Sunday, April 14, 2024

ENACTING Beloved Community

This is a phrase that undergirds the work of C. Anthony Hunt (or here) as well as a curricular goal of one of United Seminary’s Immersion Experiences, required for completion of the Masters of Divinity degree. This year, several international students were not going to be able to leave the States and then return for completion of their degrees…visa issues. A strange convergence of Homeland Security stipulations and my administration of an Immersion program therefore led to this past week’s offering of a Beloved Community pilgrimage to Alabama, what Hunt calls “the fertile crescent” of human rights. He mentors a Doctor of Ministry cohort for United, and I serve as the group’s faculty consultant. It’s too soon to know fully the fruit of the journey, but so many pieces fit into a forming image of blessing, completion, hope. I am exhausted but grateful, wanting to catch at least a few of these images onto the “page.”

Twenty six pilgrims–about half DMin students, half Masters of Divinity students–arrived into Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday night to begin the journey. United blessed us with a bus able to get us to everywhere we needed to be that week–Selma, Montgomery, then other community-sites in B’ham itself. The concluding–and celebratory–day was in Atlanta. There, our Beloved Community family of pilgrims got to steep viscerally in the ancestral lineages of the Black social gospel in both the presence of inductees and their communities come to celebrate them. (Shout-out to Dr. G. Martin Young, now living in Atlanta after working with us at United for several years; gratitude you tracked me down in the aisle  to say hello!) That day ended with a visit to the MLK, Jr. Center there on Auburn Ave (“Sweet Auburn”). 

Each morning our day would begin with a time of devotions, led by one of the “discovery groups” or smaller group teams–named Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace. Each night, a time of debrief and reflection-questions would close our time together. The pilgrimage itself concluded with a closing “circle” and then holy communion, shared serving one another in song. Enacting Beloved Community, a community of scholarship and of shared spiritual practice. I already miss the call to attention, "Beloved! Family! [then some announcement or instruction...]." I startled to send a text to the strand of doctoral students with an "FYI, Family..." This shared web is more beautiful and Gift than I could really say.

The induction invitation altered the itinerary from the previous pilgrimage, October of 2022, but the group got still to meet local leaders and elders in the Civil Rights movement all week, as well as visit actual sites on the land–National Historical Parks/Sites with interpretive centers, historical markers interpreted by Hunt, even the Edmund Pettus Bridge so visually-significant in the attempted and then completed Marches to Montgomery back in 1965. Brown Chapel there in Selma had been under renovations in 2022, but was open this time. We got to meet Joyce Parrish O'Neal, a Selma “foot soldier,” which means someone who was actually there on Bloody Sunday in March of 1965. She told her story and led us in song there in the fellowship hall. 

In Birmingham, we visited the 16th St. Church before Bishop Harry L. Seawright, Executive Director Brandon Cleveland, author-scholar-professor Tyshawn Gardner blessed us with their welcome and Work, speaking with us at St. John AME Church in B’ham (blessed by Pastor Ronald Sterling). We visited the church of the Rev. Fred Shuttleworth and the Daniel Payne Legacy Village Foundation, experiencing the school that is thriving there as well as the grocery soon to bless shoppers in need of foodstuffs. Niki’s West has offered good southern fare as well as a back room for table-fellowship and continued engagement with speakers. That day concluded with a visit to the Birmingham Jail where King was held, where he pulled together scraps of argument that became the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century. 

Montgomery’s visit included The Legacy Museum with the Peace & Justice Monument, along with several of us visiting the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park for the first time–open only about two weeks!--because we got on “the wrong bus” by accident. Holy Accident, as several DMin students were able to track their ancestors’ probable locations in the database there, converging ancient census information with or surnames’ information. This is huge for those of African descent, whose ancestors were ripped from their homes and separated from families in the chattel-slavery history of the States. 

Atlanta welcomed us in good time into Morehouse College, the induction ceremony for the MLK, Jr. Collegium of Scholars and a formal address by renown scholar Gary Dorrien on the Black social gospel lineages, given he’s just completed a three-volume work published through Yale University Press. (See A Darkly Radiant Vision, volume 3). We spoke afterward of some poignancy, some tenderness, receiving such an august address from a white man in a roomful of Black social gospel lineages. I'm not sure but something in me was both afraid and healed in that: afraid for the alignment with unhealed whiteness in the room, healed to hear the congregation/audience responding with such heart and affirmation to Dorrien, touched it could happen.

