Each year, our EFCA District Superintendents come together for encouragement, fellowship, discussion, and prayer. These gatherings usually take place at the EFCA National Office here in Minnesota or Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. This year, instead of continuing our normal pattern, EFCA Southeast Superintendent Glen Schrieber invited us to join him in Montgomery, Alabama for an unforgettable gathering that had a profound impact on each of us. Accompanied by leaders from EFCA National and two African American EFCA pastors, we went to Montgomery to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. At these two places, and during our group discussions, we wrestled with what we saw concerning our country’s heartbreaking, ugly history of slavery and injustice, a story that goes back hundreds of years and still impacts us today in ways we often fail to recognize, admit, and address.
Preparing Our Hearts
Before visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we gathered for prayer and initial sharing. I admit I felt a bit uneasy. I wasn’t sure what we would see, and I was less sure how it would impact me personally. As someone who grew up in the Southwest, slavery and its ongoing impact always felt important but distant to me. The racial tensions we experienced in Arizona and California were related to the Latino and Asian American communities. While issues of race and ethnicity are always challenging, the tensions that our majority culture faces with these two groups seem different than the tensions between the black community and our white majority culture. So when I came to Minnesota, I knew that I would have a steep learning curve when it came to issues of race and ethnicity.
During this first meeting, Steven Weathers (EFCA Director of Multicultural Ministry), Michael Martin (Senior Pastor, Stillmeadow Community Fellowship), Alex Mandes (EFCA Executive Director of All People Ministry), and Mark DeMire (Senior Pastor, The Community of Grace) helped us prepare our hearts for what we would see later that day. I am so grateful that these leaders joined us in Montgomery.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to provide a glimpse into what we saw during this important, difficult, and redemptive shared experience.
The Legacy Museum
The Legacy Museum is located in downtown Montgomery, just a few blocks away from the historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor. It is located on the site of a former warehouse where black people were enslaved. As we walked in, we were asked, out of respect for the museum and the story it shares, to refrain from using our phones or taking pictures (the Legacy Museum pictures in this post came from their website).
Inside, we saw the terrible, brutal history of slavery on full display. On one wall, we learned about the rapid expansion of slavery in America (for example, between 1808 and 1860, the slave population of Alabama alone grew from less than 40,000 to more than 435,000). In another place, there was a timeline that marked terrible events from the 17th century right up to today. The museum was filled with quotes, images, and objects that painted a vivid, brutal picture of our history.
There are two specific moments that still linger in my mind. First, I can’t forget staring at a wall of jars filled with soil collected from lynching sites across our nation. Second, I remember standing with pastor Michael Martin, looking together at a wall covered in real newspaper advertisements for slave auctions. To see people being advertised with marketing terms like valuable, choice, healthy, and quality caused my stomach to turn and heart to ache. Truth be told, I saw more than I wanted to see that day, and I continue to wrestle with how to respond.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
To help prepare us for our time the memorial, Pastor Mark DeMire encouraged us to think of the Legacy Museum as “the sermon” and to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice as “the illustration”. It is a large, outdoor memorial which shows our country’s brutal, violent history of lynching.
As we walked through the memorial, we saw rectangular steel monuments, about the size and shape of a coffin, which represented the lynching that happened in counties across the United States.
We also saw what felt like hundreds of memorial signs on the walls which bore witness to these brutal murders. One of these read, “Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie, and Elmer Jackson were lynched by a mob of 10,000 people in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920.” It reminded me that northern states like Minnesota were not innocent of this practice.
Reflecting on Our Time Together
As I think back on our time together in Montgomery, many thoughts fill my mind. First, I am thankful for the opportunity to see “ground truth” on our national history of slavery and its ongoing impact in our society. Often, conversations today related to race and ethnicity are filled with political agendas, in-group bias and personal attacks. They are usually more heat than light and can leave us feeling paralyzed and discouraged. This trip was different, leaving a lasting mark on my heart and giving me hope that our EFCA family of churches can move forward together, especially in our all people efforts.
I am also profoundly grateful that I was able to experience this with other EFCA leaders, especially Steven, Alex, Michael, and Mark. We had genuine conversations. We shared our thoughts candidly and openly, with an abiding awareness that we are brothers in Christ on the level ground at the foot of the cross. During our time there, I sensed a renewed resolve among our District Superintendents to engage and move forward in the important area of race and ethnicity. I share this commitment and am grateful for it.
I left Montgomery with a strong desire to return, and to bring other leaders from the NCD with me. In light of this, our district is planning a similar trip on February 18-20, 2020. If you would like to join us, please send me an email at email@example.com. Likewise, our EFCA National Office is hosting an All People Round Table on September 12th (rescheduled from May 8th), where we will be encouraged on how to move forward in this area. You can find more information about this event here.
Finally, I am more motivated than ever to take tangible, meaningful steps forward in our ministry to all people. My hope, prayer and expectation is that the North Central District will continue to make gospel-shaped progress in our all people efforts, so that even on this side of eternity, we would see people from every nation, tribe, people, and language come to trust, walk with, and serve Jesus Christ within our family of churches.