A Long Bridge to Cross: Remembering Jonathan Daniels Martyrdom

The Rev. Daniel Simons is a priest on staff at Trinity Wall Street in New York City. He writes about pilgrimage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Daniels, the white seminarian at  the Episcopal Theological School martyred on 20 August, 1965 for the cause of black voting rights.

This August a group of about 40 youth and adults from the Diocese of New York travelled together to join over a thousand Episcopalians gathered in Alabama around the memory of the martyrdom of modern saints: Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who exhibited the courage typical of many of the civil rights workers, along with a significantly long list of others who were struck down in the struggle for equal civil rights in the United States.

Our group preceded the mass gathering by two days of site visits to pivotal spots for the movement. They were ordinary places: churches, parks, porches, sidewalks. The excellent learning centres that often accompanied these places gave us background to the context of the struggle and the content of the message.  Recorded speeches and sermons, re-creations of critical sites like MLK’s Birmingham jail-cell, curated footage of main events, all immersed us in this moment of history.

The historical sites themselves held a startling electricity. To stand in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, then Kelly Ingram Park and 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, then the long bridge in Selma on the road to Montgomery was to see 50 years burn away like mist, and it was 1963 or 1965 again for a moment. Like time travellers we came to these places from the future — where the country’s president is black; where the unhealed wounds of history are flaring again in the exposure of police brutality and in riot; where voter registration laws are being whittled away and repealed by the same powerful interests that bore down with fire hoses and dogs on the young protesters 50 years ago.

On the day of the mass pilgrimage itself parish groups from around the country gathered on the steps where Jonathan Daniels was shot point blank as he shielded civil rights worker Ruby Sales. The mood was appropriately exuberant, a true celebration of lives lived from a passionate centre, of a love stronger than death. Bishop Michael Curry, following the palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin, preached that if the human species ever truly harnessed the power of that kind of love it would discover fire for the second time in its history.

It is nearly impossible to come back from such a journey unchanged. The physical exposure to the places themselves is indelible. It’s one thing to study these events; it’s quite another to stand in place itself. As with many pilgrimages, things don’t fit as well for me now as they did before I left for Alabama. The dislocation of the pilgrimage journey has done its work!

The genius of pilgrimage is the discovery along the way that the destination is not the end, but only the beginning of the next chapter of pilgrimage; so now we are asking: “What is my path going forward?” A second reorienting effect of pilgrimage is the discovery that the journey IS the destination, it’s inwardly-transforming work is the real reason for going.

So now as I reflect further on the pilgrimage’s enduring imprint, it comes down for me to simple story-telling. That’s really what we were doing those three days.

The big stories like MLK’s or Jonathan Daniels’ are important to tell, not as so heroically different than our own, but as catalysts to unlocking our own stories. On the first day of the pilgrimage I was asking some of the older travellers about their origins, and discovered that several had grandparents who left the South because a cousin was lynched, or a store was burned. Those stories moved me deeply, and I suspect that my own story, honestly told, is equally three-dimensional.

It hits me now more deeply than ever that story-telling might be a seemingly “weak” act, but it carries great power. That is where our differences surface, that is where we expose our vulnerability; that is where we find our confidence and authority; and that is where we find our common humanity. Hearing and connecting these stories unravels the Us/Them narrative we have told ourselves and helps us hear more of the universal “We” who are nourished by love, and prosper when we belong. I think that story — the one about our common beloved humanity, the story of what we think God is already doing in the world through us — is the most important one that can be told in the world today.

I remember once hearing a teacher say that there are really only two primal stories being told in the world: a story rooted in “enough” where everyone belongs, with Love as its foundation — and an opposing story based on scarcity, power, and domination, where Fear is the driving force. We need to eternally keep telling the story rooted in Love, or the opposite story flows in. My teacher echoes Julian Bond, the veteran civil rights leader who died this past week, who said, “There is no finish line to this fight; you always have to keep on running.” I find that reality energizing rather than defeating — the work will never be finished, but there is always a small step forward to take that makes a powerful difference.

We are all on a long pilgrimage of emancipation from selfishness and fear to generosity and love. What is your story of that journey? Tell it true! Because the world needs it, and as it touches other stories it may unlock more power than you imagine.

The Rev. Daniel Simons has written more about the pilgrimage at www.inthemomentreflections.net