One of the most popular elements of Wesley’s Master of Divinity program is the required “intercultural immersion.” These two-week trips can be spent in such remote locations as China, England and El Salvador, or spots closer to home, like a truck-stop ministry in Pennsylvania or a Lakota community in South Dakota.
Student Joshua McCauley recently returned from an immersion experience that took him and his peers deep into the history of the Civil Rights movement and into the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
McCauley was inspired to join the trip while taking Professor Cedric Johnson’s class Pastoral Care in a Post-Ferguson World. “I was seeing so much tension here on campus and around the world,” McCauley said, referring in part to the recent election cycle. “Professor Johnson opened my eyes. I began to understand what role I might play.”
The immersion trip’s leader, Rev. Terry Saulsberry, carefully orchestrated a series of experiences for his students. “Being on site at eight different places allowed them to see eight different moments in history,” he said.
Those visits ranged from Atlanta where the group learned about King’s childhood, to the site of the bus boycott in Montgomery, and Birmingham where the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church resulted in the death of four young girls.
“In Birmingham, they learned about the sheriff who ordered that the dogs be set on children,” Saulsberry said. “In Memphis, they learned about a poor man’s campaign, the struggle of garbage workers who just wanted a livable wage. Each place we visited brought a different lesson.”
One of the most powerful visits came near the end of the trip at the National Civil Rights Museum, housed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was assassinated.
“It takes you from the slave trade all the way up to Black Lives Matter,” Saulsberry said. “Everything just came together. The students could see the full picture. Before we’d just seen segments, here we could see the whole story in one place.”
For McCauley, the visit to Selma stands out. “Walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge really impacted me,” he said, referring to the site of the Bloody Sunday clash between demonstrators and police on March 7, 1965.
“I took the time to really get into the mindset of being there on that day, what it must have felt like,” he said. “To get to the top of the bridge and suddenly be able to see where those officers were standing – my first thought was to look down and see how far the jump to the water would be.”
The physical reality of the place brought home the sacrifice that marchers were willing to make. “They left church that morning knowing that they were going to be beaten,” McCauley said. “They were willing to accept their own death if it meant giving their children the rights that everyone should have.”
He found the experience particularly challenging as a white male. “As I looked at images of the march from Selma to Montgomery, seeing the white faces on the side of the road, people that were holding Confederate flags and yelling these horrible things, it was really, really challenging,” he said.
Both McCauley and Saulsberry spoke about the strong sense of community established on the trip. “During our 12 days together, I saw the Beloved Community being built right there among this diversity of students,” Saulsberry said. The group ranged in age from 25 to 62 and hailed from countries as distant as Ghana and Pakistan, he said.
McCauley agreed. “[Rev. Saulsberry] allowed us to come together as a family on our own,” he said. “We asked each other honest questions and dove deep into how we were brought up and what we were taught. And all of that happened naturally.”
One of the most joyful moments for McCauley occurred while in his hotel room in Memphis watching President Obama speak.
“We were watching President Obama’s farewell speech after spending the day in museums that were showing us bombings and lynching and beatings,” he said. “Watching President Obama, we got a sense of how far we’ve come.”
McCauley will be in the pulpit this February preaching about his experiences. “To recognize Dr. King’s dream is to realize that we can never go back,” he said. “We can never go back to seeing someone as inferior to others, regardless of race, religion or sexuality. To deviate from that in any way is to throw away the Gospel.”
*Photo Credit: Joshua McCauley