Civil Rights Pilgrimage Inspires Interfaith Clergy of Minneapolis to Work for Justice
Fr. Daniel Griffith – Friday, January 20, 2023
The week of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I traveled with 10 faith leaders of Minneapolis on a civil rights pilgrimage to Georgia and Alabama. Our pilgrimage took us from Atlanta, where we attended the Dr. King commemoration, to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and back to Atlanta. I use the word pilgrimage intentionally as this was a sacred journey made in faith. Personally, this was one of the most moving, sobering, and inspiring journeys I have made in my life. I don’t want to speak for my fellow clergy, but given our collective debrief Thursday, this journey was deeply impactful for all – with a range of emotions expressed by our group. There was a videographer who journeyed with us to document our experience. A film of our pilgrimage will be made available soon to our respective faith communities, and three Sunday afternoon sessions are planned later this winter/spring to unpack our experience and the work that lies ahead.
It is impossible to convey the essence of our journey in a blog post so what I hope to do is set forth, near the end of the piece, emerging themes which I hope are helpful for people of faith as we work together to build a more just and peaceful Twin Cities community and nation. But first, some context. Those open to truth and the history of our nation will learn that the course of the United States is intertwined with racial hierarchy, racial injustice, and racial subjugation – from the beginning. As Dr. King prophetically noted years ago, our nation was born in genocide – with the brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples and the attendant generational harm suffered by our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Similarly, the slave trade, slavery in America, racial terror, segregation, and mass incarceration in the United States were founded on the dehumanization of Black Americans. A clear thread runs through these epochs of American life.
That Native Americans and Black Americans have suffered acute generational trauma and deep scars from this pervasive dehumanization and attendant injustices should not be a surprise to anyone who is rational or those with a heart which embraces our common humanity and dignity. That we have not come to a reckoning with these deep harms in our American history and life and the acute suffering experienced by our brothers and sisters is a further injustice we bear as a nation. For those in our country who think that the authentic telling of truth and recounting of history is tantamount to “critical race theory” are perpetuating a further lie and attempting to continue the arc of injustice and the desperate grasp at power. As Dr. King again prophetically said, a lie cannot live forever and that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Dr. King’s resolute sense of hope in the midst of pervasive injustice was born of his faith in a God of justice – a God who journeys with the oppressed – a God who liberates and heals. To those who might be confused about what is true in the history of our nation, come to the south – journey in the steps of the foot soldiers for justice – open your minds and hear the stories of what was, what is, and what can be.
For the past several years, I have been immersed in the work of Restorative Justice (RJ) – specifically in the context of helping name and heal the harm from the scourge of clergy abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. In addition, my colleague Julie Craven and I lead a new Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Restorative justice is rooted in the Indigenous practices of First Nation peoples of North America and New Zealand. These practices were employed in response to harm, which included various leaders and members of the community. RJ has now become a world-wide movement, effectively employed across various professions and disciplines. RJ has proliferated globally because of its effectiveness, its adaptability to various circumstances, and because it includes various stakeholders. To be sure, Restorative Justice is not a panacea and its possible use must be thoughtfully discerned.
The connection between Restorative Justice and Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is manifold in their respective goals and methodologies – to prophetically name harm and injustice with the goal of promoting accountability and fostering restoration and healing. Both RJ and CST promote the attainment of justice and personal and collective flourishing. One of the most important connections between the legacy of racial injustice in the United States and the harm of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church is the dehumanization of victims, the abuse of power, and, in the wake of harm, the move to blame those who have been harmed. To quote my late friend Tom Johnson, former County Attorney of Hennepin and victim-advocate, this response, in each case, represents an inversion of the moral order. Recently, a group of Catholics formed to begin a National Catholic Restorative Justice Initiative aimed at helping memorialize and heal the harm of clergy abuse. I am heartened to be part of this new group. Dr. King’s stated truth that we are connected in a web of mutuality links both the injustices experienced by our sisters and brothers from the abuse of power as well as our path forward in the pursuit of justice.
I come away from our civil rights pilgrimage even more emboldened to enter into the vital work of justice and healing. Both in the area of racial injustice and in the case of harm from sexual violence and the abuse of power, truth-telling is critical, as is the importance of stories and empathetic listening. In each case, harm needs to be clearly named and acknowledged, harm needs to be repaired, and unjust systems which have perpetuated harm need to be transformed. For Christians, the teachings of Jesus offer both a rebuke in the wake of past injustice and light the roadmap toward restoration. The story of the Good Samaritan is paradigmatic of Jesus’s mandate of the necessary Christian response. We must respond to those who have been harmed and left on the side of the road with compassion and care – and with resolute determination to name, stop, and help heal the harm. Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus himself is present in the poor, disposed, and those abused, and that our response – for good or for ill – has, in justice, eternal consequences. Below, I briefly offer three themes that emerged from this recent civil rights pilgrimage which I believe help illumine the path forward in the Twin Cities and beyond.
