“I was in a holy place, a place for pilgrimage only a few miles from my home, and I had no idea that this church still existed.”

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My friend Kevin Considine is a Catholic theologian whose work I always look forward to. I was especially interested in his most recent article because it engages with the theme of pilgrimage as an important, and thoroughly Christian, way of engaging the work for racial justice and reconciliation. He writes about an experience in the church that held Emmett Till’s funeral.

Like a modern Pietà, Till Mobley displayed the corpse of her son for the world to view and to expose the deep evil pulsing through the veins in the United States. The funeral was attended by thousands; pictures of Emmett Till’s body appeared in Jet, Ebony, and other magazines; and his story was told and retold in newspapers and conversations around the nation and the world.

“I was in a holy place, a place for pilgrimage only a few miles from my home, and I had no idea that this church still existed.”This was the spark that lit the fire for the modern civil rights movement: In the depths of tragedy, sorrow, and injustice, God “happened” through the actions of Ms. Till Mobley. 

He goes on,

This pilgrimage problem is larger than my own ignorance, because the vast majority of Catholics and other Christians are also ignorant of this period of time during which God again became tactile in our midst. As in many other times and places, the God of Jesus Christ “happened” and few of the powerful, healthy, and privileged paid attention.

Too few of us make a pilgrimage to seek out the “hush harbors” where ekklesias of slaves gathered, journey along the path of the Underground Railroad, shed tears at the sites where white “Christians” lynched black men on Sundays after church, or pray with and for the martyrs at any of the numerous black churches bombed and attacked by white “Christians.”

Please read the entire article. Kevin is on to something very important for American Christians. We don’t need to travel across the world to visit holy sites. Pilgrimages to the sites of faithful saints are all around for those of us with eyes to see beyond our racial blinders.

Gentrified Church-planting

After an ad for a new church on the west side of Chicago popped up in my Instagram feed the other day, I posted this:

A handful of folks took issue with my snark; some suggested that I could be misreading the ad, misrepresenting the church’s intentions, or that I could reach out the church as a bridge builder. These suggestions all came from white people.

I understand these suggestions and I should probably tone down the sarcasm. But what I think these well-intentioned friends might be missing is the context wherein a white, suburban church starts a new church in an urban neighborhood which has been predominately black for many years. This is a neighborhood that saw white flight and institutional disinvestment when African Americans began moving in. For many years it was host to a high-concentration of public housing before those complexes where destroyed to make room for mixed-income housing which precipitated massive development, gentrification, and skyrocketing housing prices.

Over the generations, this neighborhood has been anchored by black churches – “gospel-centered, bible-believing” – churches. Yet now, as long-time residents are being pushed out, this suburban church enters the neighborhood.

I have no reason to doubt this church’s motives. I’m sure their pastors and leaders are capable and godly people – I really mean this! – who are willing to sacrifice much for this new ministry. But regardless of intentions, this common move for white churches to begin ministries in gentrifying neighborhoods, and to then describe themselves in a way that sounds as though the gospel has not been faithfully proclaimed and embodied for generations, this is what is frustrating to me. And, I think, sort of demeaning to those Christians who ministered faithfully long before we white folks would have ever considered coming to that particular neighborhood.

I’m not saying anything new here; Christena Cleveland and Soong-Chan Rah have both said similar things more precisely before. And yes, I suppose I could be more of a bridge-builder in these situations. It’s just that it happens so regularly in a city like ours that it’s hard to muster up the energy for yet another awkward conversation.