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The Movement in My Heart

“God is at work enlarging the boundaries of my heart.” -Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

For many years Congressman John Lewis led bipartisan congressional delegations on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama for the Faith and Politics Institute. As a board member, I was privileged to join one of these in 2001. This is a slightly revised version of an article I wrote shortly after that pilgrimage. It is offered here with deep gratitude for John Lewis, the courage, faith, and hope that infused his life’s commitment to creating the Beloved Community.

The journey began in Washington, D.C. Our first stop was Birmingham. We visited and prayed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four little girls died on a Sunday morning in 1963 when their church was bombed. Across the street from the church was the Kelly Ingram Park where hundreds of other children were attacked by police dogs, blasted by the water from fire hoses, then arrested and jailed for attempting to demonstrate peacefully. We walked in silence through the park, shocked by the real-life sculptures that depict the terrifying events of that day.

We continued to Montgomery, home to the Rosa Parks Museum. Here, the story of the civil rights movement in Montgomery is brilliantly displayed in tableau form. The first tableau depicts Mrs. Parks’ quiet refusal to move to the back of the bus and her arrest. The subsequent historic boycott of the bus transit system led to the dismantling of segregated seating on public transportation in that city.

Another tableau depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting at his kitchen table in a soul-searching midnight conversation with God. A single picture of Gandhi hangs on the wall; a cup of coffee rests on the table; Dr. King’s head is buried in his hands. King spoke often of this dark moment of not knowing. Should he continue his leadership in the movement or give it up? He and his family had been threatened many times. Now he had a new baby daughter to protect. King also knew that his own ego needs might be blinding him. In this midnight hour of prayer, he was surrendering both hopes and fears, wanting only what God wanted.

Finally, our pilgrim community went to Selma where the Voting Rights March began in 1965. First, we worshipped at the Brown Chapel AME Church, and I was struck again by the impact the churches had during the movement. Songs, prayers, scripture and inspired preaching strengthened the resolve and courage of a gathered/frightened community. Churches were the backbone, the soul force of the Movement.

John Lewis led us out to walk. He had led others in 1965 on the day that became known as Bloody Sunday. We walked through Selma, as they had, and onto the Edmond Pettus Bridge. At the crest of the bridge, we knelt for prayers, then continued walking in silence. Years before, others had walked into the billy clubs of charging police, been beaten and gassed on this same bridge. Lewis had almost died from the wounds he received that day.

While walking, the words of freedom songs became my prayers: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” Each step reinforced the prayers. I understood as never before the power of spiritual community that holds on, keeps its eyes and mind “stayed on” the one thing necessary and, when convinced that its vision is God-given, won’t let nobody/no-thing turn it around. Before the pilgrimage, I already knew these sites and events from televised images. Being there, the ground itself felt sacred. This was where blood was shed and where hope and love endured. This was where violence met courage and did not overcome. John Lewis stood with us, inviting all of us to dedicate our lives, in whatever way we could, to building a more just and beautiful community for all.

It was hard being present to God, myself and others on the Alabama pilgrimage, especially in the places of such searing fear, anger and pain. How often I want to be with God in just the sweet places and shut down or turn away from the hard places of life. The pilgrimage called for a heart-breaking willingness to see and touch the worst, and to trust God’s abiding presence through it all. It seemed that God was at work stretching/expanding the boundaries of my heart so that I could hold it all.

At home, when reading about world events, working from home or office, praying for the sick, or being with friends who have lost loved ones, the memory of the pilgrimage encourages me to live caringly in the broken now, to touch suffering with a merciful tenderness, to stand strong with a rooted toughness in the face of injustice. When I am able to do this, I know the freedom of clear-eyed awareness, of facing whatever is going on and holding it prayerfully in God’s love, and of acting with confidence in whatever way I may feel called and empowered by God’s Spirit.

Recently Congressman Lewis visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza here in Washington DC. Only a few days before, peaceful protestors had been gassed and beaten on these streets. Suppression of voting rights was again raising its ugly head in our national debate. Lewis was dying from pancreatic cancer. He stood on the plaza for long minutes silently taking it all in—so much had been accomplished; so much more to do. When asked for his thoughts, he spoke from the heart of his experience: “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Keep your eyes on the prize.”

A version of this piece first appeared in the Shalem News, Summer 2001.

Photo by Terri Sewell.

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Terry Foland
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Terry Foland

hi Carol, thanks for this heart warming article. Just curious, are you in the photo that is shared here? Always great to hear from you or about you.

Kathy Anderson
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Kathy Anderson

Hi Carole,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am currently enrolled in a class called, “Sacred Ground”, written in part by VTS, for a white audience. It is and will be life changing for me. I am grateful to be able to participate and to learn what is mine to do.
Wishing you well,
Kathy Anderson
(still dancing :-))