Stumbling along Witherspoon Street - the highlight of my time at the 2015 Barth Conference
I was up in New Jersey from North Carolina for the Barth Conference, but I was using that as an opportunity to visit my parents who live in a town a couple miles away from Princeton. It was on the Tuesday evening of the conference when I was visiting with my folks when my father told me about a march in honor of the Emanuel Nine starting at Mt. Pisgah AME Church on Witherspoon, ending in Palmer Square along Nassau Street. I knew I had to go. There wasn't much inner conflict within me, although I would be missing the Will Willimon lecture I was looking forward to. I knew I had to go.
I had attended Princeton Seminary, I had grown up in Central New Jersey, this part of the state was my home, I had worshiped at Mt. Pisgah a handful of times as a child and young adult. I knew black friends of mine who were crying out, "too long!" and knew that I as a white man could no longer chose to be an indifferent witness to the continual abuse of black bodies. I had to go, I told myself, I had to go and stand in solidarity with those who had been murdered, I had to go if I the words "Black Lives Matter" were to be anything more than a slogan or a catchy hashtag. And so I went to Witherspoon Street.
Leaving from Princeton Seminary's campus, I caught up with Willimon on the steps of Stuart Hall and apologized for missing his lecture and gave him the reason why. He looked at me, shook his head, and said, "I guess that's why we study old Barth, huh?" He patted me on the back, walked up the stairs, and I headed downtown. When I got to Mt. Pisgah I was disappointed by what I saw. Arriving about 15 minutes early, all I saw were old, earnest looking white people. But a crowd soon gathered, far more diverse than I had imagined it would be. There were the Unitarians, there were the black baptists, there were the local evangelicals, there were the members of the Reformed synagogue a town over.
We began to march, several hundred of us, up Witherspoon Street. I saw Princeton Theological Seminary people among the crowd, students and faculty alike. There was John Boopalan, holding a sign. There was Martin Tel and his young son. There was a man from the Barth Conference, Asian America from Arkansas originally, studying in Aberdeen, big fan of Barth. He told me he was there, "because it was the right thing to do." We trudged up the road singing "We've Come This Far By Faith." Hard song to sing without accompaniment, but it was sung from the heart. I overheard one black woman talking to another right before we got on our way, "I'm sick and tired of that damn We Shall Overcome. Those days are over. We need a new song."
We arrived at Tiger Park in Palmer Square, which is right across the street from Nassau Presbyterian Church, and then a short ceremony began. Most of the speakers were black women, from Mt. Pisgah AME Church. This shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Powerful words were uttered. We prayed. Never in my life have I ever been in the midst of so much public prayer, unabashed Christian prayer, done in "Jesus' name" outside, in the open air. Some in the crowd were uncomfortable. Frankly, I was uncomfortable, because such public uttering of faith was far outside of my middle class, white Presbyterian comfort zone. That wasn't a concern of the Mt. Pisgah AME Church people though. "Our mission is to change the world for the better, in the way that God intends. God does not intend for black bodies to be brutalized." And so we prayed.
The park was packed. Young, old, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and nones. Singing and carrying signs, words exchanged, "tonight cannot be a one off!", "we must continue the struggle!". What did this mean? "We must continue to speak out, continue to stand against injustice, continue to resist all forms of racial hatred that deny the humanity and agency of our sisters and brothers of color, in particular black people." We lit candles. We were challenged to, "not leave in the way we came in." We prayed. And then we were dismissed. But that was not the end. A man sang loud, "lean on me!" and then several hundred people joined in. We sounded awful. It was divine.
Before too long I will hopefully write up another post about my more academic reflections on my time at Barth Camp. But for now, I want to sit and think a bit longer on that walk down Witherspoon, and that gathering in Tiger Park.
I guess that is why we study old Barth, huh?