First, one of the truths that emerged in the work of helping heal the harm of clergy abuse is that the response of the Catholic Church must be victim-survivor centered. The wisdom of victim-survivors – wisdom borne of their wounds must light the path forward. Similarly, the wisdom of Black Americans and Black faith leaders is central to our path forward as a Twin Cities community and as a nation. This is not meant to burden Black Americans and Black faith leaders with the responsibility of restoration – not in the least – but to exhort White Americans and White leaders to listen and learn from the experience of Black Americans and their insights as to effects of racial injustice and what must happen in response. This was so clear on our bus ride to Alabama, as our three Black clergy colleagues spoke with great wisdom and insight. For the rest of us, our role was to listen and to learn as we work together in sowing the seeds of a more just and humane future.
Second, storytelling must be central to the work of repairing harm and fostering justice in the Twin Cities and beyond. On our civil rights pilgrimage, it was the stories of harm, but also stories of resilience and faith that moved us. Whether it was the stories told by Dr. Bernice King or Bryan Stevenson and others at the Dr. King commemoration, or the stories of the brave children of Birmingham who defied the oppressive regime of segregation, or the stories of those who marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or those who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery – the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color, of faith, and those who accompanied them, these stories are vital to the transformation of hearts, minds, and our nation moving forward. This has also been the case with victim-survivors of clergy abuse. Their stories of harm and acute suffering are vital for a future of the Catholic Church that is more just, compassionate, and authentic. There is a reason why Jesus taught through stories. Are we courageous enough to open ourselves to the stories we need to hear?
Third, the places of the greatest harm – ground zero places – can also be the places of greatest healing and transformation. It is noteworthy that in the Christian faith, the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, is the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and the tomb where he was raised. The Paschal Mystery encompasses harm, suffering, love, passion, healing, and new life. It also encompasses Shalom – the word of the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday. All is reconciled, all is redeemed, all is restored – all is well. But first as a Twin Cities community and as a nation we must pass through the crucible. We must acknowledge the deep harm and pain as other communities and nations have done before us. The state and community that manifests some of the most acute racial disparities – Minnesota – the only state in the upper Midwest that carries the sad legacy of three lynchings – Minnesota – the state that saw the brutal murder of George Floyd – Minnesota – can also be the place of true justice, healing, and peace. This will require much from our community, from our faith leaders, and from those who profess their belief in a God of justice and healing. I am heartened that our interfaith clergy group of Minneapolis is returning from our pilgrimage with the mandate that we must and will work together to build a more just and peaceful Twin Cities community. We trust that our communities of faith will join us in this important and vital work.
Lastly, two signs of hope for the future ahead are emblazoned on my heart and mind. In Montgomery, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we were confronted with the legacy of 4,400 documented lynchings and 830 pillars representing the counties in the United States where these lynchings occurred. One of the 830 pillars was of St. Louis County where the Duluth lynchings took place. The National Memorial also included those places – including Duluth – which have acknowledged these senseless and violent murders, as well as the deep harm and shame that attends these privations of life and liberty. This is the only path forward for a nation born in genocide and prospered on the backs and spent lives of Indigenous and Black Americans. My final sign of hope was at this very same site in Montgomery, which chronicles so much harm and devastation. Here, on this site, the dogwoods were blooming – on an unusually warm winter day, there were signs of hope of a coming spring and new life. God, who is the source of all life and justice, will restore and renew the world that God has made. Our task is to follow God’s kindly light, to be brave enough to tell the truth, to repair the harm and, with God’s grace, to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Bearing Witness to the Wounds and the Foot Soldiers for Justice
Fr. Daniel Griffith – Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Day three of our civil rights pilgrimage took us from Birmingham to Selma, and to Montgomery, Alabama. I use the word pilgrimage with intentionality as our journey is more than a tour. A pilgrimage is a sacred journey that is made in faith. We follow in the footsteps of those courageous men and women who were foot soldiers in the cause of freedom and justice – those who lost their lives, lost their freedom, or those who suffered violence and terror in their efforts to seek God-given rights. Many of these foot soldiers were motivated by and sustained by their faith in God – a God who journeyed with them in their time of trial. We also follow in the footsteps of all those who love freedom and justice who have made this journey before us to bear witness to the wounds and to the historic struggle for civil rights.
