Alpharetta to Cumming (15 pilgrims, 9 miles)
Blazing new trails, a small group of pilgrims set out into uncharted territory for the Holy Week Pilgrimage for Immigrants – Forsyth County. Unsure of what the day held for us we opened the day with a challenge – to be mindful of those moments when we might be surprised by joy.
Forsyth would seem to hold all the markings of a place that would be anything but welcoming to a pilgrimage like ours. Just consider the history of the land upon which we tread today:
19th century – The Cherokee Nation once inhabited what is now one of the fastest growing counties in what we call the United States of America. Forced to migrate via genocidal displacement; the Cherokee walked away from this land it what was a trail of tears.
1912 – African Americans comprised approximately 5% of the population of Forsyth County, but after a series of alleged rapes, the repression and bloody retaliation leveled against the entire black community resulted in a black preacher being horse-whipped, black rape suspects being extrajudicially executed, and over half of the white population of 12,000 residents witnessing a court-sanctioned lynching. The reign of terror continued and, in the end, many black churches were burned and many African American families were driven off their land without compensation.
1987 – Nonviolent civil rights activists organize a march and are met with violence by a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Four marchers are injured and eight white xenophobes are arrested.
With all this in mind, we gathered at a trailer park located on the border between the towns of Alpharetta and Cumming to begin our prayerful walk. It did not take long before we met joy in unexpected ways. The trailer park manager who chastised us for not giving her advanced notice to, get this, recruit the residents of the trailer park to participate in the pilgrimage. The residents of the trailer park who were expressing such pride in their manufactured home on a rented lot that, even with their work uniforms donned they were either working in their gardens, sweeping their walkways, issuing us a warm welcome, or even joining us in walking and singing in both English and Spanish, “We are marching in the light of God, caminamos en la luz de Dios.” We were surprised by joy.
We were surprised by joy when Maria, a Cuban immigrant and owner of a very successful local Italian restaurant actually welcomed us hungry pilgrims into her well-adorned restaurant for a lovely midday respite and meal.
Joy caught up to us in the heat of the day, when a representative of a bottled water company stopped and gave each of us a free bottle of thirst-quenching water just when we needed it. And as if that wasn’t special enough, this Anglo woman thanked us for our faithful efforts at welcoming the stranger. Imagine that – strangers being welcomed in a place known for its policies and acts of exclusion!
Joy pulled up in an SUV and spoke with a heavy South Asian accent. The owner of the Citgo on Georgia Highway 9 (yes, it’s a plug) wanted us to know that he and his wife, a citizen of Mexico, were honored to be receiving our small group in their community and he offered each of us free drinks from his store; another gift we humbly and gladly received. While chatting with this man he, like the manager of the trailer park, told me that, had he known in advance, he and his wife would have sent out a call to all their friends to come and join us on our journey of faith and hope that light will overcome darkness.
And he meant it… because after I gave him my cell phone number he and his wife texted all their friends and told them what we were doing. I immediately lavished with texts and phone calls of immense gratitude.
The most moving phone conversation I had as a result of one couple’s efforts was with Mary. She described herself as Mexican but in perfect English told me how grateful she was for our public witness and act of solidarity. She told me that she called everyone in her family to let them know that “not all of Georgia hates us immigrants.” She told me, that upon hearing this news of a small little pilgrimage, her mother broke down and wept.
Why did Mary’s mother weep? Because they are not breaking the law, rather, our laws are breaking the spirits of our brothers and sisters who are simply here without legal authorization.
I want to stop Mary’s mother from weeping. I want Mary and her mother to be surprised by joy. Governor Deal, a member of Gainesville First Baptist Church, can submit to the Spirit within him that moans with Mary’s mother and surprise us all with joy.
Governor Deal, surprise us with joy.