By Rev. Alisha L. Gordon
Executive for Spiritual Growth, United Methodist Women
For 31 years, SCLC Women have hosted sojourners of all faiths, races, genders, and creeds on the Evelyn G. Lowery Civil Rights Heritage Tour, a pilgrimage that traverses through historical civil rights sites throughout Birmingham, Marion, Selma, Whitehall, Montgomery, Tuskegee, and other locations throughout Alabama.
This two-day tour brings into focus the stories and experiences of the women, children, and men whose extraordinary work became the catalyst for civil and social change throughout the South. This convergence of people from all over the country of varying backgrounds cultivates a deeper opportunity for students, clergy, and lay leaders alike.
Bishop Woodie White, who formerly served as Bishop in Residence at the Candler School of Theology, has continued to lead a group of Candler seminarians, an experience that has been named as “transformative” for many.
“Every bus has a guide – and that guide is someone who was engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. Barbara Cross who is the daughter of the pastor of the famed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, lead a tour bus. By the time sojourners arrive at the site, not only have they heard about the stories from the men and women who were there, but they have the opportunity to see it for themselves," said Bishop White.
The power of storytelling and shared experiences made an impact on Rev. Brian A. Tillman, Chair of the Conference Commission on Religion and Race and Associate Pastor of Ben Hill UMC. After experiencing the tour for the first time last year, Tillman and others extended the invitation to members of the Commission and United Methodist clergy and laity who had expressed interest in civil rights heritage. More than 200 people joined the trip. “
"People of faith cannot claim a faith if they never act on it,” Rev. Tillman explains. “You cannot talk about justice and never move the feet in pursuit of it. This tour shows us that people in small towns with limited power can change this country for the better.”
It is not lost on those who embark on this journey that the voices of women are not only essential to the conversation, but lead the charge for transformative learning and justice. SCLC Women’s long-standing commitment to the holistic wellbeing of women and children undergird the purpose and vision of the annual trip.
“This pilgrimage, which was [Evelyn G. Lowery’s] dream for engaging future generations in both appreciating and learning the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, is carried out in a spirit of compassion. This generation of women have taken the mantle and are carrying forward,” says Rev. Bill Britt, Senior Pastor of Peachtree Road UMC.
Bishop White agrees. “The tour itself began with Mrs. Lowery observing that often the women [of the movement] didn’t get much attention. She began this effort to memorialize the women of the Civil Rights Movement, with the SCLC Women going principally to places to identify the women who were important in a particular location.”
Monuments to Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was murdered in 1965 by the Ku Klux Klan, make their impression into history, during a time of civil unrest and unprecedented hope, enveloping the trip with the spirit of women whose voices are often left out of the historical remembering.
With the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination nearing, and the ongoing debate about justice and equality in our schools, churches, communities, and world still raging on, we continue to ask the question, “Where are we now?” While social progress has been made in many ways over the last 50 years, some of the challenges of the past has revealed itself to not be dead, only dormant.
“We need to remember the history,” Bishop White said. “We sometimes forget as we face new problems that the old problems were faced and solved. If we can see what was achieved in the past, it ought to give us courage to face the problems of the present. My hope is that as persons go on trips like this to look at our history, they will gain greater courage to face [today’s] problems."
As members and leaders of The United Methodist Church, many found that their experiences affirmed the common goals and commitments to both God and each other.
Rev. Britt reminds us of the power of shared experience: “The shared experience, acknowledging this is our history, and proclaiming that the way we were is not the way we have to remain is a powerful story to live out.”
Rev. Alisha L. Gordon is Executive for Spiritual Growth for United Methodist Women.