Freedom Is Coming: A prickly pilgrimage through Eastern North Carolina

I had many good intentions beginning this post.

I had hoped to give a brief reflection on a trip I took this past week, a trip that involved thirty some-odd white pastoral candidates (of which I am one) and five incredibly patient people of color hailing from around the nation as part of a theological cohort. Together, we drove in just about all four cardinal directions through Eastern North Carolina as we sought to discern the difference between the “Christianity of the Slaveholder” and the “Christianity of Christ.”

I had wanted to set out before you some grand insight I had learned, but I am not sure that I can do it honestly. 

It was an overwhelming experience. Monday found us at St. Matthew’s in Hillsborough, the church of the wealthiest slaveholders in the Confederacy, and by late afternoon, we were in Oxford, NC hearing about the murder of Henry Marrow in 1970 from Dr. Timothy Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name.

Tuesday morning, we joined Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and members of the North Carolina NAACP’s Moral Monday movement at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh to both observe and participate in a moral action, calling our representatives to accountability and justice over matters of race, immigration, healthcare, education, and religious liberty.

Tuesday afternoon, we were touring around New Bern (two hours southeast, near the coast, a Union outpost during the Civil War) and learning about the black community there, civic annexation/incorporation policies, the beauty and centrality of community, and careless airport construction which desecrated hundreds of enslaved people’s graves.

Tuesday evening, we visited Rev. Barber’s church in Goldsboro, Greenleaf Christian Church, part of the Disciples of Christ tradition. It is a church who is putting its money where its mouth is. They forewent a 1 million dollar capital project to improve their facility and instead built a small subdivision to help people become homeowners, a senior living center to take care of the elderly in the community, a preschool and after school care center, and the list continues. 

Wednesday, we were in Whitakers at a place called The Bricks, a retreat center that was once a “breaking plantation” where slaves who held fast to their humanity literally had it almost beaten out of them. It then became a school, then tried to be a farm, and now it is a place of retreat. We spoke with Bob Zellner, the son of a former klansman, who worked with Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King during the Second Reconstruction (the Civil Rights Movement).

Wednesday afternoon was spent in Littleton and Elams, NC up near the Virginia border learning about Ella Baker, a Civil Rights organizer and educator who founded SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at Shaw University. We were led by a group of fantastically passionate women who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to promote and preserve her legacy.

Then Thursday came. That was honestly the day when I realized that I could in no way, shape, or form wax poetic about this experience here.

I learned from that day just how much I do not know. I learned in a more concrete manner just how deep the chasm is (and how alive it still is) between the Christianity of the Slaveholder and the Christianity of the Slave. I learned just how much more of my privilege needs to be surrendered before I can even make a move toward the table for conversation (and even then, it will require the continual recognition of my innate inability to understand). I learned that the fact that I am allowed to struggle (or not) is privilege in and of itself.

I am still sitting with all of this. I am immensely grateful for our fellow pilgrims who joined us, but even that feels a bit condescending. They gave themselves to something risky: coming to the “Deep South” as people of color to learn and experience alongside a large group of white pastors. Again, not the turn of phrase I am after, but those are the words I have at the moment.

As a native Texan whose racial framework is slightly different due to geography and Dallas culture, I experienced just how deep the pain runs and just how large the breach stretches between human beings.

I am not sure what to do with it exactly at the moment, and sitting with that is difficult, but it is important. And yet, while sitting in the tension is important, I was struck by a comment made by Rosa Parks to Bob Zellner:

“If you see something wrong, you have to do something. You can’t just study it for the rest of your life.”

The work of justice seems to me to be work of listening and learning, but also of standing and speaking, and, perhaps most importantly, the wisdom to know which is needed.