Bus Ride to Justice: Toward Racial Reconciliation in the Churches of Christ

Recently it was a great honor and privilege of mine to participate in an experience called "Bus Ride to Justice." This bus ride was the dream of Dr. Jerry Taylor, my colleague at ACU, and Jonathan Storment, the pulpit minister the Highland Church of Christ where I attend. Our host for the Ride was David Fleer from Lipscomb University. And on the eve of the trip we were kindly treated to a barbecue dinner at Lipscomb given by the Hazelip School of Theology.

On the "Bus Ride to Justice" were ten black preachers from the Churches of Christ and ten white preachers from Churches of Christ. The two day Ride would take us through pivotal Civil Rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskegee and Selma. The goal of the Ride was to begin friendships and to initiate conversations between us about the racial issues facing America and our congregations.

I'd like to share a couple of personal highlights from the Ride.

In Montgomery David started us off downtown at the train station where slaves were unloaded during the years of the American slave trade. From there we walked to a historical marker just outside Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative. (Many readers will be familiar with Bryan's best-selling book Just Mercy and his TED talk which has over two-million views.) The historical marker in front of the EJI gives the history of the slave trade in Montgomery and marks the location where slaves were warehoused after they were taken off the trains.

From there we walked uphill along Dexter Avenue, climbing toward the Alabama State Capital where only few months ago Confederate flags flew proudly on the grounds, just recently removed after the tragic shooting in Charleston. Along with the Capital tall corporate and government buildings cast shadows on a smaller brick building. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Home church to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the headquarters of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the protest that kicked off the American Civil Rights struggle.

One of the most amazing theological sights in all of America is to stand on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and to stare around at the surrounding buildings, soaring edifices to economic and political power. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is literally on the front steps of the Capital, birthplace of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis delivered his inaugural address.

Standing on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church I looked up at the tall buildings casting their shadows down on the small church.

"Our battle is not against flesh and blood," the words of Ephesians 6 echoed in my mind as I scanned the heights of the Capital and the surrounding buildings, "but against principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places."

After spending the night on the campus of Tuskegee University, home of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, the next day we were honored and blessed to spend time with Fred Gray, outside of Thurgood Marshall the most significant civil rights lawyer in American history. Brother Gray represented both Rosa Parks and MLK during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He also represented the Freedom Riders and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marchers. Brother Gray also represented the men in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Beyond his influential work with civil rights litigation Brother Gray has also been a preacher in the Churches of Christ. While serving as the preacher for the Tuskegee Institute Church of Christ in 1974 Brother Gray helped integrate his largely black congregation with the largely white East End Church of Christ.

And finally, the most impactful aspect of the Bus Ride for Justice, for me at least, were the two evenings where we shared during deep dinner conversations. After each of the two days experiencing the civil rights sites we broke up into smaller discussion groups at dinner, a mixture of white and black preachers. Our conversations were wide ranging. We discussed everything from the current racial tensions in America--from Ferguson to Charleston--to our increasingly segregated schools and cities to how they, as preachers, might speak into the hearts and minds of their congregations on all these topics.

The problems facing us are huge, complex and daunting. And I will not suggest that our conversations came to any solutions.

But in a very real sense, our time together was the solution. Or at least the beginnings of it. Black and white. All followers of Jesus. We rode together. Walked together. Laughed together. Shared rooms and bread together. We listened to each other. We prayed for each other.

And we sang together.

The morning we were in Tuskegee we found ourselves with a few minutes to kill before our meeting with Fred Gray. We walked over to the TU chapel and found that we had the space to ourselves. We sat in the pews to enjoy the architecture and air conditioning.

And then Brother Jerry started to sing. And soon twenty preachers and one psychologist began to join in. We're Church of Christ people, so singing a capella in a church is something we do naturally.

It was a magical moment. Holy ground. I felt blessed to be there. Thankful, in the midst of America's racial strife, that my small tribe, the Churches of Christ, had brought us all together.

As we sang I pulled out my iPhone, placed it on the pew beside me and pushed the record button.

I wanted to remember that moment. I wanted to remember following Brother Jerry's lead.

I wanted to remember our voices, black and white, singing in harmony.

[Album art picture courtesy of Matt Pinson taken during our Bus Ride to Justice.]

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