I returned home last night from our annual Civil Rights pilgrimage, the sixth one I have organized and led. Over 65 different people have joined me over the years, sometimes to Little Rock and Memphis, sometimes to Birmingham and Selma, sometimes to Nashville and Atlanta. We have taken all ages, six to seventy-five. We have taken people of different races and nationalities and ethnicities and religions: Caucasian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Chinese, American, Christian, atheist...
We go to places now famous in the history books. And sometimes we get to meet the people who were "there" when history occurred. Americans usually feel deep emotion, both angst and pride, as "our" stories are retold. And Chinese learn something about how Americans struggle (and continue to struggle) for freedom and justice...our national aspirations. And when we talk with each other about our native countries, we learn even more about ourselves...and each other.
People decide to go on these trips for a variety of reasons. American kids are excited to get out of school for a week. I feel no guilt about inviting them to go: hardly any week spent inside a classroom will provide such a valuable education. Some people go because they've never been to some of the states or cities on our agenda. Others go because it is spring break (at the University of Illinois) and they can't afford to go on a cruise...or a fancy trip...and our trips are really good bargains. Some people go because I beg them.
A few years back, we took a small group to Alabama...and they argued with me the entire trip because they were under the impression that it was supposed to be an exciting spring-break bash, not a Civil Rights pilgrimage.
Here's the thing: first of all, if something exciting happens on a trip that I lead, it means something has gone wrong. And second of all, if you want to party during spring break, don't go to Alabama. There are a few nice beaches along its gulf, but not many. And there's no gambling, except in a few of Alabama's Indian casinos. And if it's nightlife you want, keep in mind that everything in the state closes up around 7 p.m. The only nightlife you'll find in Alabama will be in one of its 128 Waffle Houses: open all night, featuring eccentric customers, friendly staff, and a jukebox.
Anyway, in subsequent years I have emphasized that the trip is a seminar. This prepares people for how boring I can be when I get to talking about history...or faith. Nowadays, the only negativity I receive from people comes at the beginning of the trip, before people know who we are...or what stories await them...and they are still moaning that that the only springtime travel they can afford is to go on my stupid seminar. But after a few days of sharing our love, telling dramatic stories, offering an early taste of spring (compared to Central Illinois) and visits to great restaurants featuring southern cooking, almost everyone is sad to finally leave for "the north" at the end of the week.
The most dramatic moment of this year's trip was traveling south on Interstate 24, coming down Monteagle Mountain (40 miles outside Chattanooga.) I'm no mechanic, but the violent shaking in our 15-passenger church van has convinced me that we either have some bad ball joints...or a problem with the rack. Let's just say that everyone in the van was really glad we were not in an airplane.
It turns out that Johnny Cash wrote a song about that stretch of highway coming down off Monteagle Mountain...and how deadly is has been to truckers. Click here if you'd like to hear it.
The introductory song for the movie, "Smokey and the Bandit" also refers to a legendary trucker who survives Monteagle Mountain when his truck has brake failure. In our case, we didn't have brake failure, and I never let the van speed get above 40 miles per hour. But the shaking and shimmering sure felt like the vehicle was going to break in pieces. One of the Chinese women was pregnant on the trip, and I'm extremely relieved she didn't give birth to that baby while the van was bouncing into Chattanooga. But if she had, it would have made a great hit song for some country-western singer.
Trips like these remind me what the church is about, and what being a pastor is about. The church is a gathering of people in the spirit of Jesus. It operates best when it keeps its rules simple: pay compassionate attention to each other, stay flexible and resilient, do something new together. Of course, churches are grounded in traditions: stories, songs, rituals, and ceremonies. But traditions are only holy if they generate new life, new people, and new adventures. The devil uses yesterday's empty traditions and legalistic slogans to crush the Holy Spirit in today's church.
And being a pastor is mostly about three things: bringing people together, building strength in others, and blessing people with stories. Expectations for pastors have gotten ridiculous in modern times. I know: I served six years on the Board of Ordained Ministry and tried to prepare new pastors for today's church. We have all gone crazy trying to figure it out. And so now, I'm discovering...on trips like this Civil Rights Pilgrimage, what it means to be the church in a new day...and consequently... a pastor.
Next year's spring Civil Rights Pilgrimage will be to Memphis, Little Rock, and Mississippi. A new component will be a visit to some of the Black congregations in Mississippi to meet people who lived through the things that were happening there in the 1960s.
And I'm pleased to say that according to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, there are no mountains in Mississippi, only molehills.