Freedom, Oh Freedom; 36 students, professors and guests, prayed and walked on the 11th of April, 40 years after King was slain. Two by two, like the diverse animals that were called to cross the bridge between dry land onto Noah’s Ark, the NYTS community crossed the bridge between Selma and Montgomery. I walked with the breath of our ancestors on my neck. Peacefully covered with the protection of a male Haitian Minister to my right, I walked with a mother and son behind me, with a white brother from London, a brother from Ghana, and an African American sister (who escaped from the South as a former domestic), in front of me. The songs we sang , echoed across an expanse of muddy water underneath us. As we passed the broad sign with Edmund Pettus’ name stretched across the center of this bridge, we shifted to get around a young, hooded African American man who stared passed our entourage. My steps were accelerated by the news that the tip of justice had slightly begun to move with Zimmerman’s arrest for the fatal shooting of our nation’s son, Trayvon Martin.
The short distance between the beginning of the bridge to the other side was lengthened by the stories we have heard on this Civil Rights journey. We have been touched by lives that have been lost and the flames that have been fanned by the blood stained steps taken by others who have bravely crossed bridges over troubled waters. By the time we reached the other side, my grandmother’s voyage on a ship from Puerto Rico had shaken the base of the bridge; and my uncle’s inability to cross the forbidden bridge between Cuba and the United States had swiftly stirred the muddy water swirling under my ordered steps.
“NYTS is the hyphen between the Word and the World” illuminates the bridges we facilitate for women and men called by God from the far corners of the universe. As a Seminary community with learning experiences ranging from the blood shed in Selma; to the challenges felt in Korea; building bridges in Africa; creating new opportunities in Latin and South America; advocating a living wage in New York City and transforming the lives of women in the city, the nation and the world; new bridges are always being built and crossed in our midst.
Wednesday, April 11th ended in a United Church of Christ Church where we were graciously hosted by one of our graduates; Debra Goldwire, members of collaborative faith communities, Dr. Moody-Shepherd’s brother Ben, and civil rights survivors. Our lovingly prepared sumptuous feast, was accented with the prayers that were lifted, the songs that were sung and the provocative testimonies that were shared.
By the end of a very long day, many bridges of self reflection, poignant memories, and future bodies of troubled waters to be crossed, stretched in front of our renewed minds, bodies and spirits. Two hours after the midnight hour, I fell asleep with the songs of my past behind me and the roads of the future in front of me. I could feel the power of the Holy Spirit at the frontline of my dreams for a new day.
by Peter Heltzel
New York Theological Seminary
Why does it take the death of black children to galvanize the prophetic imagination of our country? Yesterday George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch captain, was arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American man, who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. This arrest was provoked by protest marches around the country. When Trayvon’s parents came to NYC last month, I was able to join the “One Million Hoodie March” on Wednesday March 21st to protest the fact that the man that shot and killed Trayvon Martin did so because he was black and wearing a hoodie. Why did it take Trayvon’s death to inspire the nation to fight for justice?
It was the death of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African American man, who galvanized the civil rights movement. Till was kidnapped and murdered on August 28, 1955 in Glendora, Mississippi by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. After being beaten and shot in the head in Milam’s barn, a 70-pount cotton gin fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire and he was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. This brutal murder touched the conscience and tapped the righteous indignation of the nation, and people began to join the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. Late that year on December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama and on December 5, 1955 the Montgomery bus boycott began.
In Birmingham, Alabama another set of murders woke up the nation. On September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. This Tuesday April 10th I visited the Sixteenth Baptist Church with 36 students from New York Theological Seminary and learned that two African American boys were also killed that day, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, one shot by a white cop and one shot by a white teenage boy. Ironically, the names of these two young African American men are often forgotten? Why do we sleepwalk through oppression of black youth until another bloody tragedy happens?
4:00 am, four hours after the midnight hour; two days after Ressurrection Sunday on April 10th; the year 2012; almost forty women, men, and youth, stood on the front lines at LaGuardia Airport, in preparation for a New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) Freedom Ride to the South. Ultimately everyone’s baggage was checked at a gate leading to a corporate destiny. MICAH Doctoral students, graduate Master of Divinity students, high school and elementary school students, along with interested observers, all signed up for a revolutionary academic experience. This ” Going Home” Civil Rights Tour and course, was conceived in the prophetic imaginations of the Dean and Academic Vice President, Rev. Dr. Eleanor Moody- Shepherd and Professor Peter Heltzel.
This annual sojourn was initially born out of a conversation between a female administrator, descendant of slaves and a male faculty member descendant of slave owners. Together they dared to bare their souls, joys and concerns onto a common table of faith and reconciliation. With this mutual motivation beneath their academic wings, a life changing course was launched. Each year, students and faculty members have had the transformative experience of traveling through the historical footprints and cultural civil rights nuances, in Memphis, Tennessee, Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The racial roles of hosts and guests are flipped and reversed, as people of color have opened up their homes to the NYTS, Multi cultural, Multi racial student population. Followed by whites in Mississippi opening up their beds along with breakfast, for students who have not shared their racial identity or historical experiences.
