Change starts with me

February 09, 2023
Rev. Judy Zabel (far left) stands in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with other downtown Minneapolis clergy on an interfaith Civil Rights Pilgrimage last month.

By Rev. Judy Zabel, senior pastor, Hennepin Avenue UMC (Minneapolis)

Last month, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bernice King speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when I attended the 2023 King Holiday Observance in Atlanta. It was our first stop on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage I took with the Minneapolis Downtown Interfaith Senior Clergy. The theme this year was, “It Starts With Me: Cultivating a Beloved Community Mindset to Transform Unjust Systems.” Dr. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter and CEO of The King Center, reminded us that it not enough to quote her father’s words; we must live them. She said, “Change starts with me. With you. With us.”    

We traveled to Birmingham and walked to Ingram Park where we saw a statue of three faith leaders kneeling in prayer. Faith leaders rallied and prayed there in 1961, and parents brought their children to protest segregation, thinking the Birmingham police surely wouldn’t arrest their children. But the Birmingham police instead shot them with water cannons and set vicious attack dogs on them.

We walked across the street to 16th Street Baptist Church. A woman from that congregation shared her memory of the Sunday in 1961 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed her church, killing four girls. The congregation still worships in that church today because they have refused to let that violent day be their only story. She proudly said, “We are a church for everybody.” I wondered: Are we that kind of church? Why are our churches and schools still so segregated? But then, it came to me again: It starts with me. With you. With us.

The interfaith clergy group poses for local media in front of 16th Street Baptist Church.

We went to Selma, a town abandoned by prosperity. We stood in front of Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where thousands of faithful people rallied in 1961 to march to Montgomery to demand voting rights. Who is rallying in our sanctuaries and for what? Those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day were reported to have said, “We knew we were marching into hell.” The police attacked them, beat them, and arrested many of them but most kept marching and singing freedom songs all the way to the state capital 50 miles away. Freedom songs are songs of faith. Something powerful happens when we march and sing together. God shows up with the courage we need to keep marching until change comes. Are we rallying people? Are we singing freedom songs? Are we ready to march? It starts with me. With you. With us.

There’s some powerful truth telling happening at the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial. Here’s the truth: Two million Africans were buried at sea on their way to becoming enslaved. Millions of Africans arrived and were separated from their families, beat up, raped, dehumanized, traumatized, and sold like cattle. The labor of those who were enslaved—their pain, their suffering—made it possible for our nation to become very, very rich. Here’s another truth: It is slave trade that grew our financial systems. It was enslaved men and women who planted, grew, and picked the cotton that produced the great wealth in our nation. The lie of white supremacy and privilege is so baked into our country that we believe this is the way life is supposed to be. But the truth is: The trauma and violence of racism is all around us, in the DNA of black and brown bodies, in our institutions, in the systems that perpetuate poverty, in our criminal justice systems, and yes, in our theology and in our churches too.

It’s time to be changed and to make change. It starts with me. With you. With us.       

Rev. Judy Zabel is senior pastor at Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis. 

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