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?