A Journey for Justice

A long way to travel: The Jesuit School of Theology’s first domestic immersion takes them into America’s struggle with racism

Standing before the National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, on a clear, bright day in October, nine students and two faculty members from the 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. A man—a stranger—stopped to join their contemplative moment.

The tour of the museum was one of many stations in a semester’s journey for the class from Berkeley 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 that give witness to the Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

“We had to ‘come and see,’” says Alison Benders, associate dean and senior lecturer, who led the course and the trip along with Simon Kim, director of Intercultural Initiatives at JST. Before leaving on their eight-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 Bryan Massingale and James Cone (black theologians), and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Erika Lee (cultural historians), filled the syllabus. But the key to understanding was bearing witness.

“I hope to translate this notional knowledge to experiential knowledge—head to heart,” Benders says. “I don’t want people to feel that these things are remote but to feel that it happened to us. Racial oppression is our history.”

“We need to discover that the United States’ original sin is our story and our sin—every one of us. We cannot reconcile, heal or even seek absolution without recollecting our misdeeds. This is analogous to an examination of conscience. And like the Ignatian examen, we can find desolation as well as consolation in the voices of the past.”

— From a JST presentation on the pilgrimage

In the Beginning: Printed around 1830 by an abolitionist, this engraving is said to depict interstate slave trade. / Image courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The Courage of Love

The trip included stops at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, where enslaved people survived an average of five years in the cane fields; Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, 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 we live in—differently.

At the Whitney Plantation, Jesuit School of Theology pilgrims were moved by a memorial to enslaved people. It included names, ages, and quotes. “I can’t believe he’d sell his own daughter” was the sentiment of one. Students prayed over the identities of those who died. One carried the name of a child, Francis, with him through the remainder of the journey.

In their own words: The Whitney Plantation’s Aleés Gwendolyn Midlo Hall memorializes those who died. / Photograph courtesy Elsa Hahne

“It enabled us to see that the past is still present but it is in a different configuration,” Benders says. “Slavery and racism as America’s original sin color our lives—the privilege of a supportive employment network for some, and disproportional imprisonment for others.”

Masters of Divinity student Calvin Nixon notes 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 asks. “I am under the belief that we are who we are because someone loved us and attended to us.”


Have 10 minutes?:Listen to the struggles of raising infants under slavery, and how freedom came late to Texas, in this John Henry Faulk interview with Laura Smalley in Hempstead, Texas, in the American Folklife Center. / Courtesy the Library of Congress

For Nixon, the trip taught him something about someone who loves him in a most direct way. He grew up in Birmingham, and his mother joined them at Kelly Ingram Park. There he learned about her experience singing in a chorus directed by the man who led the choirs at the park during the Children’s Crusade.

The whole experience, the trip, made him think of Ephesians 3:18, about having power and the luck to understand the depth and breadth of God’s love, because that is what it would have taken to survive and thrive.

“Imagine the prayers that were said when people were treated as chattel, sold, families broken apart simply to amass wealth,” Nixon says. “Those prayers and that encouragement to keep moving would take work, because moving was work.”

He thought of Harriet Tubman, who guided slaves to freedom through the underground railroad, and those supporting her. He thought of those who were lynched—whole families killed in a single day in a carnival-like public gathering—and the communities they left behind.


A Song of Praise to Get Through: Long Way to Travel led by Mary Tollman and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939 at Johnson Baptist Church in Livingston, Alabama. Until that year, lynching was authorized in some Southern states—it is the same year Strange Fruit was written. / Courtesy the Library of Congress
Remember: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors those lynched through a hall of statuary that hangs down, on the bottom of each hanging pillar a place, a date, and names of those killed. / Image by Soniakapadia under a Creative Commons license

He thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and those who supported his mission and marches. He thought of people today arguing against mass incarceration. That power and hope are the depth and breadth of God’s love, he says.

“We don’t always see the crowd of people who helped them in their own becoming,” Nixon says. “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 country lives on with wounds of slavery through modern-day racism and unaddressed privilege. They talk about the United States’ original sin—and how racism is to the country as air, it may not always be thought of but we breathe it. They try to spread the hope and the love and to bear witness in others’ becoming.

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

From here to there: The outside of The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration at sunset. The museum chronicles the history of racial injustice in America. / Image courtesy Soniakapadia through a Creative Commons license
Mission: Transformation

An education should change the person, Santa Clara University’s incoming president knows something about that.

Out of Tradition

Explore the ways in which traditions are passed down and morph over time by examining contemporary Native art and experiences

Innovating with a Mission

James Taylor croons, SCU unveils a plan to raise $1 billion in the Campaign for Santa Clara. A big night at the 53rd annual Golden Circle!

Reaching the Future

A growing percentage of students identify as Latinx. A new research center looks at how best to reach them.