Open Wide Our Hearts: Lessons in racism from a pilgrimage to Montgomery

By Sister Marion Weinzapfel, csj

Just why would a group composed of Denver’s Auxiliary Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez, a parish priest, a deacon and his wife, several religious women and their associates, and members of the Social Justice Ministry of a parish want to visit the Capital of the Confederacy in the heat of August?
The USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) in its pastoral, “Open Wide Our Hearts: a pastoral letter on racism” tells us:

“As Christians, we are called to listen and know the stories of our brothers and sisters. We must create opportunities to hear, with open hearts, the tragic stories that are deeply imprinted on the lives of our brothers and sisters, if we are to be moved with empathy to promote justice.”

We love our country and we knew we’d enjoy the southern food but, more seriously, we wanted to peel back the cover on the tragic stories the bishops asked us to hear and to prepare ourselves for truth.

And that we did. Everywhere we went — Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church, where four little girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing; the Kelly Ingram Park where marchers, including hundreds of children, grouped only to be fire-hosed and attacked by police dogs; and the city’s Civil Rights Institute paying homage to Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We saw the lovely plaque to outstanding activists like Georgia’s Representative, John Lewis, who was bloodied in the “Bloody Sunday” Selma March in 1965; and now, still serving in the U.S. House of Representatives 59 years later, still endures insults.

In Montgomery, the Southern Poverty Law Center guide recited the stories of the 40 persons killed in the line of moral duty for the civil rights Cause in the 1950’s and 60’s. He shared the well-known story of Emmet Till and many other heroes and heroines we had never heard of.

Later, we stood outside with our hands in the water tracing their names memorialized in granite by Maya Lin. Not long before, one in our group asked us to pray over our young guide who daily brings these stories of brutal killings to life with passion and conviction. At the Rosa Parks Museum, we heard that the enactment of Rosa Parks’ action that precipitated the Bus Boycott happened for more than the fact that she was just “tired.” Rather, as the leader of the NAACP in her community, she and Dr. King’s civil rights activists strategized, organized and committed to endure what became a 381-day ordeal that gave birth to the civil rights movement in this country.

The most stunning stop on our pilgrimage, the Legacy Museum, challenged us to connect the dots between slavery, racial terror-lynching, segregation/Jim Crow, and today’s mass incarceration that began with Nixon’s War on Drugs in the 1980s. The mantra we came away with, “Slavery did not end; it evolved,” will never leave us. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we listened to a lawyer affiliated with the Equal Justice Initiative tell stories of answering the pleas of innocents and over-sentenced persons on death row, many held in Alabama prisons. To date, Attorney Bryan Stevenson, the visionary force behind the Equal Justice Initiative, has initiated and successfully argued five cases at the U.S. Supreme Court level, winning reversal, release, or relief for 115 wrongly sentenced death row inmates. And, he has won the Supreme Court affirmation that it is now unconstitutional to deliver life-without-parole sentences to children 17 and under.

With the dots connected, we see the truth of the inequality and injustice that exists today. It disproportionately impacts persons of color. Now, we believe the statement: “Slavery did not end; it evolved.”

Visiting the forest of the hanging columns at the National Memorial, we read the names of 186 counties documenting 4,400 lynchings. It opened wide our hearts. We each wrote down a name and prayed aloud, “We remember you.”

Kamau Allen, one of the pilgrims, shared: “Most of my mother’s family were enslaved and later worked as sharecroppers in Caddo Parish, La. I grew up hearing stories about our history there and how many of my family members were abused, disappeared, or were lynched by mobs of white people. One ancestor in particular was named Charles Bell. We didn’t know what happened to him. Family legend says he suddenly went missing. He was my mother’s great uncle….on our pilgrimage, while standing under one of the hanging columns at the memorial, I saw his name: ‘Charles Bell lynched on Feb. 15, 1913.’ It was the same year he disappeared. I called my mother and she confirmed that it was him. As painful as it was to see my recent ancestor’s name on a memorial dedicated to the victims of lynchings, it answered a century-old question that existed in my family.”

Then, we celebrated — more good food — with Father Manuel Williams and the Church family at Resurrection Catholic Mission, where we stayed and sang and prayed. We heard from other civil rights activists who had known and worked with Rosa Parks. Father Williams’ own father had been a driver helping with some of the car pools during the Bus Boycott. The following morning, Bishop Rodriguez led Mass for the group before leaving Montgomery for home.

We set out on this pilgrimage with a purpose: to know more deeply the reality at the root of U.S. racial history. Now, transformed and grounded, we can better study and act to dismantle this evil.

