever it was He desired for me. The experience felt like one of those God-ordained set-ups from the moment I had heard about it. So I was immediately eager to join right when I learned of it. But how would I hold on to what God was doing in me? On the first day, one of the pastors, Pastor Carmen of The Movement Church in North Minneapolis, told us that her assignment from God was simply to “steward” this experience. I decided to borrow that language and “steward” what God was doing. I could at least do that with God’s help. I discovered that for me, stewarding Sankofa involves, at least in this early phase of reflecting upon it, a willingness to be “undone” and “put back together.”
How does that knowledge not burn a hole into one’s sense of his own humanity? God help us.
I was undone when we stood in the former slave market in downtown Montgomery, Alabama because my African American partner was struck with the realization that some of his very ancestors were likely bought and sold on this very spot. How does that knowledge not burn a hole into one’s sense of his own humanity? God help us.
I was undone when we visited the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and learned that many laws and systems still exist in that state to exclude African Americans from full public participation. Partly because of this, many laws in the state’s penal code unfairly disadvantage children of color. I was undone as I imagined the possibility of my own young children being unfairly disadvantaged while still so young. God grant us grace for our most vulnerable.
I was undone when we visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr’s church from 1954-1960. There we sang “This Little Light of Mine” with the tour guide. Previously I had thought of this song as a song for little children. But the tour guide told us that they sang it at every one of the meetings when they were preparing for the bus boycott that had been launched by Rosa Parks. It was a soldier’s song to call people to brave, non-violent protest, not a song to light-heartedly entertain little children.
I was undone as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I imagined the first attempt on March 7, 1965, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by a young John Lewis, to cross this bridge to begin their big march to Montgomery. Then it was met with a brutal police response and the day was nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.” I imagined the blood of these demonstrators staining my own soul. God save us from how we deny one another’s humanity.
I was undone in Jackson, Mississippi when we toured the former home of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers and learned of his willingness to sacrifice himself for justice. God help me to respond to stand as tall as he did for what is right, though like him it cost me everything.
I was undone at the Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel of Memphis, Tennessee where Martin Luther King was shot. God help me find the courage for similar bold leadership.
God grant me the grace not to be blind to the humanity of others like slaveholders were blind to their slaves’ humanity.
I was undone in the Jacob Burke House in Memphis, Tennessee when I saw the smallness of the crawl space where escaping slaves hid themselves on their trip to Canada. God grant me the grace not to be blind to the humanity of others like slaveholders were blind to their slaves’ humanity.
I was undone at the 16th Street Baptist Church, site where a bomb set under the church’s back steps by white supremacists exploded and murdered four young girls. While in Birmingham I reflected on the vehemence with which the Whites of that town refused to desegregate. How is it possible to cling so tenaciously to something so obviously unjust? How can a person live with himself knowing that he is clinging to darkness? But God help me to see where I cling so tenaciously to things as similarly unjust.
Put Back Together
How can I, a middle-aged white man, defend my own lack of participation in racial justice and racial reconciliation when mere children are more willing to sacrifice themselves than me?
I was put back together while watching video after video from the 1950s and 60s in which it dawned on me that this movement was led by young adults, teenagers and children. They weren’t only the foot soldiers – they were the leaders of the movement and its most self-sacrificing members. How can I, a middle-aged white man, defend my own lack of participation in racial justice and racial reconciliation when mere children are more willing to sacrifice themselves than me?
I was put back together when I realized how well-organized the whole movement was. Its members were so well trained and its leaders were so careful and their plans so well thought through. What an example for us today.
I was put back together as it dawned on me that the whole Civil Rights movement was really the result of what we evangelicals would call an honest-to-goodness spiritual “revival.” Where else could people gain the courage to face such darkness? Where else could people gain the self-discipline it took to organize so well and to hold fast to their pledge of non-violence? Where else could people gain the ability to endure and persevere against a system that showed no signs of going away on its own?
My dignity as a White person is reduced when the dignity of African Americans is reduced, because in such a situation I cannot claim that God’s glory is being well reflected on His image in us.
I was put back together when we met with Civil Rights legend John Perkins, who at 86 years old is overflowing with the love of God and the sense of his own need for God’s grace. God grant me similar favor as I age, and may my life similarly count for something for God’s kingdom.
I was put back together when I heard one of my fellow participants, Bishop Richard Howell, say that his sense of his own human dignity was restored by this trip. I realized in that moment that as a White person, my human dignity was elevated whenever the dignity of an African American brother or sister was elevated. My dignity as a White person is reduced when the dignity of African Americans is reduced, because in such a situation I cannot claim that God’s glory is being well reflected on His image in us. But the more my brother’s dignity is elevated, the more mine is as well, because then God’s glory may more perfectly reflect off us together.
I want to say thank you to everyone who came on this trip, for your brave authenticity. I want to say a special thank you to my African American brothers and sisters, for whom this trip was especially vulnerable. Some of you took the risk of essentially ‘bleeding’ your soul in front of us — not knowing whether or not some of us were safe people. That courage humbled and inspired me. I am forever changed.
Andrew Gross is an Associate Pastor at Bethel Twin Cities, St. Paul. Andrew earned a Masters of Divinity at Bethel Seminary in 2012. He served as the church’s Director of Discipleship since fall of 2014, receiving full ordination as Pastor of Discipleship in January of 2016. Andrew’s other job is as a free-lance editor and writer.