The birth-home of Martin Luther King, Jr. was under renovation this time, but the historical Ebenezer Baptist Church offered the grounded and engaging retellings of history-narrative, given by park ranger, Doug Coyle. The MLK, Jr. Center offers exhibits with interpretive centers across several blocks of the neighborhood.

The itinerary is what pilgrims initially focus on as the curriculum of the trip. The sites are significant, pivotal, telling. The implicit curriculum, however, is the energy that drives the whole Immersion: enacting beloved community. Being in the liminal spaces between events or sites. Traveling with a wildly diverse group, some of whom don’t even consider this history to be connected to their own histories at all. Table fellowship. Devotions. Song. Weariness shared in walking, hours on the bus, listening to interpretive histories together.

One actually hears history differently if you are in a group as diverse as our own was this time. Our soul energies bump up against one another–easily and with difficulty–as each of us responds or reacts to the stories being told and heard.

Which means the trip for me as a co-leader is always exhausting. I grow inordinately sensitized to how we human beings behave amidst painful retellings, amidst histories we wish weren’t true, amidst histories we think are not about “us” but about “them.” Every human being does this, of course–pushing away painful stories, detaching from painful feelings too hard to feel or express in a group of unknown companions. But if I’m not consciously surrendering to the Spirit’s purposes for each pilgrim–which I will never know, of course, because it’s their walk with Godde*–I can take on responsibility and even sensations of guilt for things that are not mine to hold. When you travel with a group of adult-learners, you need to trust they are receiving what they are there to receive. i.e. You cannot as easily approach an international student and chastise him/her for detaching from the group by constantly being on their phone. Or perhaps I should have? I don't think so. The cultures represented this time had such honor/shame dynamics that it would have shamed, further dividing the group... I don't know. My learning here is that I will articulate a policy for pilgrims with phones, inviting conscious reflections for why are you on your phone when someone in our beloved community is speaking? Sometimes detachment is a necessary defense mechanism when someone’s emotional intelligence is so underdeveloped as to be unable to be present in horrific retellings of human history. Sometimes life-in-the-church-at-home pulls us away from the group. Either was hard to see, to forbear.

And in the end? Almost all the participants were able to build the bridges from their own cultural backgrounds to this difficult if resilient and inspiring human and Gospel story of individuals and communities of faith in the mid-twentieth century into today’s backlash/return of inhumane behaviors gaining foothold once again. Students made the connections of our story as human beings, image-bearers of Godde for one another, giving one another hope that the world can become a better place if/when we enact beloved community. The African proverb, of course: I am because we are.

It’s not easy, nor is it comfortable. People are people, bringing their own ancestral woundedness into the mix, seeking consciously or unconsciously to be healed in a community strong enough to hold the Center, able to witness the pain while it is felt…and then potentially released. For now. For this time. A student made connections to his own church community in which religious leaders are being assassinated by the military. Another woman awakened to her own arrogance in seeing these stories as unrelated to her own, now recognizing what happens to one of us happens to all of us. The Black social gospel tradition spoke and sang in many of our pilgrims, blessing all of us. I received inordinate blessing myself before wearily crawling into the car-ride home, finally letting myself receive a benedictory blessing from a sister in word and song, finally letting myself weep-in-public, which I rarely do in my professorial-self. 

So I come home to my own beloved family, eager to rest for some days by Lake Superior–She Who is the Biggest–while I dive into the sacred anthropology books of Gardner, the huge tomes of Dorrien, and an unexpected recommendation of a friend before I even left, The Garden Within by a Dr. Anita Phillips. May these days of immersion have served their holy purpose in Spirit's tether. May the sacred work of all we met, all with whom we traveled, continue to bless the world in action, enacting, Beloved Community.

*Godde (pronounced just like 'God' but including More) is my written expression that names a Force or Flow that never lets us go. Part way between God and Goddess (a term difficult for so many Christians to forbear), honoring of my own Pennsylvania-Dutch lineage within German-esque sensibilities (Gott), this word found me in some process-writing amidst my own conscious feminine awakening. Language matters and the church's language persistently neglects and abandons women's voices, experience. This term allows me my own integrity as a conscious feminine theologian while also honoring the faith community is not remotely for the F/feminine, is (un)consciously hostile to Her.

ENACTING Beloved Community

This is a phrase that undergirds the work of C. Anthony Hunt (or here ) as well as a curricular goal of one of United Seminary’s Immersion...