jonese-austin-headshot.jpg“Walk with me Lord! Walk with me!” she sang.

James Cone said in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “The spirituals were the soul of the movement, giving people courage to fight...” As an African-American Christian woman, I can testify that this continues to be true today. There is something encouraging and life-giving in hearing and singing spirituals, and it was this spiritual that sustained me as I journeyed through the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with my Candler community.

Upon entering the Legacy Museum, the first section we encountered was an exhibit reflective of the cowpens, holding areas for the enslaved prior to their being sold. We heard stories of loss, separation, and desperation as well as stories of faith from the shackled enslaved women and men in each pen. While most of the voices seem constrained to their pens, a voice rang out from the pen at the very end. The enslaved woman sang, “Walk with me Lord! Walk with me! Walk with me Lord! Walk with me! While I’m on my pilgrim journey, I need Jesus to walk with me.” For her, this was more than a song, but a prayer cried out from the depths of her being.

Singing this spiritual was an act of faith, and I found myself humming along because this is my faith as well. This is the faith of my people and my ancestors, a faith that has been passed down and continues to be practiced in many black churches today. This is the faith that motivates me and encourages me to continue the fight for justice as a black Christian woman in a society that has come a long way but still has a long way to go. This is the faith that encourages me as I work to confront the history and present legacies of slavery in society today, such as those on display at the museum and memorial.

jonese-story2.jpgNevertheless, this faith is unique as it developed as a response to a more exclusionary faith. It is this black Christianity that developed in response to white slaveholding and segregationist Christianity to offer truth and a prophetic voice in a wilderness of lies told to my ancestors to justify their oppression. In the words of Father Bryan Massingale during the lunch preceding his Howard Thurman Lecture at Candler, “Black Christianity and white Christianity are not the same things…we’ve always been engaged in a clash or conflict of Christianities.” This clash was evident in the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice with quotes on display such as “The Bible gives authority for segregation”; “Desegregation is against the Bible”; and “I believe in segregation like I believe in God.” It is worth noting that this last quote was spoken by the man who assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers. While the faith of black Christians was motivating them to fight for their freedom and sustaining them day to day in the struggle, the faith of white Christians was being used to justify slavery, lynching, murders, and segregation. In some ways, it is still being used today to justify oppression in the form of mass incarceration, the separation of families on the border, and more.

As a black Christian it is easy to be overwhelmed by the constant injustices we face in society, and at times, the situation can feel hopeless. Furthermore, it is disappointing that many of my white Christian sisters and brothers continue to perpetuate oppression actively and even in their silence. Yet, I hear the voice of the enslaved woman singing, “Walk with me Lord! Walk with me!” and I feel the strength and resilience of my ancestors, the cloud of witnesses, in this struggle for freedom and liberation. We black Christians will continue the fight, but will our white sisters and brothers join us?

jonese-story3.jpgWill they realize that when they oppress their black sisters and brothers, they oppress God? In the words of James Cone, “Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” This idea can be extended to cover the full range of the museum, as it traced racism from slavery to mass incarceration. Each name on a jar of dirt, each name listed on the hanging coffins at the memorial, each child who was intimidated during segregation, each activist murdered, each person currently incarcerated, is a being created in the image of God. Thus, not only did many fail to see Jesus in those who were lynched, but they fail to see Jesus in those who are incarcerated and marginalized and oppressed in other ways today.

This museum calls people of faith specifically to confront the different ways in which faith has been used as a tool of oppression. It is a call for us to address “the clash or conflict of Christianities.” Bryan Stevenson asks the question at the end of the museum, “Do churches and people of faith have a special obligation to address the history of racial inequality?” This is a question I hope we will all sit with as we prepare for lives in ministry and other areas, but especially my white peers. I offer the spiritual as an invitation now. “Walk with me friend! Walk with me!” It is time for white Christians to walk with black Christians in working towards racial justice and seeing the God in all people.