St. Patrick’s Youth Civil Rights Pilgrimage

St. Patrick’s Youth Civil Rights Pilgrimage

By Justin Dixon, Youth Minister, St. Patrick’s in Broken Arrow

St. Patrick’s Youth (S.P.Y.) recently returned from a Civil Rights Pilgrimage which took us through seven states where we visited museums and sites pertaining to civil rights.  Sixteen youth from ages 11 to 17 and six chaperones loaded up in St. Patrick’s new shuttle bus and a rental van and traveled 1833 miles on our pilgrimage.  Why?  Because we believe that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and we want to learn from our past so that we may honor, respect and stand up for all humanity in the present and future.

Leaving at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 29th, we traveled to Memphis, TN where we stayed the night at Calvary Episcopal Church.  The next day we visited the National Civil Rights Museum.  This museum, formerly the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, was a wonderful museum that started its story of civil rights from slavery and carried it through to the civil rights era of the 1960’s and beyond.  The most shocking item that I learned was that slavery was the top grossing industry in our country.  It was above wheat and every other commodity produced here.  It was an evil business that took advantage of human life.  I highly recommended visiting this museum for anyone interested, and it is only six hours away (same as St. Louis) from Tulsa.

From Memphis, we traveled to Birmingham, AL where we spent the night at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.  Northern Alabama is a beautiful drive with tall trees and hills that make for wonderful scenery.  St. Stephen’s was nestled back in the beautiful scenery and was very accommodating to our group.  In preparation for the next day’s activities, the group enjoyed pizza and popcorn as we watched the movie Selma, a powerful movie depicting the events that occurred in Selma, AL surrounding the civil rights movement and highlighting the Edmund Pettus Bridge marches, the same bridge we would walk across the next day. 

The next morning, we visited the Civil Rights Institute, which stood out in that not only was it a look into public education differences between blacks and whites and other areas of daily life, but it also highlighted some other recent acts of people standing up for injustice (i.e.. Tiananmen Square protests, etc.).  Across the street from the institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church.  This church was bombed by a terrorist in 1963, and this incident took the lives of four young girls.  Think about that for a moment— people in the United States were bombing churches in 1960’s.  We tend to think of that happening “over there” (across oceans) or where “people are not civil like us” but this was right here in our country in a city that was known as “Bombingham” less than 55 years ago.  Sobering.

From Birmingham, we drove to Selma, AL, where we stayed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  St. Paul’s is a beautiful old parish with a great deal of history located only three blocks from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  When we arrived in Selma, so did the rain.  We were supposed to walk the bridge that evening, but the rain would not let up.  As we waited, we decided it was time and loaded up with rain gear and umbrellas and headed to the bridge.  With rain in our faces and traffic speeding by us on the bridge, we began our walk across the bridge.  As we walked, we pictured the marchers who walked towards the state police waiting on the other side of the bridge and how much it took for them to continue to put one foot in front of the other knowing that things could take a turn for the worse and violence could ensue.  The first march attempt ended in what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” where current U.S. Congressional Representative from Georgia, John Lewis, was at the forefront of the march.  It was a moving experience to walk where so many brave men and women, determined to be heard, sacrificed their safety for the good of others.

The next day, Wednesday, we would visit the memorial of Jonathan Daniels, a saint of the Episcopal Church.  The priest at St. Paul’s shared a great story with us about Jonathan and his involvement with St. Paul’s in Selma.  Jonathan had left seminary in Boston to come and help black citizens register to vote in the Selma area, and he stayed with a black family in Selma.  One Sunday, Jonathan and the family attempted to attend the services at St. Paul’s, which was not yet integrated.  They were stopped at the door and not allowed to enter.  The next Sunday they tried again, and this time the ushers told the group that they would allow Jonathan in but not the black family with him.  St. Paul’s has a beautiful tile mosaic behind the altar that is made from imported Italian tiles.  The tile forms a picture of an angel with the words “He is not here, He is risen.”  When Jonathan and the family were turned away for the second time, Jonathan told the ushers “You got the first part of that (mosaic) right, He is not here!”  During the service that Sunday, the offertory hymn was the song “Jesus is Knocking at the Door”.  The church was convicted, and the vestry met the following evening and voted to integrate immediately.

The rain continued into Wednesday as we left Selma and drove on US Route 80 towards Montgomery.  This is the highway on which the third and final march occurred where the marchers marched 54 miles to the capital in Montgomery.  On our way we stopped in Hayneville, AL to visit the Jonathan Daniels memorial.  The monument stands in a small city park in the center of town, just across from the convenience store where Jonathan was murdered when he stepped in front of a shotgun blast to shield a young black girl named Ruby Sales.  The two of them had just spent the night in jail and had ventured to the store for a cold soft drink.  Also, across from the park is the courthouse where 12 white jurors found Tom L. Coleman, the shooter, not guilty of murder.  Each year on August 12th, the feast day of Saint Jonathan Daniels, a group of clergy, including Ruby Sales, travels to Hayneville, where they celebrate the Eucharist on the judge’s bench in the same courthouse in which the murderer, Tom L. Coleman, was found not guilty--a beautiful and subversive act memorializing the sacrifice and example of Jonathan Daniels.

We travelled on to Montgomery and visited the Rosa Parks Museum located on the campus of Troy University.  This small but powerful museum reminded us of how Rosa Parks began the civil rights movement with a simple yet brave “No” as she told the bus driver she would not move from her seat, a reminder of how powerful (and eternal) words can be.  We watched a digital reenactment of the scene on the bus that day that many call the event that started the civil rights movement.

