Sacred Ground inspires Nebraska Episcopalians to make a pilgrimage to Civil Rights sites in June

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Apr 17, 2023

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the March 7, 1965, march that now is called “Bloody Sunday,” will be one of the stops on the Civil Rights pilgrimage organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska in June. Photo: Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

[Episcopal News Service] Members of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska will make a pilgrimage June 6-12 to Civil Rights Movement sites in the South, as a result of three years of involvement with The Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum. The trip will include 35 of the nearly 200 people who have completed the program in the diocese.

The pilgrimage was proposed by Lesley Dean, who along with Noelle Ptomey has overseen the diocese’s Sacred Ground program. “I wanted to tie the lessons we had learned in Sacred Ground, to bring history into reality,” she told Episcopal News Service.

Dean initially had doubts about planning such a trip, until Nebraska Bishop J. Scott Barker assured her it was a great idea. The bus trip will include stops at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; a walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama; and visits to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Episcopal churches in Tennessee and Alabama will host the pilgrims for meals and times of reflection.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Hanging columns memorialize the thousands of lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo: John Harvey Taylor, via Facebook

Barker will be one of the pilgrims, and he required completion of Sacred Ground for anyone wanting to participate.

Sacred Ground is a small-group, 11-part film- and readings-based series on racism’s historic roots and is part of The Episcopal Church’s emphasis on Becoming Beloved Community, the church’s cornerstone racial reconciliation initiative. Since it launched in 2019, more than 20,000 people across The Episcopal Church have participated in Sacred Ground.

Barker told ENS that in 2020 he felt the need to have his diocese address issues of race largely because of events that took place that year – including the murder of George Floyd and an Omaha killing that had racial undertones – along with what he said was Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s “increasingly passionate and articulate call to the larger church to begin working on racial reconciliation.” He asked Dean, who is African American and a respected diocesan leader, to lead a new effort at racial reconciliation. She agreed, but only if Ptomey, a white woman with whom she had worked before on diocesan projects, also could be involved. At the bishop’s suggestion, they investigated the Sacred Ground curriculum and felt it would be a good next step for the diocese.

Dean said that once she and Ptomey were on board and had explored Sacred Ground, she began organizing circles – the program’s learning and discussion groups – mixing people of different parishes, ages, locations, races and ethnicities. They all met online via Zoom, with participants spread across the diocese.

Having racial diversity was key for each group, Dean said, or otherwise “it was just telling one side of the story.” In a state where white people are 77% of the population, it was important to her that participants hear directly from people of color. She also recruited people from a variety of races and backgrounds to serve as facilitators, so circles could be a place where people were “open and honest but respectful,” she said, and where no question was off-limits.

But the most important part of what Sacred Ground offered, she said, was accurate, historical information. “I truly believe that education is the key to enlightening people and helping to end the racial biases that are out there,” she said. She even invited a professor to offer a presentation to every circle on what critical race theory is, “just to get the true information out there.” When the first group of circles finished in 2020, Dean said they were such a success that she wanted to give people outside The Episcopal Church the chance to participate, so in 2021 registration was open to other denominations.

A big impact and a willingness to engage

Barker thinks people in the diocese, having gone through the tumultuous months of 2020, were willing to approach Sacred Ground and the issue of racial reconciliation with “a little less caution and a little more excitement than might have been the usual.”

And the impact of having so many Nebraskans engaged with Sacred Ground has gone beyond issues of race. “Nebraska is a divided political climate, like most of America, and our parishes tend to be quite divided in terms of the politics of members,” he said. But going through Sacred Ground has created “more open-mindedness, both about our own brokenness and the potential for growing and learning new things.” It’s also helped people understand not only the subtleties about issues of race but that there may be subtleties in other politically divisive issues, allowing them “to listen to one another and to learn from one another and kind of make our way together as the body of Christ.”

He’s also seen more people involved in direct advocacy on political issues, with Episcopalians working to influence the governor and Legislature, not only on matters of race but also on issues of LGBTQ+ rights and criminal justice reforms.

Sacred Ground participants have become involved with a new diocesan prison reform ministry, Dean said, because the program “is opening people’s eyes to all the injustices going on.” People also have said that what they have learned has prompted them to think harder about how they vote. “We are not telling people how to vote, but we are helping people understand the issues, the facts.”

Barker also sees the potential that Sacred Ground can have on the spiritual life of the diocese. “Sacred Ground is sort of a practice for a kind of orthodox, Christian pattern of living, where you are constantly engaged in a real moral inventory of your life,” he said. “And it’s about confession, repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life, and that’s hard work for everybody.”  Sacred Ground targets the specific work of being anti-racist, he said, but beyond that, he sees it as a way of being a disciple that he called “really powerful.”

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.