There is a heaviness we experience in hearing story after story of harm, violence, and in some cases, brutal death. As heavy as this feels for some, I think often of our three Black clergy colleagues who are on this pilgrimage and what they may be feeling. From the slave trade, to racial terror, to segregation, and to mass incarceration, a clear thread runs throughout these epochs of American history – the intentional and pervasive effort to dehumanize Black Americans.
In addition, what is also clear is that the building and defending of the edifice of racial hierarchy is ingrained in American life and our history. To be sure, this has left deep scars, trauma, and intergenerational harm from which we have neither experienced a full reckoning nor have begun to recover as a nation. An important part of the needed restoration is to tell the truth, memorialize the suffering, heal the wounds, and repair the harm. This is challenging and necessary work to be sure, which requires proximity and accompaniment, but for people of faith, this is our mandate from a God who suffered out of love for us.
One of the most moving parts of our collective journey was the conversation among the 11 clergy about the struggle for racial equality and what we can collectively do to help build a more just and peaceful Twin Cities community. One clergy member said, this is our time and noted that Minneapolis is ground zero in the modern struggle for racial justice, given the murder of George Floyd and the attendant global spotlight on the Twin Cities.
What I felt during the conversation was the need to listen and learn from my fellow clergy, specifically to listen to our Black colleagues and to learn from their experience and insights. I was struck by their strong agreement and their similar experiences of where we currently are in the struggle for racial justice. One clergy member said that for Black Americans, they are still in a defensive posture – focused on staying alive – and that we remain far from where we need to be as a community and a nation. The question was asked, “does America hate its children?” With all the harm that American children face from poverty, to food insecurity, to gun and school violence, to struggles with mental health, and also racial injustice, this seems to be a relevant and sad question. This and other conversations are being documented for a film that will be available soon for our respective faith communities.
When we arrived in Selma, we had the opportunity to walk together as a group over the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge which was the scene of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, which was a turning point in the battle for civil rights in the United States. I would recommend a powerful book by Jon Meacham about John Lewis’s life, faith, and tireless work for civil rights – “His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.” Once we arrived in Montgomery, we attended both the National Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice, both of which were spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. The museum focuses on telling the truth of the slave trade, racial terror, segregation, and mass incarceration and the connection between these epochs of American history and the deep harm experienced by Black Americans.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice depicts in a stunning and sobering way, the more than 4,400 documented lynchings that occurred throughout the United States. There are 830 pillars that represent the various counties in the United States where these lynchings have taken place. There are many lynchings which have not been documented and also plans underway for an additional memorial. The memorial also includes plaques of the cities who have named the harm and acknowledged these lynchings in a public way. The work of telling the truth and acknowledging the violence and harm of racial injustice remains vital as a nation as we seek to become more just, more humane, and more peaceful. Our journey continues.
There is a Pressing Need for Storytelling in the Pursuit of Justice
Fr. Daniel Griffith – Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Yesterday was a powerful beginning to our Minneapolis interfaith clergy civil rights tour. After attending the commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our group headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta. Morehouse – adjacent to Spelman College – is one of several Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) which boast an impressive list of alumni who have positively shaped the battle for civil rights in the United States. One of Morehouse’s esteemed alumni (Dr. King was an alumnus of Morehouse) is our Minneapolis colleague Pastor Elijah McDavid III, who is senior pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
Pastor McDavid gave us a fantastic tour of Morehouse and provided both important history and inspiring stories. One story that struck me is that at the top of the historic dormitory, which once housed both King and McDavid, was a perch from which students could look out for the Klan who wanted anything but young Black men to receive a quality education. In the battle for civil rights in the United States the stakes are indeed high and education is a game changer – a great equalizer which provides the foundation to rise and to flourish according to one’s natural gifts and hard work. Those who oppose equal justice and universal human dignity will seemingly stop at nothing to deny those essential rights endowed by our Creator, and without which we cannot build the common good.
Today, we traveled to Birmingham for an overnight stay, which included a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, dedicated in the early 1990s. Prior to our tour of the institute, we had the sobering opportunity to tour the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, the site of a horrific bombing. On September 15, 1963, four young Black girls who had arrived at the church for Sunday school were killed by a powerful explosion. Two Black boys were also killed that same day. Many in the United States responded with outrage and this was a critical turning point in the movement toward greater civil rights for all. In the adjacent park, in the Baptist Church, and in the Civil Rights Institute, I was stuck by the courage of Birmingham to tell the truth – and to memorialize their painful history in a powerful and illustrative way.
