By Matt Ness, Co-Pastor of One Church, Louisville, KY
photo credit: Helen Salley
Last week I went on a three-and-a-half-day journey through the south. We slept two nights on the bus. There were as many emotions as there were miles. I journeyed with a few old friends and many new friends. It was a bit raw. A few moments were a bit much. I believe I’m different because of it.
There is something to standing on the sacred spaces where blood has been shed. Bloodshed of any kind is tragic, but the type shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is different. The type shed at 16th St. Baptist in different. The blood shed on soil like that is sacrificial in a way that is unmatched.
I don’t know that I will forget crossing the bridge in Selma with my friend, in line with the rest of our group. We walked silently and we walked slowly. It took so long to see the end of the bridge. I knew that no violence was waiting for us at the other side, yet I couldn’t wait to see what was ahead. On that “Bloody Sunday” they had a violent idea of what was waiting on the other side for them, and yet the marchers marched towards their freedom. The beatings that followed; they matched the beatings of the marchers in Birmingham weeks before, and Montgomery weeks before that. They matched the beatings on the Freedom Riders. Those beatings on the bridge in Selma matched the beatings under Jim Crow; right before the bodies were lynched. They matched the beatings the slave owners delivered on their property, and the sailors on their cargo before that. The sacred crimson investment of the people who have gone before us, believing that there would be a day when we would see one another as we were created.
That day is not today. I am aware that my friends of African descent have no great yesterday to turn back to. The threat of slave master beatings and the Sunday afternoon lynching have changed form, but the threat of power exerted has not gone away. Evil has adapted. Under the guise of individualism and color blindness there is a whitewashing of where we have been. There are people like me who are so used to the elevated oxygen of privilege that we are appalled by the question of how we got here, as if being an image bearer of the Most High God was our exclusive title.
Oh, us silly privileged folks. We act as if God is the God of the lofty. We talk as though Jesus was the Messiah to the already-arrived. The Gospel that we were first invited into was not our own, it was shared with us, and cannot be commandeered like it is land, dance or music. It belongs in the hands of those whom it came for. The Gospel is for the oppressed, the looked over, the ill in need of a doctor and the hurting. It is the Gospel for those who have the courage to cry out in their brokenness and surrender everything to the One who sets things right. I cannot hold onto my privilege, power and authority and expect to be held by my God. They won’t coexist.
A few people asked why I would subject myself to the memories of the South. After all, I was born in the North, to people from the North. The reason is simple. Those who suffered are my people. Those who turned on the hoses and loosed the dogs are my people. This is my story too. I will mourn with those who are mourning so that I may rejoice with those rejoicing. This is my honor. This is my life. Thanks to those of you who journey beside me.