“I want to be consumed by this,” she said. We were sitting in the fellowship hall of one of our partner Alliance churches on a sweltering summer evening. During the day we had been in Selma, Alabama. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, praying prayers written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and visited the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute on the other side. We were on a “Freedom Ride,” and Selma was our last stop.
Our youth ministry spent the 2018-2019 year learning about freedom. We spent our time learning freedom songs, the stories of freedom movements from the abolitionists to the Civil Rights Movement, and reading the Bible with freedom fighters from Frederick Douglass to King. Our mantra every week came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Christ has set us free for freedom,” we’d say. “Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.” The year of learning culminated in a week-long trip called the “Freedom Ride.” Named for the brave Freedom Riders of the movement, it was not your typical youth mission trip. We were going on pilgrimage to historic sites and memorials and learning from people who were striving for freedom today.
Thirty-eight people from Greenwood Forest Baptist Church got on a bus from North Carolina to Alabama. Our youngest co-conspirator was only 8, our oldest 71. We were a group of children, teenagers and adults of many and varied decades, but we were all committed to this journey. We learned and served with the Community Kitchens of Birmingham, where hungry people can show up as guests rather than as beggars. The YWCA of Central Alabama educated us on its mission to eliminate racism and empower women, and we painted a residence hall that provides affordable housing to women.
We spent hours in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery; and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. We did spiritual exercises in Kelly Ingram Park, where movement leaders had staged dramatic actions; in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, where long-forgotten victims of lynching are remembered; and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where brave souls put their bodies on the line for the ballot.
After quietly singing some freedom songs on the last night of the trip, we were talking about how what we had seen that week would change us. One of our recent high school graduates confessed that things had always consumed her – theater at her high school, the college admissions process and others.
She paused and looked up. “I want this to consume me,” she said. I want the struggle for liberation, the fight for freedom, the gospel imperative to share our burdens, the profession that I’m not free until everybody’s free – I want this to consume me.
It’s my prayer for all our churches that the passions and spirits of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriett Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker and Dr. King would consume us, because it’s of fundamental importance to the gospel that the church be committed to freedom. In an often-overlooked sermon titled, “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” Dr. King confessed as much. “This is the role of the church: to free people,” he declared.
May it ever be so.
Wesley Spears-Newsome is associate pastor of community and youth ministry at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church, Cary, NC.