From there we visited the Dexter Baptist Church Parsonage where Dr. King lived during his time as the pastor at the church in Montgomery.  As many of the youth commented, it is powerful to realize that Dr. King was just a man who had a family and lived life as we do but chose to follow the Spirit and answer the call to and for something greater than himself.  We saw where dynamite had been thrown onto the front porch of his home and blew a hole in the concrete.  We saw the study where Dr. King spent many nights writing speeches and praying for strength.  In his kitchen, we listened to a recording of him telling a story about one night after a day of 40 calls of threats to him and his family where he begged God to let him stop and get out of the movement.  This night became known as “The Epiphany.”  The recording said "(Dr. King says Jesus said to him in his kitchen) 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.' I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."  He said his fears subsided, and he was ready to face anything.  To stand in that kitchen and listen to Dr. King express his fears and desire to quit gives us strength to know that we can persevere as well in our lives, and God will be by our side as we stand for justice and love.

I must mention our tour guide at the parsonage, Glenice.  This woman radiated love, grace and joy.  She spoke with such great passion about Dr. King and his family that you would think she knew them.  She loved her role and her excitement was contagious.  After the tour was over, (I’d be willing to bet this is not part of the typical tour) she invited us all into the backyard and asked us to join hands and sing a song.  A bit stunned and somewhat awkwardly, we all joined hands in a large circle which contained individuals that were not part of our group.  She led us in a song that I had never heard.  Glenice belted words of love into the air as we swayed back and forth like a group with two left feet.  It didn’t matter.  The Spirit filled us to the point where no one could muster a smile any larger.  In that backyard, we were one, with each other and the Spirit.  We sang the song (that our chaperone Jacki had to remind me of the words), “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” “Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around” and “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me around.”  If you attend the parsonage, be sure and ask for Glenice.  You’ll be transformed by a heart and soul so full of joy that you can’t help but take a little of her home with you.  Bless you, Glenice.

From Montgomery we traveled for a few hours to the beautiful coastal town of Gulfport, MS, where we stayed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  This was our day of rest, our sabbath.  We woke up the next morning, Thursday, and headed to the beach.  We spent the day enjoying creation and one another. 

The Kingdom is full of opportunities to serve others, but we should also stop and enjoy the beauty of creation and remember the reason we love and serve.  After a wonderful day of fun and rest, we traveled to the ocean pier and had Compline.  The sound of the waves as we prayed for those “who work, or watch, or weep” felt as though our prayers were blessed and baptized by the divine with every crash.

The next day, Friday, we travelled to Wallace, LA, where we visited the Whitney Plantation.  The Whitney Plantation was an actual plantation that was restored three to four years ago.  Our tour guide explained that this is the only museum that tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved.  A lot of work has taken place at this museum to show the thousands of people enslaved.  They memorialized at least the person’s name, possible birthdate and birthplace of many of the enslaved.  The monuments also had descriptions from the enslaved as to what happened to them in certain situations.  It was very hard to hear the stories and descriptions of how the enslaved were treated.  Children as young as ten years old were considered adults and required to work a full day.  They, too, were subjected to the punishments of an adult, which could have been 25 lashes from a whip, solitary confinement, dismemberment and other gruesome and inhumane acts.  This museum, some youth said, had the most lasting effect on them and how humans can be so evil to one another.  All for money.

After Whitney, we traveled to Shreveport, LA, where we stayed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Our last night on the pilgrimage we spent time in our evening discussion talking about the overall trip.  Some shared how they were grateful to know more of the truth so that they can ensure we are doing our part to stop this from happening in the forms it takes on today.  Others were grateful for how we grew closer as a group on the pilgrimage and the opportunity given to us to take this trip.  It is an amazing group of youth, and they continually teach me to love more and challenge my preconceived ideas of what love looks like and how to share it.  We grow together, learning from each other, because we all have something to learn from everyone.  I am very grateful and proud to be their Youth Minister.

The next morning, we took our final group photo outside of St. Paul’s with their perfect end of pilgrimage sign that read “Go in Peace, to Love and serve the Lord.”  We drove 5-1/2 hours back to Tulsa, where we were met by our families and friends who we had missed dearly.

There were plenty of laments on the drive back of “how can this be over already?” and “I don’t want to go home!”; but we all knew it was time.  We must move to the next day, embracing the new knowledge we have, reflecting on it and applying it to our world.  We were transformed by our journey, each other and everyone we met along the way.  It is good to have our sometimes small and narrow world views challenged and turned upside down.  Growth comes from this.  It is a form of death and resurrection.  SPY embarked on this pilgrimage as our old selves and were transformed into something new along the way.  We returned with a hope that we may change the world, one person at a time, one loving act at a time or one word at a time.  We, whether we fully know it now or not, will be eternally transformed from our experiences on this pilgrimage.

May we always offer love first.  May we always offer grace into every situation.  May we always seek humility even when it stings.  And may we always remember that we are pilgrims, travelling through a world that needs the grace, mercy and love that Jesus Christ showed us through his life.

Thank you to all the youth who attended and to our chaperones; Father Shelby Scott, Jacki Adair, Alix Means and Craig and Lorraine Jackson.  Thank you also to our parish, St. Patrick’s in Broken Arrow, for all the prayers and support.

Grace & peace to you all!

Note: I only speak from love and a desire to see that all are respected and treated equally in a loving manner.  If anything, I said within this reflection of our pilgrimage is incorrect or insensitive, I ask your forgiveness.  My hope is that I am always humble and forever a student waiting to be educated.  If you feel I have errored in any use of language, please email me at; I am grateful for your tutelage in any area I could use assistance.  Thank you.


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