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Sermon Archives

Road to Freedom Pilgrimage Testimonies

Sun, Feb 10

An Introduction by Rev Dr. Karin Case

             Last October and November, two groups of First Church adults––twenty-three of us in all–– went on a pilgrimage to Memphis, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. Through months of advance preparation, we had devoted ourselves to studying the Civil Rights Movement and the practice of Non-violent Civil Disobedience. By going on this journey, we wanted to understand more deeply our nation's history of racial injustice, to feel the connections with current injustices like the wealth gap, mass incarceration, and mandatory sentencing laws. We wanted to learn about visionary leaders, mass movements, strategies for change, and about small, daily, revolutionary acts of courage. Above all, we wanted to experience for ourselves the role of faith in shaping hope and courage and action.

When it came down to it, we realized we were not embarking on a Civil Rights Tour, per se, but rather a pilgrimage. We were looking to be challenged and changed. We called it a pilgrimage because we wanted to invite personal transformation. We learned about history, but it was not a history tour. We called it "Road to Freedom" because, as people of faith, we understand that God calls each of us––and all of us together––to honor human dignity, create right relationship and beloved community, and to strive for justice. And on that sacred journey, are wholeness and freedom.

In a moment, you will hear personal testimonies of four pilgrims––their stories of challenge and transformation, of coming to deeper awareness, of coming to see with new eyes.

One of our key practices as a group, during our weeks of travel, was to gather in a circle each evening and to listen deeply to each other's experiences of the day––the emotions, insights, conversations, encounters, highs and lows, all of it. Through this daily time of listening, we began to feel our way into the Christian practice of testimony. Giving testimony is a personal and vulnerable practice. Through our testimony, we reveal our own hearts and we make visible how the Spirit is at work in us. To testify is to say, "from where I am now, this is what I am able to see and understand." Maybe, even, "this is what God is doing in me."

During circle time on our first week of travel, one of our pilgrims shared, "I feel like the scales are falling from my eyes." We realized (of course) that this is a biblical image of coming to new understanding. And––like Paul on the Road to Damascus––of leaving behind our "old ways," and allowing ourselves to be completely re-oriented by that new vision.

We are aware that insight is not the same as action. But it does fundamentally change us and compel us to action. The great James Baldwin once said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

You will now hear the personal testimonies of four pilgrims. Each will speak about what they saw and felt; how they have come to see differently; and perhaps, even how they have found freedom through new and expanded vision.


Testimony by Hilary Hopkins


It was a photograph.

Some Black women and I were studying it at the EJI Legacy Museum.

You’ve seen a lot of these images—fire hoses, dogs…

But this one was new to me.

Marchers had been arrested, again, and the police were finger-printing them, before putting them in cells.

They had to get a milk crate for this one.

‘cause he was too short to reach the desk with the ink pad on it.

‘cause he was a child.


Under a gray sky, the brown and black body-sized slabs hang in orderly rows.

They hang in orderly, somber, heavy dignity.

Weighty in their silent witness.


In their lives, and in their deaths by lynching, their dignity was taken from them.

But here at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Lynching Memorial, their dignity is restored to  them.

Too late.


The guide at the Southern Poverty Law Center assured us:

“There is no fake news here.”

“There are no alternative facts.”

That is what we saw on our pilgrimage:

The news and the facts.


Testimony by Barbara Hume

I was on the second Road to Freedom pilgrimage, an incredibly powerful and emotional experience. Not only did scales fall from our eyes as we saw things that can’t be unseen and learned things that can’t be forgotten; I also found that tears were often falling from my eyes.

I especially was moved by the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. Their Legacy Museum tracks the evolution of racial inequality in this country, from enslavement of African Americans to racial terror lynchings and legalized segregation, to contemporary issues such as marginalization by poverty and the overrepresentation of people of color in our huge prison industrial complex.

Built on the site of a former slave warehouse, it opens with replicas of cells where slaves were held before being sent to the auction blocks. One of the most haunting images was a hologram of two young children calling out for their mother who had been taken from them.

Lynchings were another way families were ripped apart. EJI has worked to remember those previously unrecognized victims, collecting soil from known locations of lynchings and displaying it as a visual representation of that terror and those lives. At the museum there is a wall lined with shelves filled with large jars of soil, each labeled with the name of someone known to have been murdered at that site on a particular date.

And there are stories detailing the continuing pattern of race-based oppression and unequal justice in the United States today, reflected in our system of mass incarceration which disproportionately affects people of color. A startling statistic is that 1 in 3 black boys born today can expect to be in jail or prison during his lifetime, many due to petty crimes or trumped up charges, and many unable to afford legal representation.

