“When we return from a pilgrimage, we should be bringing with us something of the God who has been walking with us on the way…Holy places are places where our vision is transfigured—not so much in simply seeing God afresh, but seeing the world afresh—and ourselves in it.” -Rowan Williams
What would you expect to happen on a pilgrimage to Ferguson, Missouri?
Pause for a moment and think about this.
I paused often in the weeks leading up to the Young Adult Pilgrimage to Ferguson that was sponsored by The Episcopal Church. Eventually, my expectations were threefold: First, as an Episcopal school chaplain and teacher, I went to the Pilgrimage to Ferguson expecting to learn more about how to identify and address racism within our communities, eventually integrating this into a curriculum and model of chaplaincy. Second, as an American Christian who believes we are in the midst of a unique national movement for social change, I went with the expectation of forming friendships and support networks with other young adults in the Episcopal Church who share my passion for spirituality and justice. Third, as a member of the Beloved Community: The Commission for Dismantling Racism in the Diocese of Atlanta, I went to Ferguson to have the experience of a pilgrim because our Commission is organizing pilgrimages to lynching sites around Georgia over the next three years.
Despite these straightforward expectations (all of which were met), when I reflect on what impacted me most profoundly in Ferguson a series of memories come to mind that altogether exceeded my expectations. Whether I label these experiences as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ is irrelevant. What is relevant and essential is the unexpected ways in which I encountered God in Ferguson.
(Silent Cries & The Laying on of Hands)
“The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” These words from the Cain and Able story echoed in the recess of my mind as I stood before the exact location where, just over a year ago, Michael Brown’s blood silently cried out for justice as his spirit departed and his young black body, needlessly and repeatedly shot by a police officer, lay dead in the middle of the street for hours in the August heat.
(Will you persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.)
When I arrived with the other pilgrims, the scene of violence had since been replaced by a makeshift memorial to Michael Brown, composed of a narrow line of teddy bears and stuffed animals, baseball caps of local teams, plastic flowers, dollar store candles, and small tokens of respect brought from as far away as Hawaii.
(Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.)
Though the violence of the scene had been covered over, a silent cry still lingered: a cry coming not only from the ground where Brown had taken his last breath, but a haunting cry coming from voices past and present—centuries upon centuries of voices of those who have been, and who continue to be degraded, exploited, brutalized, deported, incarcerated, or murdered. The ear of my heart listened to this silent cry of history as it joined the present in overlapping octaves of woe, frustration, and suffering; and in my mind’s eye came the image of the crucifix surrounded by the all the company of heaven who had been murdered, martyred, or mistreated. At the agonizing center of this choir that included Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and countless others victims of injustice, Jesus mouthed from his cross three words: ‘Here I am.’
(Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.)
There, in the heart of the street, I knelt down on one knee, inconspicuously made the sign of the cross over my chest, and pressed my hands against the same ground that became the epicenter of the racial earthquake that started in Ferguson. I can’t rightly say why I felt moved to lay my hands on that ground. (Words can sometimes explain away, reduce, or change the meaning of an action.) What I can say is that there is an implicit promise of sorts, an irreducible connection of a giving, receiving, and blessing that takes place with the laying on of hands. In retrospect, I now recognize that the Holy Spirit moves through our hands, just as it moved through mine in that moment. As I pressed my palms to the concrete in prayer, the silent cry of pain and death began to take on a starkly different tone, so that through the overwhelming reality of injustice and suffering, I sensed a faint but undeniable hum of hope, like the feeling of the rising sun moments before it breaks over the horizon.
(Will you proclaim by word and example
the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.)
The next night in a hotel room, as the clock stuck midnight, I turned 30 years old and my fellow pilgrims granted my birthday wish of blessing my life and my future in ordained ministry. I knelt down on my knees and a dozen or so of my new friends lay their hands on my shoulders, arms, and head. Each hand became a conduit for the Holy Spirit. Prayers were said in multiple languages. Never had I felt so uniquely vulnerable, empowered, and filled with a renewed sense of responsibility.
(Phoenix Moment & Questions)
Much consciousness-raising took place in the 36 hours that followed our initial encounter with the Michael Brown memorial. We met with key clergy involved in Ferguson and social justice ministry in St. Louis; we engaged in conversations with the Bishop of Missouri, local activists, and educators; we listened to lectures and panels on the St. Louis area’s history of race relations, the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex, police/civilian relations, and the theology of crisis; and we got to know some of the surroundings, struggles, and aspirations of the Ferguson residents themselves.
At the close of our pilgrimage in Ferguson, we worshipped with a local congregation, broke bread, and a few of us played a pickup game of basketball with some older kids in an elementary schoolyard located less than a mile from the scene of the shooting. Then, for the second and final time, we went to Michael Brown memorial. First, I sketched of the scene in my notebook. Next, once again, I lay my hands on the ground to pray. With my thumbs together and fingers reaching outward, the shape of my hands vaguely resembled that of a bird with outstretched wings. As a gleam sunlight rested on my hands, the image of a phoenix arose in my mind. A mythical bird that conflagrates at its moment of death and is reborn from its pile of ashes, the phoenix came to be a prominent symbol for Christ’s death and resurrection in the Early Church. It struck me that Ferguson has its own phoenix story.
In that ‘phoenix moment’ I realized two things. First, the question of the Ferguson is the question of the cross that Christians everywhere must ceaselessly confront: what sinful actions and systems, visible and invisible, are causing individuals and communities to suffer under the crucifix of injustice? Second, the question of Ferguson is also the question of the resurrection that must continually shape Christians’ way of life: How are members of the Body of Christ, working through the power of the Holy Spirit, moving in conditions of despair, injustice, and death, and transforming them into new life forms of solidarity, healing, and hope?
Christians must be the phoenix people: a people of the cross and the resurrection. If we are to honestly answer these two questions posed by Ferguson, we must actively confront the manifold forms of racism in our communities—personal and structural, conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit—and commit ourselves to sharing the Good News of Jesus, the evangelism of God’s justice, healing, and reconciliation.
(Evangelism & Transformation)
The full work of evangelism in America today—a ministry at the heart of our new Presiding Bishop’s vision for The Episcopal Church—involves the work of social justice and racial reconciliation. This work can only take place once individual people, parishes, schools, and dioceses have undergone an inner spiritual transformation born out of listening, confession, penance, solidarity, and meeting God in the face of the other. Without a spiritual transformation we cannot expect to transform the social world around us. The healing fruits of justice are rooted in a deep spirituality that is nourished by daily prayer, fellowship, and worship. The deeper the roots, the stronger the vine, the greater the fruits.
My transformation is ongoing and the pilgrimage was a milestone on the journey. My hands and soul will remain forever touched by Ferguson and my divine encounters there—imprinted with the silent cry of victims, empowered by the hands of my fellow pilgrims, inspired by the vision of the phoenix, committed to spiritual and social transformation, and emblazoned with the question: Where is the Body of Christ—crucified, resurrected, and sharing the Good News—in your own communities? If you listen close enough, the answers will probably exceed your comfortable, familiar, predictable expectations.
When you are prepared to sacrifice your comfort zone and open yourself up to encountering God in the places of crucifixion and resurrection in American race relations, expect the unexpected. Expect Jesus.
Timothy J.S. Seamans
In October 2015 I took part in Pilgrimage to Ferguson convened by The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society through its Offices of Racial Reconciliation and Young Adult and Campus Ministry, the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE), and co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. This is the first of three posts that describe my experience.