Reflection on Sankofa Journey

Dr. Sangyil (Sam) Park
Associate Professor of Preaching and Director of DMin Program

As I am writing this article, a fierce debate is occurring among people in Selma, Alabama, and online, over the effort that the City Council of Selma is making to rebuild the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a noted Confederate general in the American Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1860s. Advocates are adamant that a new bust of Forrest, their “hero,” be built on city owned land because a former bust had been stolen from the local museum earlier this year. Opponents want the construction stopped, arguing that the city known as the launching ground of the Civil Rights Movement should not dishonor itself by allowing the construction of the monument to the “brutal racist.”

As someone who has just come back from a contemplative trip to the South, I feel like the stories of painful racial segregation and conflicts that I heard throughout the journey are never a thing of the past but the current reality that still divide people in this country. I feel more frustrated than ever by this and wonder what we should do as the church about these ongoing racial and political divisions among us.

In early August, I joined a group of sixteen Christian sojourners, clergy and laity from across the nation, to take a 1700 mile bus trip from Chicago to the southern cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis to experience the civil rights movement that changed the course of our nation’s history. Not to mention my age, but also as an immigrant to whom all the injustices of slavery and racial segregation before my time were never real, I had wanted to learn and feel what history was talking about with my own eyes and heart.

To name a few places we visited: the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four innocent black girls were killed during Sunday School by a bomb planted by a member of local KKK to stop a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham. We visited Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law organization in Montgomery, that provides legal assistance to condemned prisoners, especially juveniles who were sentenced to die in prison for the crimes they committed when they were thirteen or fourteen years of age. They said that in the United States, dozens of thirteen and fourteen year old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults.

We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where thousands marched to Montgomery, including Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. This march eventually led to the approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We visited a house in Jackson, Mississippi, where a local businessman named Jacob Burkle was believed to have used his house as a haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railroad. We also went to Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. King was assassinated while he was visiting to support the economic equality and social justice for garbage collectors.

I have gone on trips abroad to Europe and the Middle East to trace the footprints of those who have handed down the faith we have. But these three nights and four days in our own backyard, America, were more meaningful to me because everything we experienced and shared with one another was related to our lives and work here and now in our communities. It was a difficult journey not because we had to sleep two out of three nights on the bus while we were moving, but because some of the stories we heard from those places. While moving, we watched related videos, shared our feelings and thoughts, prayed, and laughed together. Being honest and vulnerable was a part of the covenant together. 
This trip was called Sankofa Journey and was organized by the Evangelical Covenant Church headquartered in Chicago. “Sankofa” in a West African language means “looking backward to move forward.” Throughout the trip, each of us were seated with a partner of a different race. My partner was BK, an African American pastor; BK and I shared stories of growing up, families, and pastoral experiences, as well as challenges and hopes in our lives. By the end of the journey, it was not just he and I who bonded, but all sixteen people who became an extended family.

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