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Journeying & Singing Together

Reflection by Jane Varner Malhotra

Early in May I embarked on a pilgrimage with FutureChurch to civil rights sites of the South, following in the footsteps of our Black Catholic foremothers in faith. When I signed up for the program, I wasn’t really sure what it would be, but something about it drew me in. I am one of the leaders of a home mass community in Washington, DC, and have noted the lack of diversity among us and wondered about it. I work at Georgetown University where we continue to study our racist past and vestiges of it that emerge today. I lived in the South in my teen years and have a fondness for it. And one of the pilgrimage leaders was Dr. Kim Harris, professor of African American Thought and Practice in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in LA, where my son just completed his first year.

Like many, I have a special place in my heart for Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, an ancestor who I encounter in prayer, who encourages me to keep singing and moving my white ass in mass and enjoy my faith and my church with my whole self. I have a call to priesthood and as a Catholic woman that’s complicated, but she offers us all an example of joy and boldness and creativity that I wanted to explore more as part of this journey. I was honored to meet women who knew her and shared stories about her on the trip, helping to bring her to life for me.

On the final day of our journey, we visited Professor Sheleen Jones at Xavier University in New Orleans, the only Catholic HBCU in the country. She is a sculptor and invited us into her classroom/studio, where she shared a replica of her beautiful Sister Thea Bowman relief, which she defined as “a sculpture married to a wall.” She invited us into her process by having some of the pilgrims help her peel off the soft silicone mold to reveal the cast metal underneath.

FutureChurch group poses with Sheleen Jones (standing behind the bronze relief) at her studio at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans

There in the studio Dr. Harris led us in song with “Wade in the water” and I felt the energy shift as it did every time we sang. How can I explain with words the way singing freedom songs in unison brought us together on this pilgrimage, and helped soften the sting from visiting civil rights museums and learning about lynchings, mass incarceration, family separations during slavery and today through systemic racism and white supremacy in our country. The singing was a true grace, and I thank Dr. Harris for her patience with us as we learned to listen, to become pliable but powerful like the silicone mold, and follow her lead in song.

This reflection is a bit all over the place, which is how I’ve felt since returning home. So far, the memories that keep resurfacing are the sacred stories–those in the museums, the ones we read ahead of time from M. Shawn Copeland and Bryan Massingale and others, and the ones from fellow pilgrims about their lived experiences of racism in their youth to today. One of my favorite museum stories was in Montgomery, AL, at the Rosa Parks Museum. There we learned about Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College. The night after Rosa Parks’ arrest, she and another professor and two students made 35,000 mimeographed flyers to launch what was to be a one-day Montgomery bus boycott. Seeing the mimeograph machine in the museum took me back to Catholic grade school in Indiana and the intoxicating smell of the fresh ink before a quiz–how did this humble piece of equipment help dismantle a system of supremacy?! Awe-inspiring. Jo Ann kept a low public profile during the boycott so as to keep her university job, but she and so many others did a lot of work behind the scenes to support the massive movement that would last 13 months and at last bring about integrated seating for the city’s notorious bus system.

Another powerful experience that stays with me was the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery. From their website, “The National Memorial is a sacred space for truth telling and reflection about racial terrorism and its legacy.” The unspeakable horrors of lynching are spoken so that we don’t wish them away but allow instead the deep discomfort of confronting, knowing, aching, lamenting, and opening to the divine consolation that can come from that experience.

There’s much more to share about this powerful, humbling, transformative journey and I’m deeply grateful to our leaders Myra (our tour guide), LaVaughn (our intrepid bus driver), Kim, Kayla, Russ, Deb, and others who taught us along the way–especially my fellow pilgrims who shared the experience with me. This included tears, confusion, hope and laughter, shame, inspiration, and thank God, a lot of spirit-filled singing!

Jane Varner Malhotra is a writer, artist, and community organizer. She is co-founder of Washington Home Inclusive Monthly Mass, whose mission is to make visible and known women’s call to Catholic priesthood.