Standing on Holy Ground

Standing on Holy Ground

Corrie Cabes, a student at the Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, and candidate for Holy Orders from St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Keller, took part in the Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama Pilgrimage on August 10, 2019, in Hayneville, AL. This is her reflection on that experience. It is accompanied by videos and photos by Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski.


Standing on Holy Ground

Many of you know that last year I participated in an Evensong service at Seminary of the Southwest to commemorate the life and ministry of Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who was killed alongside many other martyrs during the 1960’s civil rights movement. With the help of his friend, the Rev. Judy Upham from our own diocese, I began to understand what made Jonathan so special, and I learned about his faith that equipped him to unflinchingly engage in God’s work. This year, I was invited to take part in the Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama pilgrimage held on August 10, 2019, in Hayneville, AL, to remember where Jonathan was arrested with more than 20 others and jailed for six days for picketing  “white’s only” stores in 1965. He was murdered shortly after being released from jail, while shielding Ruby Sales, a black teenager, from the gunshot of Tom Coleman, a volunteer deputy sheriff. I wanted to share my experience of the pilgrimage, what it means for me, and perhaps what it might mean for you and the church.


Beginning the pilgrimage

When we arrived at the site of the pilgrimage, I oriented myself to the places I had only read about and I walked in the small park in front of the courthouse where folks were gathering.

Some held large posters that featured black and white photographs; these frozen-in-time images of teenagers, children, men, and women. I saw that many were young children, some even 11 and 14 years of age. These were images of martyrs—those that were killed around the same time that Jonathan died due to racism and hate. Their faces stared back at me with their bright smiles and I felt such sadness, to see these young lives taken, knowing there are many others that are not memorialized, but not forgotten by loved ones.  We gathered and began the pilgrimage with prayer, invited to sing along with a woman who led us in songs of protest, praise, and lament and we began to walk together down the small country roads with little houses.

The sun was beating down intensely, especially as we approached the jail where Jonathan and many other young people were jailed so many years ago. The gilded edges of a beautiful icon featuring Daniels gleamed in the light. I felt a bit dizzy because of the heat so I tried to focus on the songs we were singing, putting one foot in front of the other.

We stopped at the jail and someone read about the conditions of the jail where Jonathan and others were arrested, rounded up in a dirty trash collection truck, and then imprisoned, some for 6 days. There was no air conditioning, inadequate and overflowing toilets, bug infested food, and scarce clean water to drink. Those jailed had no opportunity to bathe or clean up, and more than 20 people were packed into cells. As I listened, I felt like a witness to the truth telling, the remembering, and the prayers—and the resiliency and faith that must have sustained those in prison.

How could this be holy ground?

Then we walked to the site of the cash store, where Jonathan, Ruby Sales, the Rev. Richard Morrisroe, and another young woman went to get a cold drink after being released from jail. As we approached, it was hard to imagine what had happened so many years ago. The cash store I had seen in many photographs was gone, replaced with a tidy, modern insurance agency building with a fresh concrete driveway. In my mind, I could still see the cash store, hear the squeal of the swinging door opening, and see a tired, and rather dirty seminarian and his friends walking towards a selection of cold bottles of sodas, feeling relieved to be free from the jail, looking forward to a cool drink. The scene is always interrupted in my mind by a man with a shot gun, expletives thrown in the air, and then gunshot, chaos, screams, running, blood, pain, and death.

I squinted at the slanted concrete driveway of the insurance agency and saw that several prayer kneelers had been placed there. That’s when things began to change for me. I don’t remember exactly how, but I found myself on a kneeler, the hot fabric and scratchy thread pressing into my sweaty knees. My hands absorbed the heat from the hot concrete and my head and body bowed low. And I just stayed there. Long enough to feel the heat of the day on my back, the heat and the Passion of that day so many years ago. I heard the pilgrims and song leader slowly, softly singing: “We are standing on holy ground. And I know that there are angels all around. Let us praise Jesus now, we are standing in His presence, on holy ground.” I felt the Spirit, the people, the place, the time, past and present, all connected. God was there in this place that shouldn’t feel holy at all. A place where humans, precious creations knit so particularly by a loving Creator, continue to forget the belovedness of each other, again and again. This forgetfulness comes to a rolling, raging boil, hardening hearts with racism, violence, and anger, and the beloved creation seeks to harm the very image of love, looking right back at them. The Creator grieves as creation is distorted with buckshot in the doorway of a cash store. As I prayed, I wondered, how could this be holy ground?

The ordinary becomes holy

I felt a strong wind blow at my face and I thought I should stand. I felt different, as we began to walk again, and the heat didn’t bother me as much as we made our way towards the courthouse, where the volunteer deputy sheriff Tom Coleman was tried by an all-white jury of his peers and acquitted of manslaughter—never charged with the murder of Daniels, considered an “outside agitator.”

And yet, that courtroom of injustice became a place of worship, full of God’s justice. We sang hymns as we entered, and a prayer service with Eucharist took place. The courtroom seating looked an awful lot like pews as pilgrims shuffled in exhausted and hot, some with tear-and-sweat-stained faces. The judge’s bench was now an altar where bread and wine would become holy food. Once again, what seems ordinary is revealed to be holy.

As we prayed and sang and worshipped, one by one, the martyrs were remembered, many of the posters of the youngest martyrs held up and marked “present” by youth from the Diocese of New York. As the worship and pilgrimage came to a close that day, I realized that I truly was standing on holy ground, just like the song we sang.

You see, none of this should feel holy, but it is. God calls each of us to go to very ordinary places and do extraordinary things, guided by faith that becomes second nature to us, just like Jonathan. God will work in the August heat of Alabama. God will work in the hearts of seminarians like Jonathan and martyrs who died too young. God will work in jails where humanity is forgotten and distorted. The sacredness of creation that seems to be denied and forgotten is where God does the most amazing things.

A witness and holy listener

For me, I am encouraged to keep walking the pilgrim’s path, to be a witness and holy listener, to stop to pray and lament and ask forgiveness, to sing with others, to recognize and work to reclaim and restore what is already holy. For you and the church, I hope you are inspired to seek out the holy in your neighborhoods, or places where love, kindness, and respect for each other has been forgotten. Love those who are hard to love and those who are easy to love. Speak justice, truth, and most importantly, keep walking the pilgrim’s path where God will meet you again and again.


The video below contains photos of the Martyrs of Alabama.

The video below is of the singing in the courthouse before the Eucharist.