Day 8: Saturday, June 20 (by Cynthia Wells)

June 20th, 2015

Freedom Riders

Meeting with the Freedom Riders today was inspiring. The Freedom Ride was a Journey of Reconciliation coordinated by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) with the intention strategy to test President Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights. Kennedy had vocally supported civil rights during his campaign, but his support appeared to diminish post-election. The strategy was for an inter-racial group to board buses destined for the South, with whites sitting in the back and blacks in the front. At stops, whites should sit in blacks only areas and blacks in white’s only. The Riders were largely college students, with the moral courage to put themselves in harm’s way in order to advance the cause of justice for all.

The intent was to ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. They didn’t make it the New Orleans, and many endured vicious beatings and prolonged jailing. They did however achieve their central objective, forcing President Kennedy to take a stand on civil rights and also leading the Interstate Commerce Commission to rule against segregation in interstate bus travel, which was more specific than the original Supreme Court mandate of 1961. The Freedom Riders identified one piece of a larger puzzle of injustice, and they set out to address that piece regardless of the cost.

When I think of the Freedom Riders, I wonder where such inter-racial change efforts are today. Of the 100 original Freedom Riders, 51 were black and 49 were white. Their message of justice was amplified by joining together. I imagine that many whites, in particular, began to rethink how their connection and commitment to the civil rights movement as a result of the Freedom Riders.

The struggle for justice continues today. Charleston. Ferguson. Baltimore. All reminders that injustice is pervasive. All moments in time that all too briefly raise our moral consciousness. How might these moments of clarity become sparks for renewed conviction accompanied by the requisite long-term energy to make and sustain real change?

So much the Freedom Riders and the larger civil rights movement can teach us as we seek to engage the issues of the present. Inter-racial dialogue. Non-violent direct action. Long-term strategic organizing. What must we do today to fulfill King’s Christian vision of the beloved community? What must each of us do? May each of us discern and find ways to address our piece of the puzzle.

Day 6: Thursday, June 18 (by Kevin Villegas)

June 18th, 2015

This morning I awoke to a BBC breaking news alert on my phone that read “Nine killed in Charleston, S.C. church shooting.” My heart sank and I immediately recalled our group’s time just the evening before with Carolyn Maull McKinstry, survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and Lisa McNair, younger sister to Denise McNair, one of four children martyred in that same bombing.

I’ve spent the day trying to process both tragedies, individually and together. Most of what follows are a few scattered reflections of that processing.

It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that something like yesterday’s shootings still occurs more than 50 years after the Birmingham incident. In both events, a murderous act was methodically planned and carried out simply because of hate for other people based solely on the color of their skin. Yes, it’s more than likely that mental illness has a role to play, and that easy access to guns is an issue, but, clearly, the notion of race was the primary factor.

Indeed, this has been a remarkable year full of racially-charged events. To be on this civil rights bus tour during a time like this is astonishing. We are forgetting our history and thereby repeating it. A new movement is needed—a movement that is grounded in love and non-violent direct action. But to realize this fully, we must not fear. We must unite and work together to root out the very fear that exists in the minds of so many.

Whenever I’ve stared at the faces of certain white people captured in old photographs taken during the civil rights era (see the woman in the image below as example), I’ve found myself thinking: What are they afraid of?  After all, it’s fear that leads to hate. But we know that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). Love is the only thing capable of combating fear and hate and violence. Those things can’t comprehend love, forgiveness and peace.


We must unite around love. Dr. King knew this. Not only did he know it, he taught it and he lived it. In his last sermon, preached the night before his assassination, Dr. King said,

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon • April 3, 1968 • Memphis, Tenn.

All of us—no matter our skin tone, ethnicity, culture, nationality or religion—must come together and get out from underneath this oppressive slavery to violence. To do this, we must join hands and fight as one, coming powerfully against our violent oppressors in a spirit that is opposite of theirs. We must come united in love for one another.

In one museum on our trip I came across this Harriet Tubman quote: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

The masses of the world—you and I—need to realize that we are one people; that we, having bought too easily into a long narrative of violence, have been enslaved for far too long. We must stop listening to this oppressive voice of the past that has kept us shackled and disoriented and instead begin to listen deeply to each other.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon • April 3, 1968 • Memphis, Tenn.

