WCC Central Committee Session:
Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace,
Rev. Waltrina Middleton
Founder, Cleveland Action, USA
Organizer and Activist, Black Lives Matter, Cleveland, Ohio
As part of the WCC Central Committee’s plenary session on the pilgrimage of justice and peace, Rev. Waltrina Middleton offered these remarks.
Greetings and thank you for your welcome, moderator, Dr. Agnes Abuom. General Secretary, Your Eminences and Excellences, Your Graces, religious leaders and beloved friends in Christ.
In the past five years, I have been on a difficult pilgrimage. I have witnessed up close and personally, state-sanctioned crimes against humanity and was consequently thrust into a movement for Black Lives. Those acts remain disproportionately racialized acts of violence.
Over the course of the past five years I have been arrested, exposed to militarized policing and have carried the weight of moral injury. In Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States, where I reside, a 12-year-old Black child named Tamir Rice was shot and killed in under one second by two Cleveland police officers. His older sister was handcuffed and placed in a police car for coming to her brother’s aid as he was left dying on the ground without medical care—moral injury.
Thirty-six year old Tanisha Anderson—a Black woman living with schizophrenia, was body slammed by police and killed as her teenage daughter was only a few feet away, now marked with the moral injury of witnessing her mom’s death. An unarmed Black couple, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were executed by police with 137 rounds of gunfire into their vehicle—with one cop standing on the hood of their car, emptying his gun into the couple’s bodies. Moral injury.
In February of this year, 23 year old MarShawn McCarrel, a well-known Black Lives Matter activist, committed suicide on the statehouse steps of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a result of the moral injury he suffered from witnessing incessant violence against Black and Brown bodies without any legal or moral accountability. In each case—not one officer—not one supervisor on duty—not one person has been convicted or held accountable in the murders of these innocent lives. It is my duty as a faith leader and activist to make clear the parallel of these egregious and inconvenient truths and the dynamics of sharing in the labor, works and duties of reshaping the narratives by dismantling systems of oppression—not only in the United States, but throughout the Diaspora—because as human beings—we are a part of a great diasporic community—and our dialogues and work for justice and peace must not be isolated.
There is a great urgency of now to transform inequitable systems that perpetuate a culture of poverty, violence, and disenfranchisement, among other issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. How can we work together to hold each other, world leaders and government officials accountable for legislation, laws, policies and moral human law and righteousness? Faith leaders must also take up the banner of activism and resolve a deeper understanding of community-based struggles against systemic injustices on issues relating to race, gender, orientation, mental health and health care, mass incarceration, worker rights, state sanctioned violence, immigration and engagement in legislative and political forums. How can we share in this sacred work and journey so that the victimized will not be further exploited through the scapegoating of politics, orchestrated news headlines, and the abandonment of the church? How can we honor righteous anger and work toward peace and justice?
Forty years ago, a young Black man taught us how to do all of these things when he testified to the moral injury of his people and resolved not to abandon the intersections of his faith and social activism. He famously stated, “I just want to do God's will. And [God has] allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
What greater witness to a pilgrimage that invites us all to discern in the landscape together? This speech is a testament to your prophetic vision of a shared pilgrimage and assurance that there has been a witness to its possibility. So you must continue the work—not only as an ecumenical body; but as an ecumenical body working alongside activists, organizers, and the disinherited.
Your thematic challenge: “Pilgrimage: Discerning the Landscapes Together” is timely; as it requires that we authentically see one another in all of our humanity, locations, sufferings and identities in order to erase the festering sores of racism, classism and normalized cultures of militarized violence that deem communities invisible. It is my hope today, to mobilize diasporic ecumenical faith communities in collaboration with grassroots community organizers and to address the critical needs of our shared landscapes.
Black Lives Matter is a grassroots movement heralding voices from the margins in urgent response to the deaths, abuse, neglect and displacement of God’s people from Baltimore to Ferguson; to LGBTQ advocacy in Uganda; and to Black Lives Matter inspired uprisings in Hong Kong, Israel/Palestine and throughout the Diaspora where there is an outright war against Black and Brown bodies. Because of these truths—I cannot say “All Lives Matter”. All Black Lives Matter is a rallying cry affirming our humanity, human dignity, our rights for equality and justice, and our creative and collective resistance to systems of oppression, hate, and state-sanctioned violence in all of its forms. Thus, in righteous resistance I must unapologetically and prophetically declare Black Lives Matter, until it is true. It is not true in the US or the world.
One week ago, my family gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, to bear witness to our loss and collective lament in the murders of our nine sisters and brothers in the basement of Mother Emanuel AMEC, June 17, 2015. One of the stolen was my first cousin, Rev. Depayne Middleton. In a church a cowardly racist shot and murdered nine remarkably beautiful human beings because of the color of their skin. This was an act of white supremacist terrorism. When I started this pilgrimage five years ago—I began as a witness in solidarity with the bereaved. And now I share in the mourner’s bench. Who will share in Rachel’s lament for her children that are no more? Or will we allow the wails to fall upon deafened ears? Whom will we meet on the roadside? And whom shall we invite to share in this sacred journey with us? For didn’t those that took the pilgrimage on the road to Emmaus ask, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32, NIV) Their eyes were opened and hearts awakened because they welcomed the stranger to take the journey with them. And it was the stranger that blessed them. It was the stranger that helped them to return to the work and not abandon it. It was the stranger that taught us, “We must walk the road and discern the landscapes together.” Friends, as you embark upon a pilgrimage for peace and justice, let it be one of solidarity where you are not merely witnesses observing from the sidelines and sharing in liturgy alone.
Let us not just walk the sacred paths and leave markers that say we were here—we came to that place. As believers, do the work together as our pilgrimage will require travel along rugged, unmarked and forgotten roads. Is there enough love and commitment to a collective ecumenism to make space on the pilgrimage for “the other”? Is there enough faith on this journey to expand our definition of “church”, remove the walls and take our pilgrimage to the streets, across borders and into the margins? Who walks along the road with you? Who are the prophetic witnesses awaiting invite to abide with you and share in the testaments and works? Will your heart burn within from Christ’s message of love and unity on the pilgrim’s weary road?
In this kairos moment, with a great urgency of now; I ask you to boldly proclaim a pilgrimage for peace and justice for and with the people. “Sing a song to wake up those sleeping giants and blow the trumpet in Zion, sounding an alarm! (Joel 2:1). Black Lives Matter! Declare it with me until it rings true throughout the landscape!