Definition of a pilgrimage (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary)
- a journey of a pilgrim especially: one to a shrine or a sacred place
- the course of life on earth
Yesterday, I went on my first official pilgrimage with my interim rector Father Tom Momberg and six other parishioners from The Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Montgomery, Alabama. We went to the Legacy Museum together, and later, on my own, I went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The morning started in the chapel where Father Momberg handed out a leaflet aptly named In Search of a Church that Heals. Last week, was the celebration of the Feast of St. Luke. The feast day was on October 18th, but feast days are transferable to other days. St. Luke was a physician and a great healer.
Father Momberg did a short service, and delivered the gospel Luke 4:14-21 (from The Message). Here is an excerpt:
“God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!'”
What more powerful words to prepare for our journey.
We caravanned to the museum. The Legacy Museum located on 115 Coosa Street, about 6 minutes away from our church. We did not walk as pilgrims usually do. Coosa Street is in the heart of old downtown Montgomery. The Legacy Museum exist in the location of a warehouse that once housed slaves before they were to be sold at what is now Court Square).
There are no photographs allowed in the Legacy Museum, which is why all my photographs are from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. When you enter the museum, you immediately go to the left. There you learn about the slave trade and how Montgomery became the hub going from 40,000 slaves to over 450,000 slaves in only a matter of years.
You listen to the stories of the slaves, read their narratives on the wall, and you learn that the stories you learned in 6th grade or 7th grade about benevolent, kind, compassionate plantation owners were false narrative, a way to help guilty white people come to terms to their past, perhaps, or to keep perpetuating racism. After you read these stories, you go down a long black hallway and turn to your right. There are holograms in cages. They, too, tell you their story. Children separated from their parents, people beaten, anguish, pain.
As you enter the main room, you read a timeline with pictures. The timeline shows you how the United States went from slavery, to Jim Crow, to Mass Incarceration of black people while continuing to perpetuate the myth that black (wo)men were intelligently inferior to white people and that black people are dangerous.
There is a block with Supreme Court cases showing the cases in which racist policies were either struck down or held up by our Supreme Court from the 1800s until 2013.
Did you know that integration has yet to have been ratified in Alabama?
There is a section on mass incarceration where you hear Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who was falsely accused of murder and put on death row for 30 years, tell his story. You listen to him over the phone as if you are visiting him in jail. Thirty years taken away from this man, because of our flawed justice system. Let that sink in.
Yesterday, as I walked through this museum on my pilgrimage, surrounded by other pilgrims and tourists, I felt so alone. I read and absorbed with new eyes. I had been to the museum in the summer with my sister, but this experience was different. I thought about the Gospel according to Luke and the phrase, “set your burdened and battered free.” I thought about how my family was complicit in these acts. I felt guilt from my ancestors and pain and anguish, and like I’m not doing enough to help change the way things are and the way things SHOULD be.
By the time I made it over to the jars I felt raw and weary. The jars contain soil from the sites of lynching victims. They are labeled with their names or read Unknown. I stood reading, on a scrolling screen, about the people who had been lynched for “sins” such as talking to a white woman or looking at a white person the wrong way. There’s the story of Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, who was lynched for protesting her husband, Hayes Turner’s, lynching. She was eight months pregnant, and her unborn child was also brutally murdered. Then the lynchers went on a killing rampage murdering 11 people in a brutal mob. As I watched the names scroll, two African American women stood at another screen, pushing a button that says WARNING: Graphic Content, this screen will blur in 10 seconds. The screen shows pictures of the lynchings, people being burned alive, hung from trees, mutilated as they died, with hundreds or thousands of white onlookers. Postcards of the lynchings printed and sold afterwards. And you wonder how someone could be so cruel?
I completely broke down. I walked to the bathroom sobbing, crying for our past, and trying to reconcile how to fix it or how to move forward. On the way a woman stopped me, touched my shoulder, and said, “It’s going to be alright. Things will get better.” Hope.
After I broke down, I went back into the museum and watched the movies about incarceration, about the need for prison reform, about the slave trade, and about the lynchings. I thought about the questions on the back of the leaflet Father Tom Momberg gave us and the one that read:
Have you received a message of Good News?
I felt confused by this question, but then realized that The Legacy Museum is bringing us together. It’s a step in the right direction. With awareness, change can occur. As the stranger in the bathroom said to me, “things will get better,” but I’d like to add the words: if we make them better. If we fight for change, we can begin the long arduous process of healing the wounds, of claiming our racist past and making amends for it. We can tell people we are sorry for what our ancestors did to them, and we can start making the necessary changes in the prisons, in the schools, in the churches, and in society to help our brothers and sisters. We are all brothers and sisters, and we should treat each other as such.
I didn’t expect to have such a visceral reaction yesterday, but sometimes I think when we are experiencing a moment like that we need to embrace the feeling. At that moment, I felt so overwhelmed by the past, but afterwards I felt relief and a sense of peace.
When I arrived at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice after lunch and communion, I felt calm spread over me. I touched the names etched into the columns. I spoke to a man who had traveled from Georgia, and I told him I was sorry for what my ancestors had done, and he said, “We all have a place here.” Wisdom. Forgiveness. Grace.
The second meaning of pilgrimage is “the course of life on earth.” What will you do with yours?
In the words of Toni Morrison, “Love your heart,” and use that heart to make change.
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