Day 5: Wednesday, June 17 (by Jonathan Bert)

June 18th, 2015

At dinner the other night, I sat and wondered what might be different if Dr. King were alive today. We have certainly come a long way since the Montgomery bus boycott. However, inequality is still rampant in our society. I am sure that Dr. King would not have stopped. I am certain that he would still be fighting for equal rights for women and for the LGBT community, for immigrants and for religious minorities. What I am saying is that I do not believe that we have carried on his legacy well. Perhaps we have become distracted from the cause or perhaps a wave of complacency has washed over this country. Whatever the reason, there is work to be done. There is still a need for change.

Tonight we had the joy of meeting Carolyn McKinstry and hearing her discuss the value of reconciliation in our world. Mrs. McKinstry was in the 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb was set off in September of 1963, resulting in the death of four little girls, her friends. I would have loved to sit down with her for a couple of hours to discuss her thoughts on how reconciliation can happen in our country.

Something she said really struck me. When she was young, she often wondered about what was being preached in the white churches. Those who were responsible for killing African Americans and those who held up signs of hate, often did so in the name of Christianity. As a matter of fact, on a membership application for the KKK that I saw in a museum in Selma, being a Christian was one of the necessary qualifications to join. When Mrs. McKinstry went to earn her Master of Divinity and the students were taking turns explaining why they were there, her response was that she wanted to find out what they were reading. The message she heard in church was a gospel of love and she did not understand how it could be turned into such hatred. This story caused me to tear up. How many other little girls and boys grew up wondering the same thing? How did so many white people not get it? How do so many people today still not get it?

Although I have only read a couple of chapters of her book, I would like to share with you the last few paragraphs as I feel they are especially pertinent as we look to make changes in society.

As I ponder on the title of this book, While the World Watched, I see that the world has stood back passively and watched people hurt other people for many years. But now I believe it is time for us to stop watching. It is time for us, with God’s help, to take action. For some reason, God has chosen to use imperfect individuals like us to bring about his will and his Kingdom purposes on this fragile planet. I am convinced that through the intentional actions of caring, concerned individuals that we will see healing take place in this world.

Our society has taken down the signs on the public toilets and   water fountains, but the battle is not yet won. Governments and organizations haven’t been able to erase human suffering on earth. I have come to understand that hearts must be changed one person at a time in order to truly put racial prejudices and violence behind us. The better way—the only way—is the personal way. The only hope for true transformation is for concerned, compassionate individuals to stop watching and decide to become ambassadors of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. Only God can change hearts, but he can use us and our stories to reach out and touch those in need of healing.

As believers in Jesus Christ, our responsibility is to teach God’s love and forgiveness to a world where injustice and pain often rule. We must show the way of love—love for God and love for our neighbors. We as a people can no longer be silent. We must speak out in love and speak out against those things that hurt others.

For many years we have seen the effects of hate on our world.  Now it is time to prove what love will do. One day at a time, one individual at a time, and one act of kindness at a time—we can heal the world. We must stop watching and begin healing.

—Carolyn Maull McKinstry, While the World Watched (p.285–286)

May it be our mission to not stay silent. May it be our goal to speak out in love, overcome hate, and promote reconciliation.


Me and Carolyn Maull McKinstry

Day 4: Tuesday, June 16 (by Bill Strausbaugh)

June 17th, 2015

Reflections on the Civil Rights Journey (So Far)

What an unbelievable opportunity this is as an employee of Messiah College. It makes a tremendous statement about the values of the college to send employees each year to this event. How many times in a person’s life does one get the chance to take the time to learn about something as important as this period of history in the life of our nation? How many colleges make this type of investment? I feel the responsibility and I am also thankful for this investment in my life and work.

So far, one of the things I was immensely impressed by was the age of the leaders at the beginning of the movement. Martin King and Ralph Abernathy were 26 and 29. Their idealism, their education, and speaking ability served the movement well. They acted out of their faith commitment plain and simple. You could not separate their actions from their faith.

This movement was not just some unorganized spontaneous event. Strategy was studied, well planned, well trained, and well executed. Leaders of the movement knew that racist police chiefs, mayors, and governors would serve their cause well if they could engage them. These white racist leaders did not let them down.

