This past Friday– August 28, 2020– I joined some friends on the Walk the Walk 2020 march from Alexandria VA to Washington DC, ‘a faith pilgrimage of racial reckoning, resolve and love’ on the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘March on Washington’ and the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmitt Till. Of the 120 or so Christians and faith leaders who walked that 8 miles, 20 of them had walked all the way from Charlottesville, a journey of 130 miles, on-foot, over nine days.
I marched because I’d been both inspired by one mentor’s example and also haunted by a wise and sobering observation.
Gordon Cosby, who along with his wife Mary founded and pastored the Church of the Savior, has helped form my life about as much as any other person, for which I am grateful to him and to God. He was present at the first March on Washington in 1963. Then on Sunday, March 7, 1965 there was another march in Selma, Alabama. It would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” after John Lewis and dozens of others were brutally beaten at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on a march seeking voting rights for Black Americans. That night, King sent out a call to White clergy to come to Selma to participate in a second March. On Monday, Gordon received a more specific invitation to join, and within an hour, he had left his home in Washington DC to get on a plane to Alabama. He was among the first White clergymen to join the second March, which was taking place the following day, Tuesday. He told his church before leaving, “If you do not find me in the march, look for me in the graveyard, for that’s where I’ll be.” You can read more of this story here.
Simply, Gordon’s actions have always inspired me. When King made that call to White Christians, Gordon said Yes to it, and took the trouble to respond. I’ve wondered over the years, “Would I have done that?”
At the eulogy for George Floyd this past June, Al Sharpton announced plans for another March on Washington to take place on August 28. I immediately put it on my calendar. I don’t have the same affinity for Sharpton as I do for King, so when I discovered “Walk the Walk,” offered by Christian organizers for faith leaders, I began orienting on that smaller stream feeding into the larger river of the protests in DC that day.
As the day drew closer, I began to hesitate. I mused, “There is a pandemic on… I’d probably have to sleep in someone’s house the night before… I could really use that Friday to catch up on work and try to winnow my email inbox… I’ll have to get up early and be tired for the rest of the weekend… I’ll have to drive back home through rush hour… it’s August in DC and it’ll be hot and 8 miles is a long way to walk…” and so on. I’m not proud of these thoughts, but they were there. In fact, when I reflect on the issues and people I’d be marching for, I’m ashamed of my reticence and second thoughts.
I asked Tara what she thought about it, and she simply asked, “In 20 years, what do you hope you would have done?” That made it clear enough.
Still, I was impressed that as the day of the march got closer it felt just so, well, inconvenient. It was not lost on me that it was so much more inconvenient for Gordon and the others, and that mine was hardly any sacrifice at all. It’s deeply true that standing up for something is never convenient. “Good trouble” is always inconvenient.
By the time Thursday night rolled around, however, I was ready and actually excited to get up at 3am, start driving at 4, and start marching with the others at 7am.
In the scope of things, inconvenience is nothing compared to doing the right thing. Gordon (and so many others, Black and White) have taught me this, and are inspirations. Inconvenience is a very small price to pay. I remember learning about some of the Civil Rights workers in the 60s writing and signing their wills before leaving to take on their next initiative in the South.
And then the haunting observation. It’s been so often said that I have no idea who said it first. Regarding the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the current movement in America for racial reckoning and justice, it’s been observed, “What you are doing now is what you would have been doing then.” Back then, I hope I would have stood up, spoken up, and joined in the marches and the protests and the movements. To do so now, in whatever form it takes to advocate for racial justice, is simply a way for me and us to take up our place in this long campaign for racial equity in America.
The Walk the Walk 2020 march was great. It started with prayers, a spoken word poem, and two Psalms, and as we walked I prayed, sometimes joining in the chants, especially when they simply were the names of unarmed Black people who had been killed. As we walked, many passersby offered their words of encouragement and support, and many cars sounded their horns in response to the signs that read “Honk for Justice” or “Black Lives Matter”. On several occasions we’d stop, one of the organizers would offer a reflection and a prayer, and then we’d all pray.
Shane Claiborne was our march leader for the day with a bullhorn slung around his shoulder. I really appreciate Shane’s person and life, and we became better friends when we met strangely and providentially in a hostel in Amman, Jordan in March of 2003. I was on my way to Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta with then-pregnant Tara; Shane was on his way to Baghdad to be there when the bombs started dropping and show Christian solidarity with the suffering Iraqis. He made it, and barely made it back, and that incredible story is here.
As we walked through the streets of DC, now swelling with participants in the much bigger march at the Lincoln Memorial, there were more people to witness our little band of pilgrims. Shane would say to onlookers through the bullhorn, “Hey, we’ve walked 130 miles–from Charlottesville to DC–a lot of us are clergy and pastors, and our faith will not allow us to be silent.” It was simply amazing to see the reaction of the people, many who were surprised to hear this and most seemed really moved. One man couldn’t believe it and whipped out his phone to start filming. We passed another man, a security guard just doing his job at his building, who when he heard that simply and quietly said, “Grateful. Grateful.”
I was struck by the power of what Shane and the other 19 ‘long-walkers’ did, simply by walking that distance over the space of about 8 days. I felt privileged to join in even just for 8 miles at the end. Their sacrifice generated an immense amount of credibility in their message and the urgency of it, and their sacrifice created a beautiful solidarity with those for whom we were all walking.
My effort was a small part of their greater work, and yet isn’t that the way it always is? No one can do it alone, and no does it completely. Our efforts now are a small part of King’s and Cosby’s greater work then, and they matter.
More so and more importantly, our efforts in bringing God’s Kingdom are a small part of Jesus’ greater work, and yet they matter too. There’s a quiet gratitude that comes with knowing this.
No work for a greater mission is so small that it doesn’t matter.
And Jesus’ mission–healing, loving, redeeming, reconciling–is the greatest mission of all, and worth marching for, and it’s never too late to join in.
My colleague, Drew Masterson, has also written a reflection from our time marching together, focused on unpacking “The Liturgy of a Protest March.”