I’ve marched a lot of marches in my time, and for many causes, but none quite like the one I took part the morning of this New Year’s Eve, here in downtown Chicago. I won’t give away much here – so as to point you to the article – but it is a perfect example of what I myself, as a professor and a womanist public theologian, must do; as well as the burden and responsibility the we as religious leaders must shoulder for the sake of our calls. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
For many people, an annual “New Year” is an opportunity to start over and try new things. It’s a “reboot” that carries the memory of documents on which we are still working and, at the same time, also allows us to insert a clean blank document to create something new.
Each New Year’s Eve I attend a “Watch Night” service at my church – an annual liturgy in African American churches where members gather to remember their ancestors who “watched” the clock strike 12 a.m. on January 1, 1862; the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing enslaved Africans.
It’s difficult to go into a new year without any encumbrances. After all, a clock striking 12-midnight rings in a new year but does not completely reset life. The everyday life of once enslaved, now free, Africans did not change substantially. People of African descent still had to fight for freedom in the ensuing years.
But it’s paradoxical, this idea that the New Year gives us a clean blank document for a fresh start while simultaneously carrying old files that may go back for decades. Many of us take the time to delete old files, but that is time consuming so our hopes to leave behind the old and make room for take up the new are dashed. We want to erase and/or forget, but we have files or memories that tie us to old realities. How do we make a fresh start? For me, the answer lies in the scripture Dr. Otis Moss III preached on during the Watch Service on New Year’s Eve just three days ago, Isaiah 43:18:
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
On New Year’s Eve I decided to answer a call made by Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church for people of faith across the city to a March in memory of the 800+ people who died by violence in 2016. I went downtown to the designated meeting place across from the Tribune Building on North Michigan Avenue at 11 a.m., expecting this march to be like others I’ve participated – where people with common knowledge about a national issue and who share also common interests and outrage about that issue, gather to protest by walking and chanting in public – bringing attention to a systemic issue that unfairly impacts particular groups of people.
This march, however, was different from others in which I have participated.
To begin with upon arrival I noticed that there were hundreds of crosses with the names of each one of the 800 people who had been killed, and many of them had pictures of the deceased along with an inscription of their age and date of death. I was deeply moved and stood surveying the large number of crosses reading the names and looking at the faces. I walked over to one of the women leaders and asked how I could help. She told me to help the family members of the deceased find the cross with the name of their loved one on it. To provide an example, she showed me her son’s cross with his photo on it. I took a deep breath and knew I was in for an experience I had not expected.
It suddenly hit me this march was not a typical protest, but rather a witness to the world of the death of nearly 800 people in our city within one calendar year. These deaths occurred in a time of peace, but in a city with war zones located on the West and South Sides, where predominately black and brown people live. I thought of apartheid in South Africa and First Nation Peoples in this country where people of color were forced to live respectively in so-called Home Lands in South Africa, or on reservations in the US. In both cases, large segments of the citizenry did not see those subjected to injustice as well as in most cases, residing in intolerable living conditions. If we do not see vulnerable people, we cannot have a relationship with and care for our neighbor.
Saturday’s march was a massive pastoral care and justice event where family members who lost loved gathered with others who also experienced the death of a beloved, often a child. In addition, there were people like me who came to witness, participate, and support the efforts of Father Pfleger who said God would not rest until God’s precious creation (humans) made in God’s image were vindicated. I saw people express profound grief and pain and although I was not their pastor, I acted as such – reaching out to these children of God, our siblings who cried on my shoulder. In response, I cried with and breathed with/for them when flowing tears kept them from breathing themselves.
All of this happened in a downtown location where the letters T-R-U-M-P could be seen sprawled across a building owned by the president-elect. I knew that the area where we marched had the potential to open new possibilities to curb deaths in the New Year, but would they?
I had my doubts.
About 5 minutes before the march commenced others like myself were asked to carry the cross of a deceased person whose family had not yet shown up or were unable to attend. I carried the cross of a 22-year young woman named Courtney Copeland. The experience of carrying a cross with a heart bearing the name of a person who died a violent death was for me a profound experience. As a theologian of the Cross, I could only think of Jesus bearing a much bigger cross for me/humanity. I remembered that Jesus’ cross had “King of the Jews” inscribed at the top rather than his name. I recalled, as well, that Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:32) was pulled from the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross – then the hymn with a first verse that poignantly asks, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free,” sprang into my head.
I thought, “Must these families carry the cross of their son/daughter/brother/sister/uncle/aunt/niece/nephew/cousin alone?”
As we walked, some mentioned the weight of cross and how heavy they were to carry. Reverend Jesse Jackson responded, “The crosses are heavy, but not as heavy as a casket.” That comment put things in perspective and helped us to lean into the task at hand. Hundreds of people marched down Michigan Avenue— the Mag Mile, where more than 460 retailers, like Apple, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue had stores. It seemed odd to be in such setting, but I realized that it was indeed the best backdrop to expose the tragic reality of 800+ violent deaths in Chicago in 2016.
How do we make a new start in 2017 when we have memories grounded in historical fact that death claimed the lives of 800+ people, in the city where our seminary is located, and where so many churches have buildings with congregations. Can you imagine what a difference we can make? I’ve always wanted for the entire city to stop for one minute in a moment of silence for those killed. With all of us pitching in, we can do much, much more to love our neighbor. May the prophet Amos words: “But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24) join the paradox of Isaiah’s words, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Most of us cannot forget former things even though dwelling on the past will not change it. I hope and, I pray your hope as well, comes from the Triune God who speaks to us this day in this New Year, 2017, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” May we give witness to the New Thing God is doing in 2017 for it will spring up over and over again. Hopefully we will perceive it.
May we be blessed to do “God’s work with Our Hands” in 2017 with boldness that we’ve never seen before. The days ahead will call for it!
Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for almost twenty years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.
 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation eliminating slavery in Confederate states but not in non-dissenting slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. (From Equal Justice Initiative Calendar, January 1, 2017).
 The last time I checked my “All my files,” I noted that some go back to 2008! What am I holding on to, and why are these documents so important that I cannot delete them?
 2016 Stats-Chicago Murder, Crime and Mayhem_HeyJackass! Accessed January 2, 2017.
 See via an article in the Chicago Tribune: “Loved ones of people killed in 2016 carry more than 750 crosses down Magnificent Mile,” which has a video of the March. If you look carefully you will see ‘yours truly’ in the second roll. Fellow LSTC faculty member Klaus-Peter Adam was at the march as well.