The names of lynching victims are inscribed on weathered steel columns that hang from the ceiling at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo/JTA-Ricky Carioti-The Washington Post-Getty Images)
The names of lynching victims are inscribed on weathered steel columns that hang from the ceiling at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo/JTA-Ricky Carioti-The Washington Post-Getty Images)

The Montgomery lynching memorial is a project of American teshuvah

The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth. (Genesis 4:10)

“Rabbi, after we watched that documentary about lynching, I just felt like I wanted to smash something,” James told me. It was a perfectly natural reaction after learning about how white supremacists built violent and brutal systems to terrorize African Americans for hundreds of years. You see, James is a tough and tender mensch who makes sure that the 500-700 people that flow through the dining room at Glide three times a day all feel welcome, well-fed and respect their fellow diners.

James was one of the 85 people from both Glide and The Kitchen (my wife, Noa Kushner is The Kitchen’s founding rabbi) who returned a week ago from a two-day justice pilgrimage to the opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum covers the arc of American history from slavery to Jim Crow to lynchings to mass incarceration today, and the memorial summons the memory of more than 4,000 victims of racial terror lynchings in America. (Glide is a San Francisco social justice organization and an affiliated Methodist church, both dedicated to alleviating suffering and breaking the cycle of poverty and marginalization.)

I approached this journey to Alabama as I had past congregational trips to Israel — as a pilgrimage and as a journey of personal and communal spiritual discovery, one that I hoped would forever change the participants. I wanted to coalesce our group long before we landed in Alabama. We were a mighty crew of people who came together from across lines of race, class and religion that met four times at Glide before we left, sharing food, studying texts and most importantly, having frank conversations about fear and racism in America.

Vernon Bush, the leader of the Glide ensemble, anchored us in song. I taught the group about how Jewish mourning practices are designed to help heal shattered hearts and about how teshuvah is an accessible force that can help mend broken relationships. We talked about how these particular Jewish concepts might be applied universally in our approach to seeking truth, justice and reconciliation in America.

Our time on the ground in Alabama was emotionally grueling. We gathered in a conference room at the Marriott the night before the museum and memorial opened to set our intention for the next day: phones off, hearts and souls wide open, ready to feel all that we could feel.

The Glide and Kitchen delegation at the (
The Glide and Kitchen delegation at the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Michael Lezak)

The next morning, we learned with Michelle Alexander, the prophetic author of “The New Jim Crow.” In small groups, we entered the museum. Noa and I walked through the space with our three daughters. When one of them pointed out the old restaurant sign that read, “No blacks, no Jews and no dogs,” I saw how history was coming alive for them in this poignant and powerful place.

Late in the afternoon, all 85 of us gathered in a tight circle outside of the memorial. Vernon led us in a song we sang back at Glide, we took a collective deep breath and we entered the memorial. It is a haunting and harrowing place. Immediately, we were greeted by a life-sized sculpture of a family in shackles, being ripped apart by slavery. The look of terror in all of their eyes seared our souls.

The memorial itself consists of 800 weathered steel boxes, with laser-cut names of counties along with the names and dates of people who were lynched in those counties. The coffin-like boxes start off at eye level allowing you to walk face-to-face with the brown boxes. Soon, the floor begins to descend and the boxes dangle from the ceiling above you like the maimed bodies of lynching victims hanging from trees.

Late that night, we gathered back in the conference room at the Marriott. We were exhausted. As Dan Nichols led us in his rendition of Psalm 23, the room filled with tears. People who four weeks prior were strangers were now loving and comforting one another as we mourned this tragic and on-going American story. One Glide employee said, “You know rabbi, I spent five years incarcerated at San Quentin. I learned a lot there in prison. What I experienced here in Alabama rocked me more than prison. I’m going to bring back these stories and feelings of hope back to the Tenderloin.”

Unlikely as it may seem, our group coalesced by confronting these most violent images and most painful stories together and head-on. The museum and the memorial, and the collective time we spent together singing and sharing allowed us to mourn together; more than that, this shared sacred time gifted us with a periscope to look up and out of the current political morass, ahead towards a more righteous and redemptive American future. We came away with a measure of hope and healing in our souls. These pilgrims from Glide and The Kitchen received some holy justice Torah in Alabama, deep life truths that they are already spreading far and wide.

I saw James on Ellis Street in front of Glide earlier this week. “Hey rabbi,” he said. “This trip really changed my views. I think every high school kid in America should go to that museum and memorial. It’s the most real thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’

Next year’s pilgrimage is already in motion.

Rabbi Michael Lezak
Rabbi Michael Lezak

Rabbi Michael Lezak is the rabbi at Glide’s Center for Social Justice in San Francisco.