One story that particularly affected me was about a young black man who was in prison for several years due to possession of marijuana. I had a visceral reaction in the moment when I realized, that could be my son! I realize many other mothers’ sons are incarcerated now for similar offenses, partly because of being treated differently on the streets and in the courts based on the color of their skin. And privilege determines whether or not people have access to resources to find personal lawyers and pay for legal expenses. As Bryan Stevenson says, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.”


Testimony by Dave McCann

A journey to and through places / areas / history

    I knew slightly about but nothing directly, nor deep

with folks from First Church I knew from quite well to only slightly or not so well


The places we were going to and what I knew

    Memphis—Music, the Blues, Elvis, food

    Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma

    Martin Luther King was shot and killed

    young girls murdered by a bomb at a church

   Civil rights—marches, sit-ins; a seat on the bus or at the counter

   lynchings, police dogs, water canons

    evil governor and his henchman police chief


On the journey

    saw the actual places

    read the information

    listened to some amazing people, their testimonies, their voices

    shared thoughts and reflections with fellow journeyers

    developed a somewhat broader and deeper sense-- of the people, the places,

    the history

    the present-day


But then

    at the Lorraine Motel stepped out of the van and into the vast, empty, silent

    space left by the murder of Dr. King


    at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where the Lynching Memorial

    is located, reached out to that brick wall, and within myself, started the

    prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer I pray every morning, but it was in the

    voice, inside me, of another person. Not something I imagined or anticipated

    or thought I should or could do. It just happened.


    On our way back from Selma to Montgomery we stopped at the memorial for

    Viola Liuzzo, murdered by klansmen on the road there. A small square space

    with a fence around it. Flower stands fallen over. “The wind?” I wondered,

    as I opened the little gate, went in and with others in our group, started

    lifting the flower stands up and setting them upright again. And realized that

    it probably was not the wind that had knocked them over.


    at our final dinner / communion / conversation, feeling a part of that group,

    that gathering, sang out a song, a spiritual hymn in a voice that was not my

    usual, not my own


 Left puzzled by the voices, mine and others, inside and outside

As liturgist one month ago, felt that same different sense of voice as I spoke, as I

read from the Book of Isaiah, of our gathering in the light. Thinking about it,

reflecting, came to realizing it is not mine but ours, the congregation’s voice as we

share the Word, in Scripture; as we enter into the Word; as we share this continuing

pilgrim journey.


Testimony by Abby Shuman

Good morning.

It is a privilege to be standing here with several fellow Road to Freedom pilgrims—to share with you two of many moments that have forever changed me—from this journey so aptly named.

The first is of arriving on the short hallway outside of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN.

As many of you know, this is the room where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had been staying when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968—as he stood on the balcony outside.

After winding my way through the exhibits of the National Civil Rights Museum on the first and second floors, I stepped into the hallway outside of Room 306, and was greeted by the voice of the one and only Mahalia Jackson---singing Dr. King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord”.

Throughout our year long study of the Civil Rights Movement with Mike Stevens, I’d been thinking a great deal about Dr. King’s last several years of life. In particular, of his profound courage in connecting what he called the “Triple Evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism—and in standing wholly and publicly against them with, among every other effort,  the Chicago Freedom Movement, The Poor People’s Campaign and his stance against the Vietnam War.

We know that he lived with a heightened knowledge that he could be assassinated; we only need to listen to his famous “Mountaintop” speech given the night before his death.

So, when I looked through the glass into Room 306, preserved like it was April 4, 1968—and of all things, saw and heard Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and others engaged in a pillow fight—a moment of play, of laughter, of joy on the long, hard road to freedom,

I turned my eyes up to the heart beat of the song that Dr. King called Ms. Jackson to sing to him in moments of despair—

And I wept.


Four days further along on the pilgrimage, which took us from Memphis through Mississippi, through sacred ground in Birmingham, Alabama, and would take us on to Selma and Atlanta, Georgia, we are now standing at the entrance to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

An outdoor memorial, its heart is made up of 805 suspended steel monuments, representing each of the counties in the U.S. in which a documented lynching took place between the years of 1877 and 1950—a period in this nation’s history of 4,400 documented lynchings of people of color.

Upon entering this heart of the memorial, these suspended monuments became for me—human beings.

I saw them.

I heard them.

I felt them.

And I fell to my knees.

How could I not be changed?

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