On one hand it’s hard to imagine the level of hate and bigotry that was necessary to treat black people in the multitude of ways their dignity was stolen time and time again. Yet, from a spiritual standpoint, we know that sin that is nurtured leads to all manner of corruption, destruction, addiction, and selfishness. The hate and mistreatment was hugely institutionalized, and fear was the hammer that was able to keep the lid on this whole affair for such a long time. The active faith of those who led the movement is as good a demonstration of active Christian love as I know. Members were willing to die for those who would follow if that would make a difference. Their willingness to do something is as good a reflection of the love of Christ as I know.

The personalities we’ve met who were a part of the movement are amazing individuals. These persons were very nice, kind, well-spoken, active people with a zest for life itself. Mrs. Juanita Abernathy knows so much about how things evolved, knows how personalities played a part, and yet she focuses on the major accomplishments. Her husband in particular has been noted by more than a few authors as being a large part of this movement. He was MLK’s closest friend and confidant.  Rutha Harris may be the closest thing to angelic singing this side of glory.  What was special to me was that after we thought she was done singing, Todd persuaded her to sing the song “To God Be the Glory.”  We were there on the day after my 35th wedding anniversary and that song was sung at our wedding. What a special blessing that was for me!

It is great for me to get names, faces, places, etc. sorted out historically and chronologically in my mind. Look out now Jeopardy! if any questions come up about this. But don’t let this comment let you think I’ve not understood in a new way the depth of the seriousness and magnitude of these events for suffering people.

Last evening we heard from the Rev. and Mrs. Graetz who are a white Lutheran ministry couple whose house was bombed three times because they were part of the movement. While time has stolen most of the volume of their voices, the story of their lives thundered. They lived in the same neighborhood near Alabama State University that the Abernathy’s lived in. One of the bombs went off in the night and they had six kids in their house, one a nine-day old baby and another one-year old. It would be so easy to hate people who tried so blatantly to hurt your wife and kids. But their love comes from Christ’s own heart. This was another thing that was special about the movement in general. Those in the movement did consciously remind themselves and stated publicly that they did not return hate to those who did these things. But they did let it be known that they were sick and tired of being sick and tired of the treatment they received. The love of God … is greater far … than tongue or pen … can ever tell!  It goes beyond … the highest star … and reaches to … the lowest hell.

Today we walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge where Alabama State Police brutally clubbed, tear-gassed, and beat marchers, rode horses into them, back across the bridge as marchers tried to escape, and even road their horses into a church in Selma. This brutality lasted all night around Selma. Those responsible for the safety of residents were out of control. The Klan and white supremacists controlled law enforcement basically up to the governor’s office and even further. How George Wallace thought he could run for president after these times boggles my mind.

Well, there is much to tell, but it is easier for me to understand current events and the plight of African Americans in this country as a result. I have some books to use as references. I think it is easier to understand the views of our President when you think of what he has probably endured to some extent during his lifetime. Even though we’ve come so far, he knows these things and it must break his heart to see a Ferguson event happen. The past must just roar back when an event like Ferguson occurs.

Signing off for now … processing so much. I hope to blog one more time this week at least.

Day 4: Tuesday, June 16 (by Allan Mathew)

June 17th, 2015

Today we traveled to Selma, Ala.  Selma is a broken city and it still seems to be stuck in history. We spent most of our day with Joanne Bland, the youngest member of the march we call today “Bloody Sunday.” If you haven’t seen clips of Bloody Sunday, I suggest that you watch them to give you a picture of what she survived. Joanne gave us a wonderful tour of Selma but she spoke of the activism we still need to do today. She spoke fondly of the younger generations and the need to educate them of the past. She said, “If they forget where we have been, they can’t take us anywhere.”

We walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate General, just as Joanne did 50 years ago. I did not have to fear the policemen with billy clubs or the horses or the tear gas as I passed over the peak of the bridge. But I do fear what would happen if we ignored the injustice in our world today. I do fear we will keep history in its place and not learn from our mistakes. I do fear we will accept how far we have come, but lose sight of how much further we must go.

