by Nancy Talbot
“Sankofa" is a word meaning ‘looking backward to move forward’ in the Twi language of Ghana. The Sankofa Journey seeks to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism. This interactive experience explores historic sites of importance in the Civil Rights movement, places of oppression and inequality for people of color, while seeking to move participants toward healing the wounds and racial divide caused by hundreds of years of racial injustice in the United States of America.
A Sankofa Journey increases one’s awareness, understanding, and sensitivity for past struggles, victories, and continuing racist oppression existing in our country. The journey explores how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. Sankofa allows participants the opportunity to consider how together, we might better address racial righteousness in our church, our nation, and our world.
A Sankofa Journey is not just about information of the past and present, but seeks to be a journey for both personal and corporate change. Simply put, it is a journey of spiritual transformation. Through sites visited, videos watched, and active processing of the journey, relationships of trust are deepened in an environment of grace.”
Our Sankofa Journey, July 14 – 17, 2016
As scouts for the Synod Working Group on Race, its co-convener the Rev. Terri Ofori and I took a Sankofa Journey with The Evangelical Covenant Church. Flying from New York to Chicago, we joined people from around the nation. A group of 36 people spanning a vast age range, we were primarily African American and European American. To process our experiences with the hope that we would reach deeper and deeper levels throughout our time, we were paired with a conversation partner. All conversation partner groups were cross racial by design.
Terri and I asked to be conversation partners so that we could not only process this experience together but also discuss how it might be useful to the Working Group on Race and to the Synod. Conversation partners sat together on the bus, ate together, moved together through the museums and other places we visited and shared a room the one night we stayed in a hotel. After every stop and almost every movie or documentary, our Sankofa leaders asked a series of questions designed to allow us to process what we saw, experienced and felt.
In 72 hours we took a bus from Chicago to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee and back to Chicago.
In Birmingham we met a Black pastor who was 14 years old in 1963 and was part of the Black Children’s Crusade – a series of marches in which she and many young children, junior and senior high schoolers were attacked by police with fire hoses and dogs, beaten with batons and hauled off to jail. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where later that year in response to the Children’s Crusade as well as a number of mass organizing meetings that had taken place at that church members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb that killed four little Black girls and wounded many others.
We met a Black man in Montgomery at the Equal Justice Initiative who lived on death row in solitary confinement for 30 years for a murder that police knew from the beginning he had not committed. We walked across the Pettus Bridge in Selma in quiet remembrance of all those who had been brutally attacked as they attempted a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery.
In Jackson, MS we met with a 34 year old pastor of a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities holistically restored. That ministry has run a coffee shop, a technology center, and a barber shop in an area of Jackson that is need of redevelopment. It is more than a church. It is a community of believers not necessarily housed in a church building. For Presbyterians, it may resemble a 1001 Worshipping Community. Their mission statement says, “We believe that God wants to restore us not only to right relationship with Himself but also with our own true selves, our families and our communities. Not just spiritually, but emotionally, physically, economically, and socially. Not by offering mercy alone, but by undergirding mercy with justice.”
We spent an afternoon at the Lorraine Motel and the museum next to it that not only highlighted the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. but the entire history of the Civil Rights Movement. Over and over we saw pictures and movie clips of Black children, women and men of all ages who were willing to put their lives on the line to demand freedom from an oppressive system that treated them less well than animals and was determined to keep them in their place. It was their faith, their prayers, their music that gave them the courage to keep on coming no matter what the consequence in order to bring about a new world.
Over and over we saw the virulent hatred that White people had in their hearts, words and actions – a hatred that was bent on keeping the system of Jim Crow and segregation, oppression and brutality in place at all costs. But we also saw pictures and stories of White people who put their lives on the line to demand justice, equality and Black people’s freedom from segregation and oppression.
Our last stop was at a house built as part of the underground railroad. Here, we were taken back to the source of the great sin of racial injustice and racism. With many artistic renderings, shackles, whips and other accoutrements used to subdue and restrain slaves, we were bombarded with the reality of how African people were stolen from their homes and brought to these shores to be worked from sun up until sun down and to be beaten within an inch of their lives for any sign of resistance of the overseer or plantation owner.
But at this underground railroad home we were also reminded that there were White people who resisted the norm of the day, who joined with slaves and their descendants generations later to try to right this evil within our midst.
I was deeply moved throughout this trip. Even though I have been working towards racial justice for many decades, I experienced the reality of this sin within which we live at a new level.
How can Sankofa be Useful to the Working Group on Race and the Synod?
Sankofa is an immersion experience in which there is no place to hide or run for cover. Everything is out there, and everyone is forced to deal with everything they are seeing and experiencing. No matter one’s social location, there is much to be learned and much soul searching that takes place.
Sankofa is a way to bring the reality of racial injustice and racism to the forefront of those from the Synod who choose to partake of this phenomenal experience. It can provide a deeper level of understanding from which we can attempt to move forward in our work to build a movement within our bounds. Experiencing this Sankofa with the Evangelical Convenant Church kept at the forefront the spiritual nature of this journey. There was much praying and laying on of hands to witness the injustices done and the spiritual needs we have as we move forward to tame this beast of racism which in one way or another lives within us all.
The Working Group on Race is talking about providing a Sankofa experiences to members of the Synod of the Northeast sometime in the Spring or Summer of 2017. Stay tuned for information.
Submitted by Nancy Talbot, Stated Clerk