“As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

AntaviusThese are the words of the famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed in a concentration camp on April 9, 1945 because of his involvement in the assassination attempt against Hitler. Although many would argue that he did not outwardly speak against the Third Reich, others would see his involvement in the failed attempt as one beckoning the call of Christ for one to bid himself to come and die. Bonhoeffer’s haunting statement would be interwoven in the fabric of the Jim Crow South, as men and women struggled, marched, were jailed, stood firm and died for their conviction for civil rights, voting rights, and other forms of equality. It would also resurface on my journey through Alabama during the Evelyn Gibson Lowery Heritage Tour. 

Evelyn Gibson Lowery began the Heritage Tour in 1987, to maintain the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The tour takes participants to Birmingham, Montgomery, Marion and Selma, Alabama to call attention to monuments, historic places and people who made an impact through the movement. Throughout the entirety of our trip, we were escorted by police. We were on a freedom ride, but this particular “freedom ride” was different from the one that took place in 1961. Those freedom riders did not have cooperative police protection and lived in daily fear of their lives, but that did not hinder these brave young men and women. They were surrendering to and answering the call of Christ, and knew that their response might bid them to come and die— but they also knew that at the point of their beckoning, they would be in communion with Christ, because they were in communion with each other as they were bombed and beaten.

This is true for all who participated in the modern Civil Rights Movement. They all gave up something to effect change, whether it was their life, their career, their education, their time, their land or their bodies. They all died in one way or another. However, in this death begins our communion with Christ. This communion with Christ presupposes our communion with our brothers and sisters. Therefore, for one to die, he or she will not die alone.

statueThis was made all too evident and eerily clear as I gathered with many others while Barbara Cross, a dear friend to the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair—laid a wreath and memorialized her friends. She referred to them as “the four angels of change.” A few feet away is Kelly Ingram Park, the site where that same year, thousands of young black men and women marched and protested. They were jailed, hosed, beaten and bitten by dogs. Now, monuments and statues stand, reminding us of the communion of the young people who were plastered on the television, outraging the nation. In Marion, Alabama, in a family cemetery, there lies a memorial to Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot in Marion and died in Selma over a week later. The memorial has thirteen bullet holes in it. Along Highway 80, at mile marker 111, in Lowndes County, Alabama, there is a memorial that marks the place where Viola Liuzzo was killed. Remembering these men and women who answered the call made the words of a freedom song clearer than it had ever been. “Oh freedom, oh freedom over me. And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord and be free.” I can no longer sing this song without the utmost conviction. I cannot possibly sing this song after trekking on the hallowed grounds where my freedom was purchased, without understanding the cost of freedom. A cost that is synonymous with the cost of discipleship.

group2The last part of our journey was a commemorative march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Thousands of people were gathered from all over the country to commemorate this heroic and historic moment in history in which men and women sacrificed their lives, well-being and bodies to secure the right to vote. Just as the men and women in 1965 fought a battle against injustice, today we wage a similar but different battle against modern injustices and systemic racism.

But as we marched over the bridge, I began to wonder if we are in communion today. Some people march over the bridge symbolically to wage war against their own injustice, some do it for a pictorial opportunity, some do it for notoriety and some simply do it to display or feel as if they are “down for the cause.” In the day and a half of the Heritage Tour, I learned that many of our ancestors were ready to lay down their lives for the collective freedom they believed in. There was a communion and a community that tethered these deep-seated beliefs. A community in which Christ was represented, and those that died or gave up much were not left alone in the task. I was reminded of this community as I marched across the bridge, arm in arm with my Candler classmates. A woman behind us began leading us in “We Shall Overcome.” In this moment, I realized that the only way that anything can be overcome is if it is overcome by the community, when we recognize one another as “We.”

Read another blog reflection on the Heritage Tour from first-year MDiv student Darrin Sims.