Visiting civil rights sites leads to resolve to work for racial justice

Mennonite Brethren youth and young adults learn about racial injustice in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina as part of an MCC-sponsored study of U.S. racial injustice.

Participants of the Multicultural Peace Collaboration (MPC) and U.S. Mennonite Brethren denominational leaders stand together in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on July 23, 2021. The bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when more than 600 people marching for voting rights were confronted with violent attacks by state troopers. The visit to the bridge was part of an interactive learning experience that MCC facilitated about racial injustice. (Face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were not required outside during this time this photo was taken.) Photo courtesy of Saji Oommen

10/28/21 update: The list of supporting organizations has been updated.  

A diverse group of 20 Mennonite Brethren youth and young adults gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, in late July to begin a nine-day study of Christ’s peacemaking mandate, while studying the history of racism in the U.S.

Many did not know one another, and each participant came with a different background. Some came from urban centers of the West Coast and others from the rural hills of North Carolina. Some had lived all over the world; others were living in the small town where they were born and raised. Many were students at different levels of various higher education institutions.

Together, they agreed to learn from one another and build relationships across differences. By the end of the nine days, almost every participant named the diversity of the group as a central strength and blessing of the experience.

The gathering, called the Multicultural Peace Collaborative (MPC), was a partnership between Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S., West Coast MCC, the U.S. Conference of MB Churches (USMB) and Multiply, the mission agency of the MB churches in the U.S. and Canada. The Center for Anabaptist Studies at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary provided a grant that made it possible for participants to attend at a significant discount.

It began with four days of interactive learning, traveling through Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia. For one day, the group overlapped with USMB denominational leaders who also had gathered to learn, lament and reconcile with the history of racism in the U.S.

Together, current and future church leaders walked the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, where more than 600 civil rights marchers asking for voting rights were brutally attacked by state troopers on March 7, 1965.

After crossing the bridge both ways under the scorching southern sun and learning about the history of that Bloody Sunday, the MPC and denominational leaders joined together, in lament and hope, to share communion.

“Something happens to our body, our hearts and our minds when we are physically present together in the spaces of historical racial acts,” says Dina Gonzalez-Pina, West Coast MCC executive director and a facilitator of the MPC. “It is from that space that we hear the blood crying out for justice and, as peacemakers, we cannot live as though we don’t hear and see the injustice.”

In Montgomery, the MPC spent a day at the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. At both places, the representation of the U.S.’s heavy history offered immense learning for participants about the legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation and mass incarceration in the U.S.

The group ended their time with a worship service at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Martin Luther King Jr. pastored at Dexter Avenue for six years and led much of Montgomery’s early civil rights activity from there. Montgomery was also the site of the famous 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, when Blacks walked instead of using the bus for more than a year to protest segregation on buses.

“Being in the actual spaces where the civil rights movement began and progressed was the most impactful aspect,” writes Lauren Purvis of Fresno, California, in her evaluation. “I’ve learned about these events but to travel to and sit within those spaces and buildings made it so real.”

After four days of intensive, hands-on learning, the MPC headed to North Carolina where they spent the second half of the trip reflecting on what they had seen and experienced.

Facilitators used MCC’s new Peaceful Practices curriculum to connect history to current realities and offer practical tools that could help participants build peace and reconciliation in their everyday contexts.

They also participated in You Got Booked, an MCC learning tool that helped them make connections between a history of racial injustice and the current system of mass incarceration in the U.S.

Together, the group reflected on Psalm 85:10, which depicts God’s restoration. Based on the Spanish version of the passage, participants grappled with what the work of truth, mercy, justice and peace looks like, as pillars of reconciliation in a broken world.

Each participant committed to implementing their learnings when they returned home. Many committed to educating others, speaking out in their spheres of influence and getting more involved in racial justice efforts.

The MPC was the first event of its kind in the U.S. for USMB youth and young adults. Due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, planning for a second event is already underway.

By Jes Stoltzfus Buller,  MCC U.S. peace education coordinator.


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