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By Rachel Amiri

On February 24, a group from Holy Name of Jesus and Immaculate Conception Jesuit parishes, St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, the Loyola University Community Action Program (LUCAP) and the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) embarked on a sobering and prayerful journey to Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The site of the pivotal Montgomery Bus Boycott and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, pastored by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the city is home to museums and historic sites commemorating the struggle for racial justice.

The Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province supported the initiative with grant funding.

New Orleanians gathered outside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice during their pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama.

“It was really unifying and groundbreaking in the sense that it’s the first time this has been attempted between the parishes,” said Diane Blair, director of pastoral life at Holy Name of Jesus. “I think it shows how we can learn from our nation’s history within the context of our faith. People can see that, as Catholics, we need to be involved in these issues and mindful of what we can do. Racism is alive and well in our country. It’s an issue of basic human dignity that we can’t ignore,” she said.

The Montgomery Pilgrimage included stops at the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the 4,400 Black people killed in racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950. The pilgrims then visited Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, to celebrate Mass and share dinner before returning to New Orleans.

Pilgrims filled a bus for the journey to the Legacy sites in Montgomery.

The experience was one of learning and reflection on how God calls Catholics to engage in the struggle for racial justice, beginning with reconciling with neighbors across divides.

The pilgrimage was spearheaded by a partnership between Holy Name of Jesus, which is predominately white, and St. Katharine Drexel, a predominately Black parish in the same deanery in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Ms. Blair explained that the collaboration is geared toward mutual understanding and learning.

“There’s the famous quote from Dr. King where he said, ‘The most segregated hour in the country is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.’ I think this will hopefully bring these two parish communities closer together,” she said.

Parishioners prepare to take in the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

The idea for the pilgrimage originated with Holy Name’s justice and outreach leadership. Patrick and Yolanda Roberson, St. Katharine Drexel parishioners, got involved early on in conversations and helped to promote the pilgrimage at their parish.

Father Edwin Gros, SJ, of Holy Name of Jesus, and Fr. Lambert Lein, SVD, the pastor of St. Katharine Drexel, were enthusiastic about the proposed trip to Montgomery. “For me it was like a dream come true,” said Fr. Gros. “We had two parishes sharing across cultural bounds. It began to grow, and it grew bigger than we expected,” he added. Ultimately, they filled a bus with 55 pilgrims.

A Moving Journey

Attendees began the day at the Legacy Museum, which traces the history of anti-Black racism in the United States from enslavement in the 17th century to mass incarceration in the 21st.

Mr. Roberson described the beginning of the museum, which gives visitors the experience of walking on the ocean floor while they learn about the many lives lost in the transatlantic voyages that brought 12 million enslaved Africans to America.

“You could feel and understand that voyage,” he said. “Those depictions of people – lost souls in the middle of the ocean, all different ages, shapes and sizes. Children and older people who lived and died not knowing where they were going. The volume of two million people in the ocean, the volume of 36,000 trips to kidnap people on that continent. The volume was really striking.”

Installment at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates those who lost their lives during the transatlantic voyage that 12 million were forced to endure.

Ms. Blair described a pivotal experience that she and fellow pilgrims took time to process.

Installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice names those known to be killed by racial terror lynching in each county in the United States.

“It’s a very moving museum that takes you through the history of slavery, after the Civil War and reconstruction to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights movement, and all the way through the [contemporary] justice system,” she said. The museum uses multimedia exhibits including holograms and audio recordings to recount individuals’ stories. “You get to hear from inmates at various penal institutions and how they’ve been treated. They also address the issue of juvenile justice and the staggering numbers [of incarcerated young people],” said Ms. Blair.

Pilgrims read names recorded on the monument at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Mrs. Roberson shared that she was deeply impacted by seeing others’ emotional responses to the exhibits. “When you go to some of these places, you often wonder what it is like for a person of another race to see this and understand it and feel it. I saw parishioners get emotional, especially at one of the last scenes with one of the ladies [in the exhibit] singing as in the old Negro spirituals and the folklores: ‘they treat me so bad, oh they treat me so bad, I wish I was never born.’ That was quite an emotional thing.”

The pilgrims then visited the immersive Memorial for Peace and Justice. Visitors walk beneath suspended steel blocks several feet high, each representing a county where at least one lynching took place. Engraved on the sides of the blocks are the names of people who were killed by lynching. “It’s a very powerful experience to see the names of all of the victims and the number of places where lynchings took place,” said Ms. Blair.

The Robersons emphasized what the beauty of the grounds of the memorial meant for them. “These people didn’t have a funeral, didn’t have a proper burial, they didn’t have a going away, but they’re honored in this beautiful garden now. It doesn’t make up for what happened to them, but it’s a beautiful environment,” said Mr. Roberson.

The Peace and Justice Memorial Garden offers a beautiful place of memory.

The museum and memorial led pilgrims to draw connections from history to today’s institutionalized racism, particularly in state-sanctioned killing by the death penalty.

“The Legacy Museum talks about the work that we still have to do, particularly here in Louisiana right now, where bills are being presented in the legislature about introducing gas and electrocution as ways to kill people on death row,” said Ms. Blair.

In Louisiana, 67% of death row inmates are Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s very timely to be in a place that shows the rates of incarceration for our Black brothers and sisters,” she added.

Pilgrims in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Building Community Rooted in Prayer

Finally, the group traveled to Spring Hill College to celebrate Mass. “It was really moving to be in a church together celebrating our common faith and celebrating the Eucharist together,” Ms. Blair said. The time for prayer, reflection and singing African-American spirituals such as “We Shall Overcome” situated the day in a context of faith.

The group gathered for the liturgy at Spring Hill College’s St. Joseph Chapel.

Father Gros told the pilgrims in his homily, “This experience is revealing in a deeper way who and what our people really are, and the experiences that have shaped them.”

He emphasized the impact of personal encounters among the pilgrims. “We need to put faces and names on people,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve always approached ministry, as a missionary or in immersion programs. Bringing different groups of people together leads to those interactions.” One bus conversation led one of the Holy Name parishioners to attend Mass at St. Katharine Drexel on the morning after the pilgrimage.

Enthused by the event’s turnout, leaders of the group of “Sojourners” hope for future cross-parish liturgies and social events to continue cultivating relationships and serve as the basis for future collaboration in addressing racial justice issues. Their next group gathering is scheduled for Palm Sunday, when pilgrims will share more about what the Montgomery visit meant to them. “Hopefully that will begin a discussion and we can grow in our understanding of one another,” said Fr. Gros.

“I think going to the museum and the memorial, it gives you a better understanding because I know there are a lot of people that live in their block and that’s all that matters,” Mrs. Roberson said. “But to hear all the disparities that happen in this world – it does not affect them until they see it.”

“I think this collaboration is good; only good can come from this,” said Mr. Roberson.

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