Dec '98 - Jan '99
American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Desmond Tutu and the Interfaith Pilgrims
Walking through the South this past summer with the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage (a year-long journey from Levertt. Massachusetts to Capetown, South Africa, retracing the footsteps of slavery), many of us thought of Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial 35 years ago. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." This part of the dream always brings tears to my eyes, in part because I am a daughter of slave-owners, but more because there is some deep, universal appeal about unity after difference. Although it was not one of our explicit goals, the idea walking together touched many of the Pilgrims I got to know during my two and a half months on the journey-including women and men of African descent as well as European-Americans and people of Japanese, German, French, Chilean, Wampanoag, and other nationalities. Yet the harmony of Dr. King's vision eluded us as we struggled-young and old, Black and white, male and female-with the divisions set in place by our common history and all too alive in our own community. White Pilgrims often seemed locked into feeling there should be unity, whether or not we were doing our homework on our own racism. Despite our wishes and theories-our privileges as white Americans, and our inability to see and acknowlege them, were central obstacles to unity on the Pilgrimage. Some Pilgrims of African descent, quite understandably, did not feel safe journeying into so painful a history with white people who seemed unaware of their own racism. As James Baldwin once said, from the other side of the color line, "We cannot be free until they are free."
The day we were to walk into Dr. King's home city began with two events that spoke to our struggles with unity: a mid-morning meeting with our Honorary Advisor for the journey, Bishop Desmond Tutu and, before that, the predawn ascent of a holy mountain. Stone Mountain, a huge, anomalous dome of pinkish granite rising out of the Georgia pine forest twenty miles northeast of Atlanta was once a sacred site for indigenous Cherokee, Chickasaw, and other peoples. But the mountain was desecrated, as European settlers claimed it and Southern whites had giant, Rushmoresque images of Confederate generals carved into the steepest of its rock faces (which we could not see from the top). Most shameful of all, the town at the base of the mountain became the center of Klan revival in the early 20th century. The awesome granite-slab summit-broader than Half Dome in Yosemite-became the site of torture and death in that era of the lynch mob. But a cleansing has begun: the town of Stone Mountain now has an activist Black mayor who invited us to the top for prayer at sunrise.
In this most holy place, many pilgrims seemed to receive messages from the felt histories we sought to heal. Yet I think none of us felt like sons and daughters at the table of brotherhood. In but a few minutes, the prayer circle we usually formed at sites of suffering began to dissolve into small clusters; individuals scattered here and there on the vast summit or wandered toward or away from each other, whipped by wind and veiled in surreal mists. An African American lay prone on the rock her white robes fluttering in the wind while another stood in a yoga pose some distance away; a local Baptist minister preached into the wind; two indigenous Pilgrims found a small grassy spot for prayer; seven Buddhist monks chanted above the site of the Confederate carving and white photographers roamed from place to place looking for shots. Many, including myself, felt power in these experiences, but many others felt daunted, discouraged, that in more than three months of walking together we had not grown more united and powerful as a community.
In this mood of heightened contradictions, once off the mountain, the 70 of us entered the Victory Baptist Church to meet Bishop Tutu. Our Honorary Advisor-teaching this Fall in Atlanta-is recovering from the prostate cancer that attacked his body as he took in the inconceivable viciousness of Truth and Reconciliation testimony, the pain of unraveling history in South Africa. A newspaper article the previous week had quoted him on the difficulty of working with the other commissioners-their very diversity, he said, sometimes made that work seem like "a living hell." Yet the commission knew it must work out its differences if its historic mission were to be accomplished-and it did. The experience resonated deeply for us. As the short, vibrant South African strode into the room sparkling with energy and good humor in his "rainbow" jersey, we knew we would hear from this amazing man, exactly what we needed to hear.
Very dear friends, good morning. It's wonderful to be here amongst you-a really very great privilege to be counted amongst you. I don't do anything, I mean I'm just a decoration. You are the ones who are doing all, and I get all the glory reflected from yourselves (laughter). I thank you very much indeed for what you are and for what you are doing. And may I also express our deep appreciation to Victory Baptist Church for allowing us to use your very beautiful facilities. And thank you Pastor Tim Mc Donald for what you are and for what you have done for us in South Africa. Just a very few years ago, South Africa was saying that people of different races didn't belong together, and they would try to make out that race-color-were so important that they split people apart.
I don't know whether you know the story of what they say happened when God was creating human beings. They say God created human beings out of dust. And having made the first lot, then God-you know like bricks, you put bricks into a kiln to fire them and make them strong-so, God put this first lot into the oven, and then God got busy doing other things (laughter), and forgot that He had put this lot in the oven. And when He came to, look, OOH.... when He got to opening it was all burnt to cinders, you see, and they said, well see, this is how Black people came about (laughter). Then God said, well, now, let's try again, and God put a second lot into the oven. This time God was over anxious, and opened the oven too quickly (much laughter). And this lot was underdone (much laughter); and they say this is how white people came about.
