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Lisa Sharon Harper on the Power of ‘Living the Story’ Through Pilgrimage

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Lisa Sharon Harper is a writer, speaker, activist, and public theologian. She is also founder and president of Freedom Road, a consulting firm “dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap” in our nation through “training, speaking, consulting, and pilgrimage.” Harper also hosts the “Freedom Road” podcast, in which talks about pilgrimage—a theme she also explores in her 2016 book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right.

Below, Harper explains the purpose and process of pilgrimage:

Well, one of the things about a Freedom Road pilgrimage is that it’s always based in narrative. It’s always story-based. And we believe strongly that there is a difference between a pilgrimage, a trip, and a tour. People love going on a tour of X, Y, and Z, but no, we’re not doing that. We’re not going on a trip either. Because when you go on a trip, the whole point is to come up with fun pictures, like, ‘We did this! Oh, look, it’s a funny face! Oh, look at that! Look at that nice little building!’ I mean, yes, you’re gonna take the funny pictures, but it’s not about that. On a tour, it’s all about what you’re learning and the location you go to, right? And it’s all about the head knowledge on a tour.

But on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage is a transformational experience. Pilgrimage is mostly about what happens in between, in between the steps. That’s where the processing happens. That’s where the transformation of our own souls, and the way that we see the world, and how we interact with the world once we get off that bus—where that happens. So the pilgrimage takes in all of it. I mean, it is the pictures, but it’s also what you’re learning in a spot. It’s also that time on the bus, it’s the videos we’re watching, the documentaries we’re watching to help us to connect to the history that happened on that land. It’s the spiritual formation that we’re doing on the bus. Whether that is in the form of song, or poetry, or silence, or whatever it is, but we are very, very mindful of the fact that we are not only bodies in the space, we are souls in the space. And so we are helping our people to integrate the story into their soul.

That's where the processing happens. That's where the transformation of our own souls, and the way that we see the world, and how we interact with the world once we get off that bus—where that happens. Click to Tweet

And it’s also psychological. Like one of the things that commonly happens when people go on pilgrimage and in particular, the kind that we do with our compact space of time (five days, max three days, usually)—and once you’ve finished, it’s like a whirlwind—people sometimes have a hard time coping with the world. It’s like integrating this new way of seeing the world with what they left, from their family, their friends who see the world the other way. So we’re very, very mindful of helping people to re-enter and find coping mechanisms to cope with the sense of…a sociological term called ‘anomie,’ where when you leave, you’re not sure which way is up or down, because you’ve been disoriented, because your worldview has shifted while in this cocoon called our bus. And you go back and you realize, ‘Whoa, I don’t see things as I used to see them. And I’m not sure how to see them yet.’

So we have traveled through several stories. One of them you can actually trace, you can go through with us online on our podcast, the immigration story. But it’s not just immigration. It’s the story of American addiction to imported labor, and exploitation of that labor, and the roots of it and the fruits of it. So it’s a two-part series on our podcast, and that was just four people in a car with podcast equipment, going from place to place. We started at the Whitney Museum down in Louisiana, and went to Sugar Land, and outside Houston, Texas, to the Alamo, down to the border. And that was an amazing, amazing pilgrimage we did in 2019.

Another pilgrimage that we have done with several groups, is called, ‘The Gospel and the Politics of Race.’ And that traces the control and confinement of African bodies on U.S. soil, and the parallel development of whiteness as a construct in the U.S.

lisa sharon harper
Lisa Sharon Harper. (Photo: Brianna Rapp)

So that pilgrimage starts at EJI (the Equal Justice Initiative) in Montgomery, Alabama, and goes to Money, Mississippi, where we stand on the land where Emmett Till was taken from his uncle’s house and lynched. And then we go to Fannie Lou Hamer‘s hometown and her burial site, and we also stand on the land where Stokely Carmichael gave his “Black Power” speech for the first time. And all of that is a 30-mile radius right there. It’s amazing, those last three things happening within 30 miles of each other, within one decade of each other, I mean, literally amazing. Well, 12 years of each other.

Then from there, we go to Memphis, Tennessee, and we stand on the corner where the sanitation strike began and talk with one of the sanitation workers who was there on the line. And then from there, the Civil Rights Museum, and we end in Ferguson, at Michael Brown’s Memorial on Canfield drive. And that has been utterly transformative for anyone who has done it with us. And again, it incorporates all the different components of our pilgrimages: storytelling, spiritual formation, and coping, and resilience. And, also shalom, at the heart of it, like the biblical concept of shalom being the thing that centers us all.

The first fulfilled pilgrimage we ever did, it’s an annual one for us: the “Ruby Woo” pilgrimage. In that pilgrimage, we travel for three days through the story of the resistance and the rise of women in the U.S., starting with the early suffrage story. Going into New York City, we look at the lives of immigrant women and then go to Atlantic City where we look at Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention and how she stood up and, like, claimed her space. And then we go down to D.C. And we end in D.C. with a Lobby Day, where we go up to the Hill and we push for issues that matter to women. All based on our faith. So that pilgrimage recruits women of faith to come together, high-powered women of faith, actually, to come together and be changed by that story. So then that, in turn, changes the way they show up in the world.

Visit Freedom Road to learn more.

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Evana D. Upshaw
Evana D. Upshaw
Evana D. Upshaw is Faithfully Magazine's 2021 Editorial Fellow and a junior journalism student at Biola University. Evana loves discussing the Christian church's role in social justice, learning about how history has shaped our world, and telling stories. Evana currently lives in Baltimore with her mom, dad, and two younger brothers. You can find her on Twitter @EvanaUpshaw.


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