Let us not assume because it is “history” it is relevant today. Just because the movement birthed into law the rights that were wrongly denied to African Americans, does not mean the hate has been left in history. The nation turned a blind eye to the hate, violence, and vile acts of its citizens to the black citizens of our nation for hundreds of years. We have to consider the reality that the hate still exists and thrives in America today. We have to consider our institution and our students who must take us to where we need to be. We have to consider what we can do to help bring reconciliation. We have to start acting like Christ, and not lose sight, hope, or resolve to seek change.


Day 3: Monday, June 15 (by Cynthia Wells)

June 16th, 2015

Day Three: Rutha Harris

In Albany, Ga., we sat and listened and sang with Rutha Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers. Hearing her today gave me a much richer appreciation for the role that music played in sustaining the civil rights movement. Indeed, Rutha said today that she firmly believes that without music, there would’ve been no movement at all.

During the early 1960s the Freedom Singers, who were from Albany, performed all across the country raising awareness of the movement as well as funds for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). The role of music was no doubt influenced by the African-American church and its choral tradition, once again a testimony to the way that Christian faith influenced and sustained the movement.

The songs, whether sung in churches or in jails or on marches, helped to shape the movement and sustain it in moments of crisis. I learned that the lyrics changed to meet the circumstances, is in the spiritual “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round”, which gives voice to the specific hurdles and reminded the leaders to stay the course toward freedom.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round,

Turn me ’round, turn me ’round.

Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me ’round.

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’,

Marchin’ on to freedom land

Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me ’round,

Turn me ’round, turn me ’round.

Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse, turn me ’round.

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’,

Marchin’ on to freedom land

Ain’t let segregation turn me ’round,

Turn me ’round, turn me ’round.

Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ’round,

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’.

Marchin’ on to freedom land

Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’,

Marchin’ on to freedom land

Music, I’ve often said, is one of the ways God speaks to me; music sustains me in times of trial. Singing today with Rutha will, I pray, be only one of many times that music will sustain me as I participate in the continuing journey we face toward justice and reconciliation.


Day 3: Monday, June 15 (by Dana Britton)

June 16th, 2015

On day three we had the privilege of meeting Rutha Harris, an original member of the Freedom Singers. I continue to hear the freedom songs in my mind that she sang in such a powerful way this morning. She said “without song, there would not have been a movement.” Rutha expressed that singing the freedom songs provided strength and comfort and silenced the crowds. I sat there amazed at her joy and peace, similar to what we saw in Mrs. Abernathy yesterday. These two women lived through some of the worst realities of hatred, injustice and cruelty of the civil rights movement. They both spoke of the power found in deep, abiding faith in God.

“… In a sense every day is a judgement day, and we, through our deeds and words, our silence and speech, are constantly writing in the Book of Life …”

“… Christianity affirms that God … is able to give us the inner equilibrium to stand tall amid the trials and burdens of life.  He is able to provide inner peace amid outer storms …”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have the capability of being agents of love, compassion and reconciliation. When are we silent and not listening to the still small voice of God telling us to speak words of justice? We are capable of thoughts or actions that are insensitive or even cruel. It is my prayer that these days of intense reflection of the civil rights movement, will impact each of us to be more Christlike for those that are discouraged or suffering.

Day 3: Monday, June 15 (by Kevin Villegas)

June 16th, 2015

On this third day of our tour, I find myself sorting through a lot of thoughts and emotions. We’re now in Montgomery, Ala., and I finally have a good chunk of down time to process it all a bit more.

After having watched several films documenting the civil rights movement, reading articles on specific events and people, visiting museums and landmarks, listening to songs and sermons from that era, and hearing first-hand accounts of what happened from the very people that were leaders during that period, I am increasingly amazed at the resolve and unity that existed among so many African Americans and their allies during such challenging and uncertain times.

The civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago. The fact that our group is spending quality time in the presence of individuals who directly organized and participated in events like the Montgomery bus boycott and the march on Washington, who were beaten and jailed for standing up to the powers, who had their homes and churches bombed by their oppressors, and who lost loved ones all for the hope of equality and justice is extraordinary. I am so very grateful for what I am learning.

