taking the words of Jesus seriously


As someone who’s professional and personal life involves many areas of seeking justice and equality, I have often been moved by the work and legacy of those who have persevered through trials in order to see a better world. One of the most powerful moments of my life occurred in 2005, when I helped to lead a Justice Journey with members from Willow Creek Community Church and Salem Baptist Church in the Chicago area on a spiritual pilgrimage through the southern United States. The journey consisted of dialogue about the history of the African American experience, the civil rights movement and race in America. Our group consisted of almost 40 African Americans and Caucasians who spent the week together traveling through the Deep South visiting memorials, museums and people who had been a part of the movement.


In Alabama, our group was introduced to two amazing women who had been teenagers during the voting rights protests and non-violent resistance in Selma. These events have been brought back into my mind and the national consciousness by the recent release of the movie Selma. On March 7, 1965, a group of more than six hundred non-violent protestors from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the community attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to Montgomery. En route, the protestors found their way blocked by police forces and state troopers, who ordered them to turn around. The white police shot tear gas into the crowd and used clubs to beat back the marchers. More than 50 people were hospitalized in what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”


The two women with whom we met had been a part of the events on Bloody Sunday. Starting at Brown Chapel, Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of others made a second attempt on March 9, but there were forced to turn around when they got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Finally, on March 21, 1965, a successful march occurred under federal protection, and protestors were able to travel from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed a few months later.


During the justice Journey in 2005, our group prepared to once again cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, symbolizing the beginning of the historic march. As had our predecessors half a century before, our group met for worship in Brown Chapel. At one moment during our worship service Mrs. Mays, an elderly African American woman and choir member at Salem Baptist, stood up in the choir loft and began to sing:

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

No more mourning, no more mourning, no more mourning over me.
And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

No more crying, no more crying, no more crying over me.
And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.


Tears streamed down my face as she sang. Her voice was as pure as angel’s, and it resonated throughout the historic chapel. As she sang about freedom, her worship was a declaration of God’s promises to his people that one day true freedom will come.


Our group, accompanied by the two women who had been present during the traumatic events of Bloody Sunday, joined arm in arm and marched from Brown Chapel across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was the first time those women had crossed the bridge in forty years.


As I reflect on the memory of that memorial walk across the bridge, I am reminded that we are still longing for and singing, “Oh freedom. . .” Our nation has once again seen the birth of non-violent protests in cities across the nation as women and men rise to demand equality and a recognition that black lives matter. It is important and necessary to continue to have conversations and take action in pursuit of peace, justice, and reconciliation. While on-the-ground organizing and the work of marches and protest are still important, we are also seeing these conversations happen on social media, such as the Evangelicals for Justice (@Evangelicals4J) twitter-teach in after a viewing of Selma. Find ways to participate in conversations like these – to learn about our history and our current context and then live out the teachings and the truth of these movements for justice in a way that honors God in your community. And, if you’re able, join the 21st-Century Freedom Ride to Selma in May of this year.


This article adapted from chapter five “From Worship to Freedom” in Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action by Mae Elise Cannon (IVP, 2013)


About The Author


Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is an author, 
speaker, and advocate who cares deeply
about God’s heart for the poor and the
oppressed. She is the author of Social
Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better
World (IVP, 2009) and Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2013) and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (Zondervan, 2014). Cannon is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Her ministry and professional background includes serving as the Senior Director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision-US, the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church (Walnut Creek, California), Director of Development and Transformation for Extension Ministries at Willow Creek Community Church (Barrington, Illinois), and as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International.

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