by Rachel Heston-Davis
Helen Kaufmann ’56 had studied Civil Rights issues for decades. She was no stranger to good research habits, and years of teaching at Parkland College (Champaign, Illinois) honed her ability to engage deeply with material.
Yet a different kind of “learning” emerged when Kaufmann laid her hand across the stone slabs that bore the names of 4,400 lynching victims at the “Lynching Museum” in Montgomery, Alabama. The horrors of lynching hit home afresh as she viewed “row upon row” of jars holding soil from lynching sites, a stark symbol of the prevalence of that practice mere decades ago.
She slept in a motel built on the onetime site of a slave warehouse, where slaves spent their own fitful nights many years ago. She saw the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Kaufmann undertook these journeys on G.U.’s first travel-based Justice Ministry course offered last May. The course included reading, lectures and visits to historic locations that immersed her in learning and expanded her view of ministry.
G.U. Andrews Chair for Christian Unity Ben Wayman calls the course “embodied education,” explaining that “where you are changes how you see the material.”
No Substitute For “Being There”
Kaufmann concurs about the power of embodied education.
“We can read or hear about an event,” she says, “but to stand where it took place activates other senses as well.”
It also helps to share the experience with fellow travelers. Kaufmann’s classmates included seminary students, pastors, professors and authors—a fellowship enriched by diverse backgrounds. Some took the class for credit to further their studies; others, like Kaufmann, took the course for personal reasons. The group contained a variety of perspectives, meaning everyone learned more.
“We learned from each other how our assumptions and defenses were being challenged by the things we saw and heard,” Kaufmann said. “I was particularly interested in the reactions of the half a dozen black participants, for whom these visits took on special meaning. This was especially true, I think, of the site of Emmitt Till’s murder in Money, Mississippi.”
Inspired Learning Spreads
Kaufmann shared a presentation about her trip with her congregation at the Mattis Avenue Free Methodist Church in Champaign, Illinois. More than a slideshow, the presentation grew out of tough topics related to race in America. Kaufmann discussed, among other things, the role of slavery and its evils in influencing today’s economic prosperity, and statistics about inequality in the modern penal system, which, she says, “punishes black Americans more severely than white Americans.”
Kaufmann saw a willingness among her fellow churchgoers to think through these issues. “Several people thanked me [for the presentation],” she said. She and other members followed up with a meeting to discuss ideas from Rev. John Perkins’ new book Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win.
Wayman believes the trip delivered exactly the kind of experience Kaufmann and her fellow students value. He calls the Justice Ministry course “the kind of education the church in America desperately needs.”
Greenville University will offer more Justice Ministry courses: “Immigration, Exploitation, and Kingdom Economics” in January 2019 and “Colonization and the Native American Experience” in May 2019. For more information, contact Wayman at [email protected].
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