The point of course, as you see is that skin color-race-are total irrelevancies. They say absolutely nothing about the worth of a person. Skin color doesn't tell you whether this person is smart, whether this person is generous, whether this person is compassionate. The thing that makes a human being a person of worth in our view, is that one is created in the image of God. Each person is a God carrier, and that is what makes each person so precious. To treat one such person as if they were less than this is not just evil-which it is-is not just painful-as it frequently is. It is a veritable blasphemy. It is as if you were spitting in the face of God. And that is why all of us have struggled against the injustice of racism. Many have thought that it was a political (Tutu chuckles) struggle. For us it wasn't. It was a deeply spiritual, deeply religious struggle, because it had to do with whether you obeyed or did not obey God.
So it's wonderful, looking out on you, and seeing you, people of different races, people of different faiths, each bringing your own particular gift, your own particular insights, even about the Divine. Because, you see, the Divine, by definition, is infinite. And none of us, in our finitude, could ever comprehend the Divine. Why are we scared of learning from one another? That is what I want to say... a very big thank you to you, a very big thank you for making us continue to have faith in humankind.
Because, you see, what we are commemorating ... is something that ought to make us wonder what ever got into God to create human beings who could do things as ghastly as this: where a human being owns another human being as if they were just a thing, a piece of property, an animal, something that you didn't think had any worth.
Sitting in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and listening to some of the atrocities, accounts of the atrocities, that had happened, you see...Human beings have an extraordinary capacity for, evil. We, all of us, have, an extraordinary capacity for evil. Can you imagine, here is this mother listening to the police telling her: "We abducted your son. We gave him drugged coffee. We shot him in the head, and then we burned his body. And as we were burning his body ... we were having a barbecue on the side-drinking beer and burning meat this side, and burning human flesh this side."...And you say, "How are we capable of that?" And yet we are-all of us. And we have to keep saying, "There but for the grace of God go I." But it is God's grace that has maybe ensured that you didn't go that way. And so you give, you give so much, so much evidence of the fact that there is another side to human, to human nature.
Now let me tell you another story. It's a white woman. She was a victim of a bomb blast. A number of her friends were killed in that bomb blast. She was so badly wounded that she spent several months in intensive care. And when she came out, her children had to bathe her, to clothe her, to feed her, because she couldn't do these things for herself. She can't walk through the checkpoint at an airport because she's still got shrapnel in her, and if you walk through there all sorts of alarms go off. Do you know what she said? She said of this experience that left her in this condition, "It enriched my life. I would like to talk, to meet the perpetrator," she said, "in a spirit of forgiveness. I would like to forgive him." Which is wonderful. But then she goes on to say, "And I hope he forgives me."... You see...yes...we have the capacity for the greatest possible evil, but we human beings too have the capacity for the greatest possible good.
You affirm us in the view that human beings are wonderful creatures, totally wonderful creatures. You are working with pilgrimage, in part to say to the world, don't forget, don't forget what happened,... don't forget. I went to Dachau near Nuremberg two years ago. It is an old... a former concentration camp, and they now have a museum there. At the entrance to the museum are these haunting words: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."
By walking the Middle Passage you are saying, "We are not going to forget. We are not going to forget, not so that we should prevent, we are not going to forget so that we may heal the pain and anguish. We are not going to forget so that we may never repeat, let this never again happen to God's children." This is what you are saying. You are walking the middle passage, so that you may be inspired by the courage and the determination of those who walked it first-those who did not allow adversity to overcome them.
And the very last thing I want to say is (pause) God (pause), the Omnipotent One (pause), is actually weak (pause), impotent (pause), except for you. Our God, wanting justice to happen, does not send a lightning bolt to destroy the evil ones, the unjust ones (Tutu whispers here). God wanted apartheid to end in South Africa, but God didn't send poison gas to destroy the perpetrators of apartheid. God depends on you, and you, and you. And it is people like you, and many others who support you, who will ensure that God's world becomes what God has always dreamt God's world would be: A world of loving, of caring, of sharing, of compassion. And if you fail (pause), God has failed (whispering again). But it won't happen, because God depends on you.
As I write at the end of November, 48 determined Pilgrims-beset with financial and organizational problems (though appearing to have found more internal solidarity and a way for white folks to be more accountable) have begun a scaled-back version of their journey through the Caribbean. They hope to reach Dakar in west Africa early in January. The plan is to continue revisiting the effects of slavery in several west African countries-concluding in Bishop Tutu's home city of Cape Town, South Africa, at the end of May, 1999.
Louise Dunlap is available to speak and show slides of the Pilgrimage to help raise funds for those who have already traveled so far (617/547-6881). Contributions to support the Pilgrimage, as it journeys over sea and into Africa, may be sent to: Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, c/o First Congregational Church, 165 Main St., Rm 11, Amherst MA 01002; 413/256-6698.