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