Lynda Blackmon Lowery was 15 years old in 1965, when she marched for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On July 20, 2021, Lowery had lunch with Mennonite Mission Network's Youth Venture team, during our Civil Rights Learning Tour.
"During the civil rights movement, we used to say that we were putting the 'unity' in 'community.' Today, we need to put the 'human' back in 'humanity.'"
Based in their hometown of Selma, Lowery and her younger sister, JoAnne Blackmon Bland, lovingly expose pilgrims like us — five young adults from Florida and North Carolina, and my wife and me from Indiana — to the cruel realities of racism.
With her words, Lowery drew a bridge from the past to the present. She lamented that she sees the same hatred on the faces of some White people in 2021 that she endured from the Alabama state troopers 56 years ago. That's when they blocked her path to freedom on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on "Bloody Sunday."
As a cure for the sickness of racism, Lowery prescribed the medicine of "learning to see each other as human."
This human-to-human connection resurfaced as a major theme throughout our trip. In our nightly debrief, team members often interpreted the events of the day in terms of their personal relationships. For example, the Legacy Museum in Montgomery traces the evolution — not the end — of the enslavement of human beings, from colonial times to the unjustly disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color today. In one haunting exhibit, visitors encountered speaking holograms that portrayed persons of African descent behind iron bars, pending sale at slave auctions. There we heard, as from the ghosts of real people, the stories of children separated from parents, husbands from wives, siblings from siblings. For our own team, which included biological siblings and cousins, as well as members from the same church, this rupture of human community seemed to strike us as racism's cruelest effect.
"I can't imagine losing my sister," and "What would I do without my parents?" were typical reactions among our team.
But if the sin of racism is the dehumanization of people, salvation from racism requires the power from beyond humanity. I was reminded of this when listening to Lowery tell her story about Bloody Sunday. "Usually," she said, "when we would sing, we would feel so powerful, and we knew that nothing could turn us around. But on that day, something didn't feel right."
Her words, about the evil that had infused the whole atmosphere, reminded me that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV).
Therefore, I believe, that to overcome the attacks of people who are in the grip of evil, and not to be overcome by evil ourselves, we need to "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power" (Ephesians 6:10 NRSV). We need to "lay aside the works of darkness," the weapons of the flesh, and "put on the armor of light" (Romans 13:12)., We need "to put on the Lord Jesus Christ," the divine presence who makes us fully human to one another (Romans 13:14).
Youth Venture is the service program of Mennonite Mission Network that gives young people, ages 15-22, the opportunity to serve, learn and worship in local communities around the world, through 1- to 3-week terms each summer. For more information on future trips, click here. For more photos from the learning tour Sawatzky co-led, click here.