So, the work of carrying this truth forward begins. What we have seen and heard compels us to tell the stories and to help our institutions. This falsehood of white supremacy can inadvertently determine our policies and actions. We must know what we do and correct this attack on human life. We re-open Genesis 1:26 and let God speak to us: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.” All of us are made in the image of God. Let us grow into that likeness.

Featured image: The National Memorial in Montgomery, Al., features 800 weathered steel columns hanging from a roof. Each column features the name of an American county and are etched with the names of people who were lynched there. (Photo by Soniakapadia | Wikipedia)


COMING UP: Colorado religious leaders gather for Faithful Tuesdays to advance eradication of racism and support just economy, equity 

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In an attempt to add a deeper moral dimension to the public policy making in Colorado, leaders from different religious institutions in the state, including the Auxiliary Bishop of Denver Jorge Rodriguez, gathered Feb. 5 at the Colorado State Capitol to commence the Faithful Tuesdays program, which will host different religious leaders throughout the 2019 legislative session of the Colorado General Assembly to address topics seeking the advancement of a collaborative process in support for a just economy, equity and the eradication of racism.

The event gathered the presence of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the Colorado Council of Churches, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, Together Colorado and leaders from different faiths.

Bishop Rodriguez, who spoke on the eradication of racism, called the topic “a very timely subject,” referring to the recent pastoral letter against racism released by the USCCB under the title Open Wide Our Hearts – The Enduring Call to Love; and said that this eradication was in part a duty of all religious leaders.

“Racism is a sin that divides the human family and violates human dignity.  As faith leaders we are called to be consistent voices calling for the eradication of racism in our communities,” Bishop Rodriguez said.  “We all have a duty to recognize that our various faith traditions call on us to break down the walls created by the evils of racism, whether that evil is displayed publicly for all to see or buried deep in the recesses of our hearts.  If we don’t heed this call, we are destined for history to continue to repeat itself.”

The USCCB pastoral letter states: “Racism arises when — either consciously or unconsciously — a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard. When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful. Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39).”

Bishop Rodriguez underlined that in order to respond appropriately to this problem, it is necessary to listen to those who have experienced it first hand, whose story would not only convince religious leaders of its reality, but also allow them to promote justice with empathy.

“We must create occasions to hear, with open hearts, the tragic stories that are deeply engraved on the lives of our brothers and sisters, if we are to be moved with empathy to promote justice,” he said. “Racism is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy – a transformation of the human heart – that compels us to act.  The power of this type of transformation will be a strong catalyst in eliminating those injustices that impinge on human dignity.”

Quoting the USCCB pastoral letter, Bishop Rodriguez called to mind the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights movement, which brought together Catholics, Protestants and Jews — and called on all people of faith to continue in the same tradition.

“It is my prayer that all people of good will join together to strive for the eradication of racism in all its forms,” he concluded. “For there is no place for racism in the hearts of any person; it is a perversion of the Lord’s will for men and women, all of who were made in God’s likeness and image.”

Jenny Kraska, Executive Director of the Colorado Catholic Conference (CCC), told the Denver Catholic that in the fight for the dignity of life from conception to natural death, the CCC also fights for the rights of those in life who “fall through the cracks.”

“It’s [about] promoting the dignity of every human person… A lot of the legislation that we’re focused on looks at the lives of immigrants in our community, the lives of those who are most in need, homeless people,” Kraska said. “I think sometimes people in those segments in society fall through the cracks, and it’s up to us as a faith community to show legislators that every human life has dignity.”

Rabbi Joseph Black from Temple Emanuel in Denver spoke on moral economy and emphasized the need for people of faith to speak up against such injustices in society.

“As people of faith we see the world from a prism of relationships… We believe that it is important to live in community and that our lives are intertwined. And as a result, we are responsible for one another,” he said. “To state that we are people of faith means that we are compelled and commanded to speak whenever we see injustice… that we cannot be silent when we see inequities in housing, employment, wages, healthcare, childcare and a myriad of other ills that plague our city, states and nation.”

Bishop Jerry Demmer, from the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, spoke about equity referring to the image of Lady Justice and the Book of Revelation.

“Lady Justice has often been depicted as wearing a blind fold. The blind fold represents impartiality, the idea that justice should be applied without regard to wealth, power or even status,” he said. “To have true equity we have to understand what the Bible teaches. And the Bible lets us know in Revelation 7:9, John said, ‘I saw a number that no man can number of all races, kindreds, tongues and nations of people.’ So, when we begin to understand equity, we understand that we have to come together and work together as one people, and then we understand what real equity is.”

The following Tuesday meetings will take place at the Colorado State Capital from noon to 1 p.m. and will address criminal justice, the death penalty and homelessness, respectively.

Featured image by Vladimir Mauricio-Perez