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Civil Rights as Theology at Santa Clara University


By Leslie Griffy 

Standing before the National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery on a clear, bright day, nine students from Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology (JST) bowed their heads.

“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” crooned Billie Holiday over a student’s phone. This was their moment of contemplation before entering the museum, which honors the lives of the estimated 4,743 lynched in this country between 1886 and 1968.

The tour of the museum was one of many stations in a nearly year-long journey for the class from JST’s Berkeley campus, exploring race, justice and theology. They examined the ways theology is twisted in support of racism–today and in the past–and how they as people of faith could do more to speak out against injustice. The class is the first at the school to include a domestic immersion trip–a civil rights pilgrimage touring sites in the deep South where the fight for modern justice was fought.

“We had to ‘come and see,’” said Alison Benders, an associate dean and senior lecturer who led the course and the trip. Before leaving on their 11-day, 15-site journey the class read works about race in America, histories of white people, indigenous people, Mexican-Americans, and, of course, black Americans. Writings by W.E. B. Du Bois and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz filed the syllabus. But the key to understanding was the bearing witness.

“I hope to translate this notional knowledge to experiential knowledge–head to heart,” said Benders. “I don’t want people to feel that these things are remote, but to feel that it happened to us.”

The trip included stops at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, where slaves survived an average of only five years; Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where the Children’s Crusade for Civil Rights held rallies; and St. Joan of Arc, a Josephite church in New Orleans. Students taught and led prayers at each of the sites, and talked with the people they met. Through the journey the class saw their readings, and the world they live in, differently.

“It enabled us to see that the past is still present but it is in a different configuration,” Benders said. Slavery and racism as America’s original sin still colors lives–the assumption of benefits like jobs on the part of some and disproportional imprisonment for others.

Masters of Theology student, Calvin Nixon, noted that the class put them in some uncomfortable places, but that is where they as servants of God could do their best work.

“How else can we accompany our brothers and sisters who are marginalized if we don’t attend to those unsettling places?” he noted. “I am under the belief that we are who we are because someone loved us and attended to us.”

Nixon thought of Harriet Tubman, who guided slaves to freedom through the underground railroad, and those supporting her. He thought of people today arguing against mass incarceration. That power and hope is the depth and breadth of God’s love, he said. 

“We don’t always see the crowd of people who helped them in their own becoming,” Nixon said. “White supremacy was mighty. But it is not the Almighty.”

Now, back in Berkeley, Nixon, Benders and the others who took the journey are sharing the word. They are going to nearby parishes to share what they saw, and how the wounds of slavery remain unhealed, through modern day racism and unaddressed privilege. 

“When faced with this past and present, we still must have the courage to hope,” Nixon said, “and have that courage of love.”