Stand Up. Use Your Voice. Move Your Feet.

by Liza Heavener

Liza Heavener with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia
Liza Heavener with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia

This year marks 50 years since “Blood Sunday,” an event that gripped the nation, and reminds us of the injustices faced by black Americans in Alabama and across the South. On the 50th anniversary, I returned to Selma, Alabama to bear witness to this historic event.

This year was my sixth journey to Selma, each trip bringing fresh pain, restored hope and reminders of the power of reconciliation. It was on this trip that I was moved by something Congressman John Lewis said in his distinctive slow, deep cadence: Move your feet.” When injustice is happening in this world, don’t just pray about it. When our brothers and sisters are being ostracized, told they are not equal, stand up. Use your voice. Move your feet. This message challenges me as I look around my world at issues of injustice.

Every other year, a nonpartisan delegation of U.S. members of Congress join John Lewis to walk through the history of the civil rights movement with those who led the efforts in the 1960s. This year, over 100 members of Congress attended, a record number.

A highlight of the weekend happened on the steps of the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of George Wallace, who was the governor of Alabama during the civil rights movement, reflected on her life as a small child during that time. She spoke of her father who was strongly opposed to giving blacks voting rights and is most known for saying “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As she spoke, I reflected on her life’s journey, the challenges she must have faced coming to understand who her father was and how to move beyond that heritage. She shared a story about when her son, the grandson of Governor Wallace, first realized who his grandfather was. Her son asked her, “Why did “Paw-Paw do those things to other people?” She answered him saying her father “never told her why he did those things but that they were wrong, and it would be up to us to help make things right.”

This led me to give thought to the civil rights issues of today. Will our children look back at the heritage we are leaving them with pride? Are we standing on the right side of history with the current issues at hand? What are the areas of our lives and areas in the church that still have segregation?  Are we moving our feet?

As the weekend carried on, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed in a KKK led bombing in 1963. We attended a riveting church service at the First Baptist Church where John Lewis had been trapped inside for hours concerned for his safety, until John F. Kennedy sent troops to escort him and others from the church. There were stories and history lessons we heard over the weekend that were heartbreaking and made me question if we have come far enough with civil rights.

But then we arrived in Selma. The delegation waited at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the presidential motorcade crossed, with the usual fanfare and “Hail to the Chief” playing.

Then, John Lewis walked to the podium and introduced the first black president of the United States. As they embraced, I felt an enormous sense of pride. Race relations in this country are certainly not perfect and there is work yet to be done. Even during the president’s speech there were people protesting recent events in Ferguson. But 50 years ago on “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis never expected to introduce a crowd of over 21,000 people to the nation’s first black president.

The fight against discrimination is not over. We have come far but must still stand up against racism and all forms of discrimination and segregation. It is my ongoing prayer that our churches can be a true sanctuary, a home and safe haven to all. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I hope the Mennonite church can move toward a place where we confront the discrimination that currently exists and chose to be on the right side of history, to move our feet and welcome every one of God’s children.

Liza Heavener grew up attending Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, and now lives in the Washington DC area.