Art by Ryan Gregory

I’ve been home from our senior high mission trip for just over a week now.  I had intended to write about this sooner, but I think I needed last week to decompress.  Now that I’m feeling more human, here it comes…

First, I want to provide the basic contours of the trip.  We called it the Justice Journey, and the thematic focus was racial reconciliation.  Our destination was Cary, MS, where we would help with home improvements for low income families in this impoverished community in the Mississippi Delta.  But, as the name of the trip implies, the journey there was also a major part of the experience.  Our itinerary took us to several key locations in the history of the civil rights movement.  Our intention was to provide an opportunity to learn about this struggle in a way that can never be replicated in a classroom.

In addition to youth from Fourth Presbyterian Church, we brought together youth from Bethel Green Family Worship Center and Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church, two predominantly African American congregations here in Chicago. Our goal was to create an intentionally diverse group of youth and adults to share this experience together.  We didn’t want racial reconciliation to be an abstract concept that we talked about—our goal was to actually experience the challenges and blessings of integrating people from a variety of racial, ethnic, social, economic and religious.

Thirty youth and nine adults loaded onto a bus in Chicago on Saturday, August 7 and headed south.  After about six hours of driving, we made our first stop at Ft. Defiance near Cairo, IL.  This spot marks the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and also the border of the Mason-Dixon Line, the old boundary between the north and south during the days of slavery.  As we paused here to focus our attention and recite a litany of quotations and prayers about justice, we ourselves crossed the boundary from north to south, from the present to the past.  This boundary crossing was our first, but it would not be our last.

We continued on south and arrived in Memphis, TN, where we spent the night at Idlewild Presbyterian Church.  After worshiping at the early Sunday service, we enjoyed our first taste of Memphis BBQ at The Commissary (where, in my opinion, the pulled pork shoulder outshines the ribs).  After lunch we headed back downtown for an incredible tour of The National Civil Rights Museum, which is built into the Lorraine Motel, the place of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  This provided an eye opening introduction to our civil rights sojourn.

After the museum, we headed east to Birmingham, AL and spent the night at First Presbyterian Church.  We were greeted at the church by their pastor, Shannon Webster, who gave us a fascinating history of how this congregation fit into the civil rights movement.  It turns out that the church’s pastor, Dr. Edward Ramage, was one of the recipients of King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which called moderate white pastors to task for not getting involved in the movement.  King’s letter convinced Ramage and he began to speak more openly about integration and civil rights.  This caused considerable controversy at the church and Ramage was forced to leave within 18 months.  Eventually, however, the session of the church came around and integrated the congregation.  Dr. Ramage’s addition to the communion liturgy at their church remains a powerful reminder of this time and the truth of the gospel: “We welcome those whom God welcomes.”

During the night in Birmingham, there were some unfortunate acts of misbehavior from some of our youth, which resulted in three boys being sent home early.  I’ll write more about this later.

On Monday morning we toured 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the site of a bombing that killed four girls in 1963.  After the church tour, we spent some time reflecting in Kelly Ingram Park across the street.  We then loaded back in the bus and drove south to Montgomery where we toured the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center and learned about what this great organization is still doing to confront racism and hate crimes.  We then walked down the street to stand on the steps of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, MLK’s church in Montgomery.  In the shadow of this church, we listened as one of our youth read portions of a powerful King speech.  After dinner at a great “meat and three”, we stayed overnight at Frazer United Methodist Church.

On Tuesday morning, after a difficult day and two difficult nights dealing with our actions in Birmingham, we dropped off three boys to travel home to Chicago and we continued our journey toward Mississippi.  With our emotions still raw, we stopped in Selma, AL to learn about the events of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  After hearing some words of scripture, we crossed the bridge in silence, remembering those that crossed it so long ago and changed the course of history.

We continued east and arrived in Mendenhall, MS for lunch and a tour with Elizabeth Perkins, the daughter of civil rights leader John M. Perkins and the executive director of the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development.  Elizabeth showed us around the town of Mendenhall, where she and her siblings grew up and were directly involved in events like the integration of schools.  Having read Let Justice Roll Down, it was  fascinating to see the places that Perkins talked about in his memoir.  We also toured the Foundation in Jackson and learned about the great things they are doing in the local communities.

We left Jackson and drove north to our destination, the Cary Christian Center in Cary, MS.  In Cary, the Justice Journey became more like a typical youth mission trip.  Instead of transient living in the bus and on church floors, we settled into a lovely building that became our home.  We had a common living room, dining room, and kitchen, and large rooms of bunk beds for sleeping.  We cooked our own meals and ate together.  There were card games and musical jam sessions.  Our work in Cary included unloading a large van of items for resale at a thrift store, building a porch, painting a house, and installing flooring.  It was rewarding work in the sweltering heat of August in Mississippi.  The staff at the Cary Christian Center talked with us about poverty in the area, which was brought to life by a bus tour on our last day there.  Small groups of youth and adults shared in the leadership of evening devotions as we processed our journey and service together.

When our four nights and three days in Cary were over, we left a different group—and as different individuals—than when we arrived.  The lessons about poverty, opportunity, prejudice, and racial reconciliation were sinking in, not to mention our own process of healing and reconciliation after the road bump we hit in Birmingham.  We were sad to leave, and enjoyed another day together in Memphis with visits to Graceland (where we left a Justice Journey t-shirt at Elvis’ grave) and Sun Studio, and some of the best ribs in the country at Rendezvous.  The busload of people that arrived back in Chicago the next day were definitely not the same group that left a mere week before.

Check back in as I continue to process this incredible journey and the experiences we had.  And be sure to check out pictures, videos, and reflections at

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

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