Our visit to this historic Baptist church was striking in many respects, but two things stood out. Nine years after Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation, Birmingham and other cities in the south continued to defy this Supreme Court ruling. In fact, it was the enforcement of desegregation just days earlier in Birmingham that led to this desperate and brutal act of hate and violence. Additionally, in the church, our guide pointed our gaze to an extraordinary stained glass window of a crucified Black Jesus which was gifted by a family from Wales, UK, who watched the news of the bombing and traveled to Birmingham to enter into solidarity with those who had suffered such devastating loss. The gift of the Black Jesus window was originally rejected multiple times by the community as they feared further bombings and reprisals for depicting a Black Jesus.
Three of our clergy were interviewed today by a local television station regarding our visit. I was struck by what one of our colleagues said to the journalist: the power of storytelling allows us to be open to the stories of harm and injustice we have heard here, and also to bring those stories back to our communities in our work for a more just and peaceful nation. Stories bring us close – they draw us in and require us to be proximate to our fellow sisters and brothers, including their experience of harm and injustice. Stories have the power to transform hearts and to usher in justice and healing. In the work I have done in the area of Restorative Justice, allowing people to tell their stories is central to healing circles and restorative practices – storytelling is necessary in the pursuit of justice and restoration. Storytelling was the primary way in which Jesus taught and I believe holds tremendous potential to transform our wounded nation and world. For this potential to be realized requires of all of us to be humble, to be open, to listen, to acknowledge pain, and to accompany others on their journey from harm to healing.
It is Good Lord that We are Here
Fr. Daniel Griffith – Monday, January 16, 2023
Today, an interfaith group of several senior downtown clergy from Minneapolis began our civil rights tour in Atlanta Georgia with an inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. service that lasted more than four hours. The next time a Catholic complains about the length of a Catholic Mass, I will invite them to a Baptist service. Tomorrow, we will set out for Alabama. Our journey will culminate back in Atlanta later this week. To say that today was an inspiration for all of us would be a great understatement. Throughout the service for commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. King, the refrain that keep coming to mind was, “it is good Lord that we are here.” Today was a glimpse of what can be when people who love justice and who honor the dignity of all people made in God’s image come together.
The day began under a blue winter sky with temperatures much more mild than we experience in Minnesota – that was an added gift. There was a sense of excitement on our motor coach as we approached Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King frequently preached his message of justice, love, and peace. The new Ebenezer Church was packed for the service with folks from all over the country. I began my day in prayer thanking God for my fellow clergy who came on the tour, for Dr. King and his advocacy. But, I also felt the weight of a kind of “imposter syndrome” – do I do enough work for racial justice – do I belong here – am I just trying to escape another week of Minnesota winter?
What I felt during the service was authentic indeed and was unlike anything I have experienced in my life – Sui generis is the only phrase that comes to mind. Today’s service was a manifestation of God’s grace, the power of shared humanity, and a deep hope consistent with Dr. King’s belief that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Personally, I had a sense of deep gratitude to God for the gift of being present at today’s service and also wondered how it might affect my preaching, teaching, and advocacy going forward. Below, I offer a few brief takeaways from today:
First, I was moved by how Jesus-centered the service was. It was infused with faith, with the power of the Spirit, and manifest and evident faith. Catholics might say “Christ centered,” but for those who spoke or sang today, it was “Jesus-centered” – you could feel their closeness – their personal relationship with Jesus – a God who suffered and served out of love. There were no apologies and no inhibitions – the speakers were uninhibited – free to profess and praise God and to invoke the name of Jesus. It was beautiful!
Second, Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke powerfully in the Spirit and said that we often like to invoke the “comfortable and convenient King” but we need to invoke the true King – the inconvenient King – that is prophetic and issues mandates in the quest of transforming unjust systems. This King will undoubtedly make folks uncomfortable because it names the truth and calls for change. Dr. Bernice King also said that we cannot proclaim the philosophy of Dr. King without following his methodology of love for all and non-violence – she exhorted us to not cancel those with whom we do not agree.
Bryan Stevenson took the stage after an extraordinary performance of “In the Midst of it All” by Yolanda Adams. Stevenson, lawyer, advocate, and author, was impassioned in his message. He was visibly moved by the other presenters and singers. He echoed what many had said before him – Dr. King was not just a civil rights leader, he was a faith leader. He said that we have crucified truth and buried justice and exhorted us to resurrect both with God’s grace. He said we have to name and tell the truth – which is hard. He named places where this has happened – Berlin and South Africa – and that this is needed in the United States. He also said that one of the greatest sins of racism was the false narrative that was needed to justify the regime of racial injustice. This has resulted in a great harm and the “footprints of trauma” which has devastated communities, families, and individual lives. In the response to this, we need to come together to “keep on keeping on,” to name truth, and together, with action, build as Dr. King envisioned, the “Beloved Community.”
What a day – inspiring, hope-filled, and rooted in faith and truth.