Why We are Trying to Remember a Painful Past

Read this reflective narrative about remembering the past.
(Photo credit: Jazzmine “Jazz” Bustamante)

This summer, Stephen joined a group of people who set out on a day-long walking tour of Manhattan to encounter places that witnessed inflection points of racial injustice. Here, he explains why they felt the need to experience the painful history of these places, and how he hopes that these memories can actually make a better future possible.

Why does the evil of racism continue to threaten the lives of so many people in this country? The surge of protesters taking to the streets to voice their sadness and anger, their desire for justice and change, make us wonder: Where can we begin to find answers and a path forward?

As my friends and I attempted to make sense of it all, we found ourselves confronted with the paradox between our shared desire for justice and peace and the fact that we are profoundly limited in our own contexts and perspectives. We decided to go on a day-long walking pilgrimage to engage the history of racism in our hometown of Manhattan. 

‘Pilgrimage is a symbol of life’

Our trail began at the home parish of liberated Haitian slave Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who dedicated his time and wealth to serving those on the margins in downtown Manhattan. It went to the African Burial Ground, where slaves were buried en masse; then moved through SoHo up to the Colored Orphans Asylum, which was burned to the ground by Irish Catholics during the Draft Riots of 1863. We then visited Toussaint’s shrine at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before eventually making our way to three of Harlem’s most historic Protestant and Catholic churches.

Each of the sites we chose to visit were full of the memory of the suffering and injustices faced by Black communities throughout the history of Manhattan. These sites were also places where Black people demonstrated an unshakable faith and determination to fight for justice and respond to the needs of others. These places spoke of great hope that is rooted in love for God and neighbor.

As Pope Francis once said, “Pilgrimage is a symbol of life. It makes us think of life as walking, as a path. If a person does not walk, but instead stays still, this is not useful; it accomplishes nothing.” 

This image of walking in search of understanding, knowing God would walk with us, gave us a space to make sense of the questions we couldn’t fully answer on our own. By shifting our gaze from ourselves to God, we hoped to be able to begin to understand our role in bringing about a more just and peaceful society. 

At each site, we stopped to sing, recite prayers, and read the history of what transpired on those grounds. We kept silence as we walked, which gave each of us space to remember and grieve the experiences of division and suffering, and to long for a future where we all can flourish together. 

Our path finished with the three historic Harlem churches: Mother AME Zion, Abyssinian Baptist, and St. Mark’s Catholic Parish. Mother Zion and Abyssinian were founded around the turn of the 19th century in response to segregation within their respective parishes, while St. Mark’s was founded in 1907 to minister to the growing Catholic population in the neighborhood. 

In addition to providing a space for worship and fellowship, each of these churches initiated creative responses to the social needs of their parishioners and neighbors. 

Mother Zion became a gathering space for abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, and served as an Underground Railroad “refuge.” St. Mark’s hosted racial justice conferences led by Marcus Garvey, and in the 1930s the pastor there fought for job opportunities for blacks in the neighborhood. Abyssinian’s acclaim for activism was first recognized in 1944 when its pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., became the first representative of Harlem elected to Congress. Rev. Powell worked tirelessly against discrimination in jobs and housing. To this day, the Abyssinian Development Corporation plays a crucial role in “stimulating economic development and providing affordable housing in Harlem.”

These churches’ histories stand as beacons of memory, endurance, and hope. They are oases of communion with God and neighbor, and play an active role in defending the rights and dignity of Harlem residents, serving as examples of what it looks like when justice and peace “embrace.”

A place where we all truly belong

After the closing prayer to our pilgrimage, some of us lingered to socialize with each other and some of the neighborhood’s residents, several of whom wanted to know about our journey and share their stories about living in the area. 

As we said our goodbyes and went on our way, I found a woman lying face-down on the curb. She was unresponsive, and it looked like her leg was painfully disfigured. Three minutes after calling for an ambulance, two EMTs woke the woman up and helped her to her feet. She started scratching her right arm voraciously as they led her toward the stretcher.

“No, no… I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t need to go to the hospital.”

“Are you sure, ma’am?” the EMTs responded. “We can take care of you.”

“No, I’m good, I’m good,” she said, as she hobbled away.

“Thanks for calling,” one of the EMTs said to me, “but we get calls about this woman every day. And she never wants to come.”

“Yeah, I see her here on this corner every day,” said a bystander.

“Do you know who she is? Do you know anything about her story?” I asked.

“No not really. She’s just always here, passed out.”

In this prosperous city, how is it that this woman has to live in this way, lacking a sense of belonging and disconnected from sources of support? Encountering this woman reminded me of the importance of communities like those historic churches we visited. We all need communities that care for the whole person, to provide places where we all truly belong, where we are lifted up spiritually and emotionally, supported materially, and where we can confront suffering and injustice together with others. 

Above all, we need communities that preserve memory: of our cultures, families, and neighborhoods. We need a place where the promise of God’s mercy and infinite love is passed down and shared among people of all generations, where we can tell stories and learn from one another. 

‘Memory is not static, but dynamic’

In the introduction to his collection of essays entitled Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin speaks about the need for being rooted in history. He describes the wounds inflicted when that history is ripped away and we feel alienated:

There was, certainly, between the self and me, the accumulated rock of ages… There was a me, somewhere: I could feel it, stirring within and against captivity. The hope of salvation — identity — depended on whether or not one would be able to decipher and describe the rock. … The accumulated rock of ages deciphered itself as a part of my inheritance — a part, mind you, not the totality — but, in order to claim my birthright, of which my inheritance was but a shadow, it was necessary to challenge and claim the rock. Otherwise the rock claimed me… I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

The privileges that come along with my ethnic, racial, and economic background are implicated in the ideas and structures that contributed to the histories of suffering we encountered. I felt the need, as Baldwin says, to decipher and describe this “rock of ages” — to challenge and claim it. This task calls for common work, healing wounds, and rectifying injustices. And as the histories we witnessed demonstrated, this work ought to begin from a shared life of communion, rooted in consciousness of the past, and spurred on by faith in God, who is our true healer and source of justice. 

Pope Francis recently echoed this sentiment when he said, “There is a need to respect history in order to build a future that has solid roots and can thus prove fruitful… Memory is not static, but dynamic. By its very nature, it implies movement… tradition is the guarantee of the future and not a container of ashes.”

As we go about this work of bringing about social change for a more equitable nation, let us keep in mind the role of the local community, where each particular face is known and belongs — where we are given dignity and support in all aspects of life, be they material, emotional, or spiritual. In the attempt to affect long-term change, let us remember the immediate needs of our neighbor — especially those who are relegated to the margins. And let us preserve spaces where young people can embrace that “rock of ages,” reclaim their birthright, and be provided the tools to forge a path forward.

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