Because racism lives in the human heart and in the dynamics of our culture, the struggle for racial justice can often feel like an intangible problem. While we can make our voices heard at protests and by sharing our opinions with lawmakers, how do we change biases and prejudice?
One tool to bring to this task is that of prayer. Sharing our struggle with God brings us hope and perseverance. Pilgrimage is a specific form of active prayer that offers us the opportunity to change our hearts and offer a compelling witness to others. Pilgrimage doesn’t have to be a grand journey of hundreds of miles — it can be as short as walking a few blocks in your neighborhood, as long as it’s done with intentionality and reflection.
A local pilgrimage for racial justice can be an effective response to racism in two ways. First, to plan a local pilgrimage, you’ll have to dive into the history of your community to discover the physical locations where racist policies and actions have taken place and marked people’s lives. That learning can make the problem real and relevant — it will give you a way to approach a complex dynamic in a concrete time and place. And it will change the way you relate to your neighbors and your town.
Second, every pilgrimage — even a short, local one — involves displacement. When we set out on a journey of prayer, we leave the comfort of our own reality behind and move toward something new. Even if we’re walking alone, this opens our eyes to the experience of others. That kind of encounter changes things, even if it’s within our own hearts — which is often the most important kind of transformation.
Here are five steps to plan a pilgrimage for racial justice in your community.
Step 1: Prepare for your pilgrimage
Think about the places your pilgrimage should include — both along the way and as a final destination. For a pilgrimage to address your local history of racism, you may find it helpful to speak with elders in your community. They know what happened in the past, and who was involved. Your local library may have written records on the history of your town or neighborhood as well.
Is there a place in your community that represents social sin or is a wounded place where you could bring thoughtful reflection? Is there a church near you where you could bring your intentions for racial justice to prayer? Once you determine the site(s) you’d like to encounter, you can begin preparing to go on pilgrimage.
Then, be specific about what you’d like to pray for. A pilgrim must carry specific intentions on their journey — otherwise, it is simply a walk. Take time to consider for whom and for what you can walk and pray. It is best to write down your intentions. Ask others who are not able to walk if they have intentions you can carry for them.
Think about who you could involve in this pilgrimage and offer an invitation as broadly as you feel comfortable. Even a solitary pilgrimage is worthwhile, but there may be people in your network who would appreciate the chance to join you. Modern Catholic Pilgrim is an organization that connects people with local pilgrimages, so they may have a route or community for you to join nearby.
The saints are another resource from our Catholic tradition — even if you take on a pilgrimage by yourself, you don’t need to walk alone. The saints can help us carry our prayers, and the witness of their lives can offer inspiration. Here are some saints whose lives have made an impact on racial justice, but there are more:
Step 2: Set out with determination
Huston Smith writes, “To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.” Even a pilgrimage to a place within your own neighborhood creates a strangeness. This experience of displacement makes room for us to hear God’s voice in a new way. It also allows us to experience in some small way the struggle of people of color, who often feel displaced in the culture of the majority.
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Step 3: Pilgrimage prayerfully
You might be walking two blocks to the local church, or five miles to a quiet place in nature where you can pray for justice. Whatever the distance, be present and prayerful, reflecting on your intentions and allowing the rhythm of walking to influence your rhythm of prayer.
Of practical note is to make sure you have the right clothing, footwear, and gear for the distance you will cover. Any pilgrimage longer than a few blocks should be accompanied by water, and protect yourself from the sun if it’s out. Pilgrimages longer than two to three miles should be accompanied by a backpack containing some food for the journey as well as any extra gear needed.
Step 4: When you reach your destination
You’ve been praying with your feet and whole body on your journey, and now that you’ve arrived at your destination, you can include your mind and heart in that prayer. Use this prayer against the sin of racism, or consider spending 9 minutes and 29 seconds with a simple prayer for racial justice. Put yourself in God’s presence, and reflect on how you are called to combat injustice. For individuals, don’t be afraid to embrace silence. Consider taking a picture or making a quick video to share your pilgrimage with others on social media.
Prayer Against the Sin of Racism
By Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ
Lord, racism is a social sin that has taken root in the garden of our hearts. We need you to convert us and purify our hearts so that we can become agents of care who walk by faith in justice, hope, love, healing, and reconciliation for your greater glory.
It’s time to embrace our Black brothers and sisters, instead of standing by while they are continually killed by a tree we need to uproot. Racism is sinful and harmful to your creation. Guard our hearts against it, and move us forward to enact change. Amen.
Step 5: Make your return
Make your way safely back to your home, reflecting in sorrow and in hope on the movement toward justice you have made in a physical manner. Reflect on how the experience has affected your faith as well as how it might lead you to change yourself, your family, your friends, and your community. Invite God to enter your heart, and your community.
Our thanks to Modern Catholic Pilgrim for their assistance with this resource.