To be sure, I’m also grateful for those who were courageous enough to take a stand against the gross injustices of their day. However, this same gratitude leaves me with a sense of wanting. I want for another movement—a movement that will be just as united and steadfast in its resolve for justice and equality for the people of today. There is still so much inequality in our world. Even here, in Montgomery, as we drove around you can sense it. There is still segregation in our country. It’s not a segregation that’s mandated by unjust laws and upheld by instilling fear through explicit violence, but one that’s imparted and accepted through the subtle forces of hegemony.

For me, I feel as if the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s did a great deal to shape and change laws in this country, and to empower African Americans to make greater social progress, but I also think the movement ended too soon. And so I wonder how much more progress would’ve been realized had leaders like Dr. King and the Kennedys not been assassinated. I wonder who is going to take up the mantle and carry it forward. Must we sit idly and wait for a shocking event—a modern-day Emmet Till or 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—to rouse our collective conscience? Where is the leadership we so desperately need?

Day 3: Monday, June 15 (by Jonathan Bert)

June 16th, 2015

We have met some amazing people; Juanita Abernathy yesterday, Rutha Harris this morning, and Reverend Robert and Jeannie Graetz this evening.

Instead of focusing on the activities of the day, I feel more inclined to write about what stands out to me the most about the entire civil rights movement.

Non-violence was a major part of the movement. MLK strongly advocated for non-violent direct action, as did other prominent leaders. I am convinced that the campaign for civil rights would not have been successful without this core belief. The white oppressors did not know how to respond to these peaceful protesters. In fact, a popular police tactic was to try to incite violence from the African Americans so that they had a legal reason to physically retaliate. However, the protesters were aware of this and they had been trained and conditioned to withstand verbal and physical abuse without resorting to violence.

Dr. King stood up against the war in Vietnam and denounced the violence taking place. His famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” was in reference to that conflict. It is clear that his message of pacifism was not simply a strategic move in order to make progress on the picket lines, but rather it was a deep-seated commitment pouring out of his Christian beliefs and his understanding of biblical truth.

It seems to me that this key aspect of the movement often gets diminished or even lost in the history books. The response that we often see to injustice today is destruction and violence. There have been numbers of examples of this in the past year. There are peaceful demonstrations and orderly marches, but these are overshadowed by a small percentage of people who have let anger and hate seep into their own hearts due to the many injustices that have been piled upon them.

An important lesson from studying the civil rights movement is the value and effectiveness of non-violence. Pacifism is not passive. Direct action is a powerful force. Loving your enemy is an intense weapon that no physical force can overwhelm. Ultimately during the struggle, we can look back and say that love prevailed over hate, good over evil. And it was not accomplished with bullets or with blood. It was accomplished with courage and perseverance, with self-sacrifice and forgiveness. I hope that somehow we can come back to that.

Day 2: Sunday, June 14 (by Cynthia Wells)

June 15th, 2015

I’m struck by how deeply the modern civil rights movement was impacted by Christian faith. I knew that it was important, but this tour has already given me a much, much deeper appreciation of the centrality of Christian faith in sparking and sustaining the movement and its leaders.  Having read Letter from Birmingham Jail over the years, I witnessed in that text how learned and Christian were King’s ideas. Visiting the King Center today deepened this insight.

Martin, as he is consistently referred to by friends and family, was raised by a minister and spent his upbringing listening to his father’s sermons. Martin memorized Scripture as a child so consistently that the convictions of Christian faith simply permeate his ideas. Sometimes we are encouraged to step back and consider how our ideas align with our Christian faith; I don’t imagine that Martin ever wondered. His life was so shaped by the ideals of his faith that his work could not help but be imbued with Christian conviction. Meeting Juanita Abernathy this afternoon confirmed the role of Christian faith.  Her involvement in the Montgomery Improvement Association and the broader movement came from her identity as one who long loved Jesus and desired to live out the ideals of Christian faith.

I’m convinced that Christian faith is key to the ongoing work in reconciliation.  I’m convicted that my own journey must be grounded in Scripture, and that my son’s understanding of this movement as extending from Christian faith is something he must understand, and something that he won’t gain in public school.  It will be up to home and to church to pass on this message.  How we will live up to that call?