St. Martin de Porres youth learn lessons in social justice — past and present

Youth from St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia pause for a photo during their trip to Alabama. (Provided)

COLUMBIA—”Montgomery or Bust!” was the sign posted on the transit van as the youth group left St. Martin de Porres Church for a social justice mission trip to Montgomery, Ala., recently.

The very full six days included mission work, and visits to several civil rights and social justice sights in Montgomery and Selma, plus a few surprises. As the students boarded the van, they received a gift bag prepared by the young adults group of the parish. Each bag was personalized and included a journal, pen, rosary, and snacks. This kind gesture helped prepare the youth for their trip.

“This trip was an amazing opportunity, I had a great time and made unbreakable bonds with God and my lifelong friends,” said participant Carmenamelia Garcia.

Before reaching their destination, they stopped in Conyers, Ga., to visit Mrs. Doris Trezevant, a longtime member of St Martin de Porres who recently moved to live with her daughter. She remembered all the kids and challenged them to work hard and shine. They also drove through the childhood neighborhood of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and walked around downtown Atlanta.

They arrived at Resurrection Missions Catholic Church in Montgomery. The 1960s-era former convent had plenty of space for the 13 participants. Students were assigned to three groups to rotate and lead activities, including morning devotion, meal prep, and evening reflection/ice breakers throughout the week.

Part of the youth trip was spent in outreach to others.

“I didn’t want to go, but once we got there and I spent time with everyone, I was glad to be there,” Aniya Cave said.

They attended a spirit-filled Pentecost Sunday Mass with Father Manuel Williams at Resurrection Church, which is celebrating its 75thanniversary. Church members were quick to ask about Sister Roberta Fulton, who was a member there before coming to Columbia. Father Manuel’s words, “Listen to what the spirit is telling you, and do what the spirit tells you to do,” set the tone for the week. Later they took in a little local culture at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Their days began with mission work, such as cleaning at an assisted-living facility, office admin work, and gardening. In the afternoon, they visited social justice and civil rights sights. The first day, before visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the group had an opportunity to tour Alabama State University, a historic black college. They were quite surprised when they realized the tour included a session with the university president, Dr. Quinton Ross. He talked with the youth about the school and their own future plans.

Later that day the group was in for another surprise. One of the motivations for the trip was Bryan Stevenson, who is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, creator of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and author of “Just Mercy.” While the students were at the museum, Stevenson came and graciously gave hugs and posed for pictures with the group. He is often considered a rock star of the modern social justice movement.

The youth read “Just Mercy” by Stevenson, plus “The Sun Does Shine,” by Anthony Ray Hinton, as part of their social justice work prior to the trip. Hinton spent 30 years on death row and Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative was instrumental in obtaining his release. The youth also participated in other social justice discussions about  domestic violence, human trafficking, and Birthright of Columbia.

The next afternoon they toured the Civil Rights Memorial, the Selma Interpretative Center, and the Enslavement and Civil War museum that included a talk with Ms. Annie Pearl Avery, an 80-year-old civil rights activist. They walked the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which is the site of Bloody Sunday and the start of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights.

The following day, they toured the church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Here, they were quizzed on the life of Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The teens then took a fun break at a local trampoline park.

Among the group’s outreach efforts was time spent gardening.

The last day they toured the beautiful St. Jude Catholic Church and the church’s interpretative center. St Jude was the site of the end of the Selma to Montgomery March.

“I am grateful that I got a better understanding of social justice and got to understand what our ancestors did for us. It also makes me more thankful for everything that I have in life and my rights, which they did not have back then,” said participant DeSharah Israel.

The last morning devotional included a rosary in the sanctuary said for each other and the trip. The trip concluded with a final lunch symposium hosted by Resurrection Church, with three civil rights activists.

Deacon Nathan Williams, who is a retired civil servant and the parent of Father Manuel, was an activist during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Do what is right,” Deacon Williams said. “Do what your mind tells you, not what others may tell you to do.”

Mrs. Jeannie Graetz was also active in the bus boycott. Her husband, Rev. Robert Graetz, wrote “A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation.” She and her family received numerous threats and harassment during that tumultuous time. “Do not let fear stop you from living, be not afraid,” Mrs. Graetz said. “We are all one RACE (Respect All Cultures Equally).”

Nelson Malden, a historian and businessman, graduated from Alabama State University with a degree in political science. Back in the day, he was Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber and shared a few quirky stories about Dr. King.

“We have left our mark on history; how will you leave your mark?” Mr. Malden challenged the youth, “Think of how you’re going to use your voice: you are history and history is happening.”

Each encounter and activity seemed to help the youth understand they weren’t just on a summer trip; they were on a journey to understand that all life is precious and worthy of equal treatment under the eyes of God as Jesus practiced. Pentecost was the introduction of the Holy Spirit, during this journey the Spirit seemed to touch and spark each student uniquely. May the Spirit keep them fired up and ready to serve. Come Holy Spirit, Come!

Submitted by Vernetta Garcia