This year, a unique group of participant observers , representing individuals from the urban centers of New York, Long Island, upstate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, Chicago, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Korea and other parts of the country and the world, were expanded to include teenagers and elementary school students. Our faithful bus driver Mason picked us up from the airport in Memphis at 8:30 am . With lap tops and journals in hand, this Beloved Community settled into their seats as a Divinely chartered bus headed towards a highway paved by God. Four hours later we arrived at Beeson Divinity School in Alabama, where we were greeted with a huge dose of Southern hospitality. The Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program was waiting to greet us with a complimentary meal ticket, when the bus doors opened. He was happy to facilitate the students one of our coordinator’s and logistics guru; Dr. Wanda M. Lundy, (the Director of our Doctor of Ministry Program.) This white southern male was anxious to warmly receive his African American female, academic counterpart from the North.
From the moment we left New York, Dr. Lundy and Dr. Heltzel have admirably held onto the leadership torch that has been passed on to them by our Dean (who opted to continue convalescing from her recent surgery.) The intensity of the trip has continued in the Dean’s absence. This year, our Director of Marketing Courtney Harris- Wiley, has joined us to memorialize our radical transformation. She is equipped with all of the technological tools of social media. Our territories are being expanded through coordinated teams that will be blogging, tweeting, face booking, and capturing every experience with video cameras, voice recorders and visual images from over the counter cameras, state of the art digital cameras and faithful I Pods. This writer,(Cynthia Diaz) has returned to represent the Directorship of Student Affairs, the Women’s Center and the faculty. I began recruiting at 6 am in first class, at the first seat on the Delta flight, in addition to serving as the official scribe. All of the daily impressions and events will be institutionally memorialized for our continued growth and development.
Upon entering the beautiful southern campus, we were escorted to a private dining space, where we indulged our hungry stomachs with a wide array of down home cooking. With our bellies full and our hospitality nurtured by our hosts, we settled back to comfortably listen to our luncheon speaker.After the dessert plates were cleared away, Carolyn Maull McKinstry , a Beeson MDiv graduate , author, wife, mother, local resident and national spokesperson, stood to humbly share her story with an audience who was seeking to have their minds fed, as fully as their stuffed bodies. Within minutes, it became apparent that this humble 60 plus, attractive, warm spirited African American woman, took us to a “front line,” where time as we have known it in the past, was stopped forever!
Carolyn is a survivor and a witness of the 16 th Avenue Baptist Church that bombed out the lights and took the young lives of four of her childhood friends on September 15, 1963 at 10:22 am.
It was the day when:
- the memorialized church clock stood still;
- the face of Jesus was shattered on the stain glass window that exploded;
- four young girls in beautiful white dresses were killed in the girls bathroom,;
- a fifth girl lost her sight and mind;
- two other boys were killed after the bombing;
- 22 other people survived with the mental and physical wounds that they sustained in the bombed sanctuary.
- It was the day that a clock in Alabama stood still in response to a vicious bomb that had been set by evil klansmen.
- It was the day and hour that time stopped for a partially blinded survivor Sarah, whose sister had died in the racial rubble.
- It was the day and time, when this author’s joy would be placed on temporary hold as she struggled to overcome years of chronic depression. It was the day her guilt began as the last person to see the girls before her life was inexplicably spared.
- It was the day that time stopped marking the expectation that innocent girls preparing for their youth service, could be safe between blown away walls and stained glass windows of an exclusive Southern Church.
September 15, 1963 at 10:22 am, was the date and the hour that not being able to forgive and loving one’s enemies as one’s neighbors, came to a standstill.
Almost fifty years later, Carolyn , an Author, Associate Pastor and survivor, has sat on Oprah’s couch , she has sat in CNN , NBC and other green rooms, and has been escorted into the national and international limelight where she shares a message of love, hope and reconciliation. She is the only eye witness to write about this first hand experience. On April 10, 2012, we invited her to visit us in the future at NYTS . In return, she invited us to find our places on the “front line . ” Her invitation was highlighted with a reminder that we are not here to see a piece of history, we are here to be a part of it.
The parting question and assigment is:
Now that we have seen the clock that has stopped, what will each of us do on the” front line? ”
Courtney and I, will be collecting written, verbal and heartfelt responses throughout this entire journey. Our Dean is looking forward to chronicling her own significant role in the Civil Rights Sit In history at Alabama State, in relationship to our Going Home experiences
And God is looking forward to all of our stories that are unfolding.
Blg Reflections submitted by:
Dr. Cynthia Diaz
Director of Student Affairs and Vocational Discernment
Director Resource Center for Women in Ministry