Social justice trip offers transforming experience for doctoral students

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Doctor of Ministry students with Fred Gray, legendary civil rights attorney, center in the suit.

Social justice trip offers transforming experience for doctoral students

See a photo feature of the trip.

When planning a travel learning opportunity for theology doctorate students, one might consider visiting the cathedrals of Europe or Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, to spark the Reformation Movement. The churches and bridges of Alabama, Jackson, Miss., or a high school in Little Rock, Ark., probably would not be the first places to come to mind.

But Lipscomb’s Hazelip School of Theology has chosen just these Deep South locales to serve as their biennial travel experience for doctoral students, and they are finding that the week long tour of historic sites associated with the civil rights movement is changing not only the lives of their students, but also the lives of ministers, Christians and history-lovers throughout the region.

The idea for the trip was sparked in 2010 when Professor David Fleer took a bus trip with members of Schrader Lane Church of Christ in Nashville to Tuskegee, Ala., to meet with Fred Gray, a veteran civil rights attorney who played a key role in many of the achievements of Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in the 1950s and ’60s.

Gray spoke to the group about his experiences, including defending Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, and showed the group around the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which he helped create.

The experience was so moving that, when Fleer returned and told his co-faculty about it, he and Professors John York and Lee Camp decided to use the civil rights sites as the basis for a capstone social justice trip for the Doctor of Ministry program.

“We launched the D.Min. in missional and spiritual formation in 2011. What we did not have at that time was an experiential capstone course that brought together all aspects of missional theology, spiritual formation and the healing of self and others,” said York, the director of the Doctor of Ministry program. “The first experience of the course was in 2013 and the response of students and faculty alike was overwhelming. Everyone who has gone on the trip is forever changed by the spiritual and intellectual journey that takes place on the bus ride.”

Many people don’t realize how crucial the church’s role was in the early development and success of the civil rights movement. Lipscomb’s doctoral students learn all about the role of the church in the civil rights movement and other social justice campaigns throughout history and today in their required course, Social Justice, Mission and the Kingdom of God, taught by Fleer and Camp.

Other institutions’ doctoral programs cover these ideas in their programs, but Lipscomb’s capstone travel experience is unique, said York.

"One thing I've learned in hearing the stories of many people we might count as heroes – whether workers in the civil rights movement in the U.S., activists opposed to apartheid in South Africa, or those who hid Jews from the Nazis – is that they are normal human beings but marked by a deep conviction about what is right,” said Camp, who helps lead the trip with Fleer. “So when the time comes, they don't spend a lot of time thinking about the situation, as much as moving to do something about the injustice. Education like this trip is a part of that process: equipping people, equipping ourselves to lean into doing what is right when and as the time comes.”

Among the many activities students experienced on the second trip this past February were:

  • Visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and hearing the eulogy King gave for the four girls who died in a bombing at that site;
  • Touring Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Ala., where King served as minister;
  • Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where protestors were brutally put down by the local sheriff;
  • Visiting Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where the Little Rock Nine attended school during forced integration in the 1950s; and
  • In Tuskegee, visiting with Gray, whose relationship with Lipscomb has grown since Fleer first visited him in 2010.

“Reading books is helpful, but to literally walk where others have walked, to experience their courage in the places where they suffered, was convicting,” said Travis Sharpe (D.Min. ’15), minister of GraceBridge Church of Christ in Chattanooga. “It challenged me to more actively take a stand against the forms of injustice around me and to be willing to suffer with and for those who are oppressed.”

Besides Gray, the group met various others who wrote texts used in the course:

  • John Perkins, author, minister and civil rights activist;
  • Brian Johnson, the president of Tuskegee University and a W.E.B. DuBois scholar;
  • Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter who was instrumental in bringing to justice Byron De La Beckwith, convicted of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers; and
  • John A. Kirk, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“Getting to sit with these history makers, and to have conversation with them in a small group, was the most meaningful part,” said Sara Barton, a doctoral student and the chaplain at Pepperdine University. “A few weeks ago when the Charleston massacre occurred, I put together a worship service on the Pepperdine campus. I don’t think that before this course, I would have understood just what that event would mean to many of our students and employees.”

Rev. Patricia Brock (D.Min. ’14), adjunct professor with American Baptist College, said she most enjoyed seeing the diverse student body at the once segregated Central High School, saying the moment showed her that “I should not give up on humankind’s ability to live together in a reconciled society.”

Brock came to the course as “a black female who grew up in segregated Nashville.” While she had great reservations about how the trip might affect her emotionally, in the end she felt that it helped her learn to “love her neighbor” even more.

“Observing my colleagues walking through the churches and museums and hearing the horrific stories as well as seeing the pain of my reality on their faces was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “They really had no idea what I and my people had experienced. God told me that it was okay to let my guard down with them.”

“It’s a truth-telling course,” said Fleer, who leads many of the tours and discussions on the trip. “Before there is reconciliation, we have to learn to tell the truth. In this course, we are learning to tell the truth. We aren’t responsible for the sins that have been committed, but we are accountable.”

Since launching the D.Min. trip, Fleer has been approached by several congregations and minister groups to conduct an abbreviated two-day tour for them. “This trip is starting conversations within churches about race in and around their congregations,” Fleer said.

In addition to the tours and lectures, the trip is filled with various cultural experiences, such as the performance of “sorrow songs” and civil rights anthems by Nashville performer Odessa Settles and fellow artists; readings of various sermons and writings by King, Malcom X and Dubois while visiting key related sites; and a visit to the Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site.

“We were hoping for a course that would create a whole person experience of Gospel and Kingdom,” York said. “We believed that the encounters on the trip would bring clarity not only to issues of racial injustice, but to all forms of injustice and deepen our desire to be God's instruments of healing and reconciliation.”

“I think this sort of teaching closely resembles the way Jesus himself chose to teach,” said Mark Adams, a doctoral student and preaching minister at Kings Crossing Church of Christ. “He took a smaller group with him, and wherever he went, he engaged what was around him through the lens of the Kingdom. This was great practice in learning to think about the world around us in a way more like Jesus would think.”