Two weeks ago I led a Civil Rights Vision Trip for College Park Church. Fifty ministry leaders from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities traveled together on a five-day journey–a pilgrimage of sorts.
Our vision trip included stops at important sites including 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; The National Center for Peace and Justice (“Lynching Museum”) in Montgomery, Alabama; Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; a memorial to Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi; and the Loraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We worshipped with the people of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Mississippi and visited with the President of Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Mississippi. We toured multiple museums, picked cotton on the side of the road, and visited with one of our church member’s family. The places we visited were inspiring and troubling, informative and thought-provoking.
The goals of the trip were to love one another, to learn from each other and from the history of the Civil Rights movement, to lament together, and to leverage the lessons from the trip to increase our church’s understanding of biblical unity in diversity.
The trip was transformative.
It has taken me two weeks to process the experience. And I’m still thinking through the implications of what I heard, saw, and learned. But, with some time to reflect, here are five lessons:
1. Relationships are foundational
The discussion about diversity at College Park would not have happened without the commitment of a multi-ethnic group that began meeting three years ago. They built deep friendships and welcomed others into their life-on-life conversations. That group grew into a monthly gathering on Sundays. It led to a Sunday Evening Forum on racial reconciliation and diversity. Relationships were the soil where conversations about biblical unity in diversity grew.
Additionally, new friendships were built through traveling, eating, talking, and laughing together. Over five days we were able to comfort one another, listen more deeply, and ask uncomfortable questions, all because of the deeper level of trust we built. Relationships created a starting point and a grace-filled context for love and understanding.
2. History has hidden layers
There were two emotions I wrestled with during the trip: shame and anger. I was embarrassed how little I knew about the history of the Civil Rights movement. The sites we visited and the museums we toured were a painful barrage of facts, names, and events that I had not previously understood or, in some cases, knew anything about. For example, I knew little about the connection between Jim Crow laws and lynchings, I had no idea about the mass migration of African-Americans in the late 19th Century. I did not fully comprehend the scope and depth of systemic injustice connected to racism.
That led me to a righteous anger, asking myself “Why did I not know about this?” I found myself frustrated with the new layers I kept learning. I wondered and feared how many more layers there were to learn.
3. Racial issues are deeply personal–even now
This should be obvious, but it took on new meaning during the trip. Our bus rides allowed time for our African-American brothers and sisters to share about their experiences.
A father wept as he recounted talking to his son about how to behave when pulled over. Another shared about his fears related to his son dating a white girl and how her extended family will receive him. A man shared about the experience of having a gun pointed at his head during a routine traffic stop. A woman told us about her deceased husband who was the second African-American student admitted to a southern university after a court ruling. The university “gave” him an entire dorm to himself. And when he attempted to join an on-campus Bible study, he was asked not to return. One man told me how he had traced his family lineage, learning that his great-great-great grandfather and grandmother were slaves. They were separated for years after one of them was sold to another plantation.
While visiting the museum at the Loraine Motel (where MLK was assassinated), a woman found a picture of a Civil Rights Rally in the 1960’s that included her mother and father. The personal connections and deep wounds related to race are not just historical. I watched painful emotions surface quickly in the hearts of people I love.
Their grief became my own.
4. Redemptive moments are grounded in the gospel
This trip allowed us to live out the reality of our spiritual union with Jesus, a redemption that triumphs over the deepest divisions and the darkest pains. Our common commitment to the gospel, the forgiveness we share in Christ, and our regular gathering as the church on Sunday served as the basis for what we experienced. In other words, the redemption of Jesus created redemptive moments as we walked together.
For example, one of our white brothers expressed deep sorrow for “going along” with the biased culture in which he was raised. His heart-felt confession was met with “We forgive you, brother!” and “I love you, brother,” from the African-American brothers and sisters on the trip.
As we visited the lynching museum, a harrowing display of the murder of over 4,000 African-Americans, I marveled at the hugs, the conversations, and the brothers and sisters walking together with arms around each other’s shoulders. Nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ could unite people together while facing the horrors of what we were seeing.
But there were also celebratory moments. We shared a BBQ meal together in Selma after welcoming one another through a human tunnel fit for a homecoming football game. We laughed until our faces hurt. We enjoyed each other’s company. We made new friends.
We tasted the unity and fellowship that will mark the New Heavens and the New Earth. We lived out spiritual oneness in Christ.
5. Lament builds a bridge
Our travels afforded an abundance of time together on the bus. Nearly every morning we studied a lament psalm. I used material from my upcoming book to share about lament, that language of a third of the Book of Psalms, and its progression: turning to God, bringing our complaints, asking boldly, and choosing to trust. After examining a lament psalm, we wrote our own lament prayers as we talked to God about our sorrow and welcomed each other into our journey.
This daily rhythm led to sacred moments of sharing about what we were learning. It allowed us to listen to the painful experience of our African-American brothers and sisters. It provided a language for white brothers and sisters to express empathy or remorse. Our bus rides were filled with tears, repentance, and new levels of understanding as lament built a bridge. The biblical prayer language of sorrow opened a door for grace-based reconciliation.
The ripple-effects of this trip continue to widen. I’ve heard about presentations in public schools and our people’s workplaces. Late night conversations with children and extended family members are yielding great fruit. People at College Park are asking if we’ll host the trip again. The answer is: yes.
The Civil Rights Vision Trip has helped us take some important strides toward greater unity in diversity. We still have a long way to go. But we see God at work in our church. Walls are being broken down. Relationships are being built. The gospel is creating a beautiful harmony.
There are many other lessons that I’m still processing. I suspect that will continue for some time. I pray it does.
But, in the meantime, I am thrilled to see our church body looking more and more like the bride of Christ.