God said to Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)
On the second day of the Justice Journey, we toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. It has been built into the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Pulling up to the museum, the facade of the old motel is striking. The sign is right out of the 1960s and there are vintage Cadillacs parked out front. A memorial wreath hangs on the balcony railing where King was shot.
However, once you enter the museum, it begins to feel more like a museum. My mind soon drifted away from an awareness of my location. We were given a guided tour through the extensive collection of photographs, artifacts, and reproductions of items and events from the history of the civil rights movement. It was a powerful tour that stirred our emotions and challenged our minds.
The tour ends at the motel rooms where King and his companions were staying when he was killed. These rooms have been recreated to look as they were on those fateful days. As we approached them and I peered through the glass, I will admit that they made me think of Graceland, which I had already visited three times and to which we would bring the group at the end of our journey. I guess these recreated rooms evoked for me the same kind of kitschy nostalgia that I feel when I look at the rooms in Elvis’ house.
But then, I arrived at the window that overlooked the balcony where King was shot. My feelings suddenly changed. I become more somber. I looked at this space for several moments and then moved on. Hearing an answer our tour guide was providing to a member of our group prompted me to return to the window. It was then that I noticed something quite remarkable. While the balcony, along with the rest of the motel, has been renovated, there is a concrete square of the original balcony that has been preserved and set into its original place. On this concrete square is the crimson stain of blood.
I was not prepared to encounter the blood of Martin Luther King. Even thinking about it now gives me chills.
I lived in Israel for twelve months when I was in college, so I know something about holy ground. I’ve been to numerous places that have traditionally been venerated as the locations of significant events in sacred history. I also know that most of these sites are more about tradition than actual history. Most locations in biblical history have been lost in the shadows of the past and will never be recovered. Still, it is a powerful experience of pilgrimage to be at these places and think about the people and events they commemorate.
For example, I don’t have much faith that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem actually marks the spot of Jesus’ tomb. But to enter the tiny room that many consider to be the tomb of Christ and to pray there is a powerful experience I will never forget.
Yet to stand just a few feet away from the blood of King, at the very place where he was gunned down, may have been even more profound. This isn’t a piece of contested religious real estate steeped in legend. This is the actual location of a martyrdom that changed the world.
As we traveled along our Justice Journey, stopping at significant places in the history of the civil rights movement, my mind kept returning to my pilgrimage to the Holy Land so long ago. It became clear to me that we were on a pilgrimage too. At 16th Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we stood on the very ground where people were injured or killed in this struggle for justice and equality. We were standing on holy ground.
On the south side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, there is a clearing on which several monuments have been erected. There is a stone fountain there on which these words are inscribed:
When your children shall ask you in time to come, saying, “What mean these 12 stones?” Then you shall tell them how you made it over. -Joshua 4:21-22
The inscription recalls the story of Joshua leading the children of Israel over the Jordan River into the promised land. Once across, they erected twelve standing stones, a common practice in the ancient Near East, to commemorate the event and the site. Joshua’s words speak powerfully to the purpose of such memorials: they are there to teach future generations about what happened in the past.
How I wish that more Americans would take a journey like this one. To trace this history and to stand on the holy ground on which it unfolded will change you. It brings you face to face with the past, forces you to consider the present, and inspires vision and action for the future.
We were on a pilgrimage. We were standing on holy ground.
John W. Vest
I am a husband, father, progressive Christian, Presbyterian pastor, youth minister, practical theologian, armchair biblical scholar, BBQ pit master, and soon-to-be seminary professor. Join me as I chronicle my adventures in post-Christendom.