What is unfolding in Ferguson and St. Louis County, Missouri, in the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision is on the minds of most of us as we move toward Thanksgiving. I am reminded about how impossible it is for me to enter into the experience of the African American community: I cannot know what it is like to step out of your house everyday with the knowledge that simply the color of your skin can place you in harm’s way. I am reminded of how impossible it is for me to enter into the experience of the poor: I cannot know what it is like to not have enough to eat or not have adequate housing. The reality is that I am incredibly privileged. But that does not mean that I cannot listen to the voices and stories of those whose experiences I cannot enter. It does not mean that I cannot learn from them, and find my way through that learning to a deeper compassion and empathy. It does not mean that I cannot focus on the common humanity that unites us all. And out of that listening and learning, out of my own place of privilege, I can witness to the injustice and inequality of our society, and find ways to try to change that.
I can find no better words in response to what is happening in Missouri than the words that the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in St. Louis wrote to his congregation, and so I share them with you:
I have said before that there are three types of journeys — tourist, mission and pilgrimage.
As tourists, we go on the journey to consume — goods, services, experiences. As missioners, we go on the journey to effect change — to make the place we are visiting better.
Then there is pilgrimage. As pilgrims, we go on the journey to be changed.
I wrote yesterday that this is only the next stage in an ongoing journey that began well before August 9 and will continue for years after.
We can approach this journey as tourists — consuming the experience as it comes to us on TV and social media. We can approach this journey as missioners — and have as our goal to make the world a better place. These both have their place. Particularly, I believe there is a mission aspect to what the present moment calls us to.
But I want to suggest Christ calls to approach this journey as a pilgrimage — to have as our goal to be changed ourselves.
Friends of mine who have gone on pilgrimages like the Camino de Compostela in Spain have shared that the most remarkable thing is not the steps you take but the people you take them with. It is the sharing of stories, the breaking of bread and the mingling of prayers along the way that is the true sacrament of the pilgrim.
They have shared that the real gift of a band of pilgrims is that even though everyone is walking the same steps, they are all in very different places and as long as none expects the other to be exactly where they are, they can push and prod one another, challenge and chide one another, love and share with one another, and they will all go deeper into the journey together. They will all be changed.
The key is recognizing that we are walking on holy ground — not so much the literal earth beneath our feet, but the holy ground of each other’s lives. That is where Christ enters in.
We arise this morning with the images of the night that is passed still burned in our brains. The feelings we had last night will resurface again — that is the nature of trauma — and they will be joined by new feelings and they will link up with feelings from long ago.
As with the pain and rage and conflict that was expressed on the streets of our city last night, we will have a choice of how to express those feelings. We may be sorely tempted to lash out violently at those who feel differently from us or whose thoughts or mere presence taps into old and deep wounds. We may be tempted to run away and hide — not only from each other but from ourselves.
My fervent prayer is that we will do neither. My fervent prayer is that we will take the pilgrim’s way. That we will continue to travel together and share with each other as openly and honestly as possible the breadth and depth of what we are feeling. But do it without the violence of personal attacks. Do it with the invitation of Christ that proclaims vulnerability as strength and love as the most powerful force for healing the world has ever known.
My fervent prayer is that we will recognize that one of our greatest gifts on this journey is one another, each other’s stories, the breaking of the bread and the mingling of the prayers. That we will listen deeply to each other and hold each other gently as we share these together. And that the other greatest gift on this journey is Jesus, who walks with us and whose story, presence in the breaking of the bread and the prayers is the common ground for the pilgimage we are on together.
My fervent prayer is that we walk this way together with Jesus. That we walk it willing not just to change the world but to be changed ourselves, knowing that is where the most profound change for the world will occur.
We do not need to be all of one heart and mind and this time. But we do need to keep coming together as fellow pilgrims and laying our lives on the table together and trusting that Christ will take us and make us new — not merely for ourselves but for the life of the world.
Yesterday, I invited you to stop, wherever you were, and pray a prayer. I’m going to do that again. But I hope you will not just pray it yourself but feel all your sisters and brothers in this community praying it with you. Ask God to bind us more closely together. Ask God to use us and change us. Ask Christ to be our companion on the way.
And so right now, wherever you are, I invite you to stop. And pray.
Breathe out all your anxiety. Breathe in peace. Breathe out. Breathe in.
Come Lord Jesus. Come fill our hearts. Come fill the streets of our city. Come fill us with courage. Come fill us with peace. Come Lord Jesus. Fill us with trust in you.