Faith & Politics: The Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage
Editor’s note: The Rev. Peter Storey, Williams professor of the practice of Christian ministry and a national leader in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, participated in the March 4-6, 2005, Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led by Rev. Doug Tanner D’72.
Forty years after the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, U.S. Senators and Representatives, Democrat and Republican, held hands and bowed heads as civil rights veteran the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led us in a soulful prayer.
We were gathered around a circular marble memorial in Montgomery to 40 slain civil rights activists. Cleansing water flowed across the surface inscribed with the martyrs’s names. Some in the group reached out to touch the water and trace a name with their fingers.
This was the second day of the 2005 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. There were 170 pilgrims on this three-day trip, including 33 members of Congress, many spouses and staffers, and a small group of South African freedom struggle veterans.
The day before had been spent in Birmingham, where four children were killed in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Now, after paying our respects at the Rosa Parks Museum and sharing in worship at Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we were here to pray.
Each year, Rev. Doug Tanner D’ 72, director of the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington D.C., offers members of Congress an invitation to a three-day pilgrimage to these sacred sites. Tanner’s ministry on the Hill is deeply respected, and he manages this group of powerful people with quiet authority.
Many of this nation’s leaders cannot remember when ordinary African-Americans sat or marched, or bled— or died—for the right to be treated with dignity. Tanner believes that an important part of their formation as leaders is to engage with this story at the places where it happened.
Most members of Congress, familiar with more sanitized and secularised versions of the civil rights struggle, are surprised that so much time is spent in churches listening to preachers. They are forcefully reminded that the movement found its life and breath in the indomitable faith of black American Christians. Many are taken aback by the unequivocal commitment to non-violence among the old veterans of that struggle.
In Selma, on the final day of the pilgrimage, we worshipped in the packed historic Brown Chapel AME, and then joined thousands outside and marched toward Selma’s notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the march leaders paused at the center of the bridge to pray, a hush fell across the crowd.
In 1965, those same leaders and their followers were met and beaten by Alabama State Troopers. This time, an honor guard of State Troopers stood respectfully as we passed through to the other side. It was a moment of awe and gratitude for the witness of those brave marchers, and for the power of God to overcome entrenched wrong.
Enroute back to Washington, D.C., there was much quiet conversation. People of faith, from Capitol Hill and far away Africa, spoke together of the role of God in people’s lives, and pondered how, while faith in God motivated amazing acts of courage, non-violence and self-sacrifice, the name of God was also exploited by those who sent the troopers with their dogs and clubs to attack the marchers. Journalist Bill Press, sitting next to me, said, “I guess the real question is ‘Whose god is really God?’”
A Global Memorial for Pope John Paul II
The night before John Paul II’s memorial service in St. Peter’s Square, I walked through masses of people preparing to “camp out” for the night. People had brought sleeping bags, blankets, cardboard boxes, bed rolls, almost anything they could find which would keep them warm through the night on cobblestone streets or cement pavement near the square.
I walked by one group of youth huddled around a guitar player singing “laudate omnes gentes” (sing praises, all peoples). Just a few yards away three priests had set up a makeshift altar and gathered 20 or 30 communicants who were celebrating the Eucharist.
It was extremely difficult to make my way through the crowd without stepping on someone. Yet there was not an angry anxiousness one often finds in such crowds. At times there were outbursts of song, the sound of which seemed to envelope one as the narrow streets leading into St. Peter’s Square acted as a funnel for the sound. At other times, a haunting quietness came over the hordes of people.
I asked one teenager from a central Asian republic, “Why are you here?” She replied, “This man was so great, I just had to be here. You don’t ask ‘why?’You just show up. You have no choice. There are some things God expects of us.”
I had come to Rome during the week of April 3-8 to be a part of a musical presentation at a Vatican symposium in honor of Pope Pius XII. Excerpts from the sacred opera, I Am the Way, by Jerome Hines were to be presented at the symposium. After our arrival, however, we were informed that in honor of the late Pope John Paul II all public events had been cancelled until further notice.
Then a most unusual thing occurred. Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF, of the Religious Teachers Filippini and one of the primary sponsors of the symposium, was invited for an interview with the Telesalute TV network in Rome. After discussions with the director of the network, it was decided that the excerpts of I Am the Way would be filmed and broadcast on the Telesalute network at 9:30 a.m. on April 8, immediately prior to the 10 a.m. memorial mass at the Vatican. The program would be dedicated to the loving memory of Pope John Paul II. It was my privilege to sing “The Twenty- Third Psalm.”
When I heard the responsorial Twenty-Third Psalm during the memorial mass, I was overwhelmed by the honor and privilege of singing this powerful Psalm of strength and consolation as part of a program in honor of John Paul II.
The incredible outpouring of support for this man of God in St. Peter’s Square on April 8, 2005, underscores that one can make a difference for good, peace and unity in a world of violence, hatred and strife. There were not only representatives of the Roman Catholic Church from throughout the world, there were leading Muslim Imams, Jewish rabbis, Metropolitans and bishops of the Orthodox churches, officials and bishops of Protestant churches, and leaders of state from every inhabited continent.
Those present from innumerable countries and walks of life, and the overwhelming number of young people, made it clear that John Paul II’s appeal knew no boundaries of class, race or age. He was indeed a pope of all the people. It is not surprising that in the thousands gathered for the memorial of this great advocate of peace and unity that there were numerous signs declaring, “Santo subito!” (Saint now!).
S T Kimbrough Jr. D’62 of Princeton, N. J., is associate general secretary for mission evangelism with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. An international scholar, teacher, and musician, he has recorded Sacred Songs of J. S. Bach (VMS Records) and The Art of the American Song: Songs of the Wild West (VMS Records). His most recent books are We Offer them Christ (GBGM Books) and Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).