One LSP pilgrim’s reflections on the EJI Memorial and Museum in Montgomery
The great Howard Thurman (1899-1981) wrote that, in the Negro spiritual, “life is regarded as pilgrimage, a sojourn, while the true home of the spirit is beyond the vicissitudes of life, with God!” More than two centuries earlier Puritan preacher John Bunyan wrote a hymn with similar text: There’s no discouragement / shall make (her) once relent / (her) first avowed intent / to be a pilgrim. For me, pilgrimage is the best, perhaps the only image to describe our recent visit to Montgomery.
Pilgrims. That’s what those who went to see and experience the new creations of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) - the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice - were. We still are. I can’t speak for any other pilgrim, but I suspect each of us is still on an inner journey with what happened during our physical sojourn.
I am a pilgrim. I am also a singer. So often, songs - particularly spirituals, some of which we heard in recordings or performances that week in Montgomery - can release our deepest feelings, which can then release the healing we need. During our pilgrimage I heard spirituals and songs that released some healing for me, a recovering white racist, while we sojourned from the convention center to the food trucks, from the marketplace to the Museum and, ultimately, to the Memorial.
A fellow pilgrim said something to me when I exited the Memorial’s structure. More than 800 steel monuments hang there, one column for each county in our country where what the EJI now calls a “racial terror lynching” took place. When you first look at the names of the victims and the dates of their lynchings engraved on those columns, they are at eye level. Slowly, they rise overhead, as you walk the floor that equally slowly falls. After looking up, over and over again, I knew in my body what my fellow pilgrim meant. He asked, “Does your neck hurt?”
My experience at the Memorial filled me with so many feelings - sadness, anger, guilt, shame - that it took time for the healing words of a song to come to me. The words are from what is often called this country’s most beloved (white) Christian hymn, which made its way from Sweden to Russia and finally to the United States. It’s not my favorite hymn, and it’s likely a little too Christian for those of other faiths or none. Yet one stanza of that hymn came to me a week after I came home: And when I think that God his Son not sparing / sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.
Regardless of your theology or mine, our anthropology, our understanding of the human condition as pilgrims, as members and friends of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, as sisters and brothers - surely we can agree on the truth of that final phrase. Sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, there may not even be music. Sometimes, I scarce can take it in. Perhaps in these, our hurting, healing times, together, we can.
~ (The Rev.) Thomas A. Momberg
May 6, 2018