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My Sankofa Journey by Gretchen Greenawalt

Gretchen Greenawalt is a member at Sanctuary Columbus who recently took a Sankofa Journey with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Sankofa is a bus ride from Chicago to Alabama tracing steps along the Civil Rights Movement.  Gretchen shares some details about the trip and the way that it impacted her.

What was something you enjoyed about the trip?

I connected with the 7 other folks from Columbus (5 of whom were from Sanctuary) and appreciated the time away from my normal life for an extended period of time. It was a great gift to have extended time and space away to think about something beyond family life. To do so in community was an even greater gift.

Our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church, has been running this trip twice a year for the last twenty years, and it shows.  We were able to see and do so much more than I imagined.

What was one thing you find yourself telling people after the Sankofa trip?

Ok, well it’s hard to narrow it down.  But I do tell people that before we boarded the bus for our 4-day trek, the leaders invited us to be fully present to the experience and refrain from trying to “fix” things.   One Sankofa leader gave a devotion about Jesus crucifixion and burial. Jesus’ body was put to death on Friday, and his body sat in the tomb all day long on Saturday. Before his bodily resurrection happened, there was death, destruction, rotting, decay, and the community experienced widespread devastation, anger, disappointment, confusion. The Sankofa leader then invited us to enter into the experience and “sit with the bodies.”  That’s where the trip began.

On this trip, there were so many bodies:  the 4 young African American girls killed by a white supremacist who planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church (which we visited in Birmingham).  The 2 million Africans whose bodies were discarded at sea on the journey to slavery (which we learned at Slave Haven in Memphis).  The 4,400 African Americans who were a target of racial terrorism and suffered to the point of death through public lynching – either burning, drowning, or hanging (which we saw memorialized at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice).  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. The ever-growing list of African American brothers and sisters whose bodies were treated as if they did not have souls weighed heavily on me during the trip. I repeatedly had tears streaming down my face while reading descriptions in museums, watching documentaries, listening to tour guides, and standing on the soil on which African Americans were killed.

What change in your life will result from the trip?

I feel re-energized to work towards racial justice.  I’m learning to confess my apathy and complacency daily.  I’ve begun engaging with white people more directly on this issue of seeing African American people as more than just ‘bodies’…so my brothers and sisters of color don’t have to do all the work.

Since the trip a month ago, I’ve scoured the Equal Justice Initiative website and watched John Oliver address mass incarceration.  I’ve already read Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime and I’m working my way through White Awake by Daniel Hill.  I’m learning about white guilt and what to do about my own white guilt.  I’ve looked up every organization in Columbus working with prisoners (because Mass Incarceration is in some ways slavery restructured).

I am enjoying creating a space to discuss how whiteness affects my friends of color at my IF:Table too. I remain prayerful on my knees, crying out like I did at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for mercy for myself and for white folks who think that whiteness is supreme.  This memorial was a highlight of the trip for me.

You’ve said the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (The Lynching Memorial) was the most profound place you stopped.  Describe it to me a bit.

Yes.  As someone on our trip explained “an incredibly beautiful tribute to an incredibly horrific history.”  Rust colored boxes the size of coffins hang down from above like bodies from a lynching tree. The memorial is a tribute to the 4,400 African American men and women whose lives were taken in brutal ways by white people (and often crowds) in order to perpetuate the “narrative of racial inferiority.”  So heavy to see so many names, and read descriptions about why African American men and women were killed, like Michael Hill’s family members (yes, Michael Hill from our church, who gave me permission to share this): Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks-Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner.

I love how the memorial was designed to be interactive too. It will serve as a way for counties to deal with their past of racial terrorism by inviting each county who lynched someone to come, take up a coffin-sized memorial and place it in their own county. Hopefully these markers being erected around the nation will change the story that’s told (or not told) about our racial history.  Why was I largely unaware of this era of history?

How does your faith interact with what you encountered?

I believe resurrection happened and will happen again.  In the meantime, I’m convinced that we must smell the rotting bodies, and work towards changing policies and changing mindsets.  I believe that Christians must lead this way because Christ calls us “one”.

Pastor Rich closed our trip standing in the aisle of the bus, singing into the microphone the song his grandma taught him “Lily of the Valley”.  This was a powerful moment not only because our pastor can BELT IT OUT, but because when we enter the pain and death in the valley, Jesus is the living Lily to bring us hope.  When I am tempted to remain comfortable instead of address systemic issues of oppression, the Lily equips me with strength to speak words of justice. When I inflict pain on a brother or sister through my own words, action or lack of action, the Lily reminds me of His beautiful and complete devotion to the Father’s will. When I can’t see any flowers because I’m in the darkness, The Living Lily of the Valley reveals Himself to me.

Richard Johnson