Montgomery has become a national pilgrimage site. In the past two years, since the opening of the Peace and Justice Memorial to victims of lynching and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum, hundreds of thousands of people have visited here for the purpose of making a Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Numerous groups have also visited St. John’s, some actually sleeping here at night, others using our spaces to pause and reflect on their experiences, others worshiping with us on Sunday mornings. In that regard St. John’s itself has become a pilgrimage site, a place that visitors will always associate with their Civil Rights Pilgrimage.
Since April, for instance, 10 different groups have visited with us at St. John’s while on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Groups from Episcopal churches, schools, and seminaries in Atlanta, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, Connecticut, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia have been with us. Hospitality to visiting groups is increasingly becoming part of our identity as a parish. In October, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church along with the Presiding Bishop will be here. Next Summer the United Black Episcopalians will have their annual conference here and will bring 400 delegates to meet and have Eucharist in our nave and sanctuary.
Each of our visitors is doing that hard work of understanding how the institution of slavery has not actually ended but evolved and how racial oppression continues to pervade our institutions. These visiting pilgrims are studying history so that they may learn from our common mistakes as a nation and return home renewed in their commitment to treat all people with compassion and respect. To have a holy space like St. John’s to gather to pray and converse with each other has been important to each of our visitors as our dozens of thank you notes indicate.
Last week our clergy and program staff made that same pilgrimage as a group. We visited the Museum, then the Memorial, then came back to the church to discuss with each other the effect the sites are having on our spiritual journeys. This is not easy work, as the sites remind us of horrendous and indefensible acts of oppression. None of us is proud of the harmful actions of the people who came before us and none of us wants oppression to be part of the world today. The pilgrimage is humbling and sobering. As such, the pilgrimage makes us ready for God’s saving grace. We are called to new action and the opportunity our baptismal vows outline for us is made real.
Each of our visitors is interested in the history of St. John’s and how we continue to grow in our mission to worship God and make disciples for Jesus Christ. They are appreciative of what we represent as a parish which has existed during slavery, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and now the Civil Rights era. They are encouraged by the prayerful approach we have taken with our ties to the old south and our efforts to become a beacon of hope for all of God’s people. The national spotlight is shining on Montgomery and St. John’s like never before. Our parish does not exist just for ourselves.
A pilgrimage is more than a tour, it is more than seeing how things once were, it is more than taking in what people used to do long ago. A pilgrimage is a prayerful and intentional way of putting ourselves back in history and then relocating ourselves to the present in such a way that we carry hope and encouragement into our daily walk. A pilgrimage is designed to transform us, change us, help us examine how we can become instruments of God’s grace in our lives. A pilgrimage isn’t looking at other people’s lives only; it is coming to examine my own life. A pilgrimage is entering the past so as to move into the future.
That sounds a lot like worship doesn’t it? We come to the Eucharist, not just to remember how the followers of Jesus used to do things, but to gain solace and hope for our own lives. We come to worship to examine our own hearts, receive forgiveness, and return to our worlds inspired to do things with a new perspective. Occasionally we will find ourselves in worship thinking more about how other people need to change than we do ourselves. Sometimes we justify our own actions by convincing ourselves that we are at least better than some others we know. Amazingly, though, such thoughts percolate within us in a purifying way and lead us to focus on our own need for forgiveness. There we are renewed and made more like Christ.
Consider making a Civil Rights Pilgrimage yourself. Consider the Eucharist as your regular pilgrimage of renewal. The crucified and risen Christ awaits you and will lead you into new life.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.