Sankofa Experience: Part 1

Recently, my wife, Lisa, and I had the privilege to participate in a cross-racial prayer experience that took us on a four-day bus trip to critical sites of past and present racial injustice. The experience is called Sankofa, which is a West African word meaning, “looking backward to move forward.” Evangelical Covenant Church, one of World Impact’s denominational partners, sponsors the event. The purpose of the experience is to help disciples of Christ move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism. We visited such sites as the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, where four little girls were tragically killed as a result of hate; Kelly Ingram Park; the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.

As part of the experience, we were to intentionally pair up with someone from a different ethnic and cultural background. I had the privilege to walk this journey with Keith Wilks, the Regional Director of Ministry for World Impact’s East Coast Region. It was a wonderful experience that was both sobering and enlightening.

Going through the Sankofa experience revealed to me that I still have imbedded thoughts on a subconscious level from my upbringing that come to the surface every now and then. I didn’t grow up in an overtly racist environment; it was more of a culture that represented ignorance and a lack of education and overall awareness on race issues. Even in my conversation with Keith, I was aware of some of subtle thoughts that made me realize how much my past can still influence my perceptions.

I realized through the Sankofa experience how much “privilege” I have in this country as a result of living in the dominant white culture. I see the need in my life for more awareness to the narratives of racism and oppression throughout American history. Unfortunately, the narratives of those who were made to feel inferior, trapped, second-class, invisible, isolated, overlooked, etc. continue today. The challenges and difficulties I experience in life are vastly different than those faced by people of color on a day-to-day basis in this country. These are challenges that I often do not even think of, as they are so far from my own life experience. 

The Sankofa experience reminded me of the amazing stamina, courage, grace, and strength of the human spirit expressed through men, women, and children who have refused to be beaten down any longer for their skin color; they have chosen, instead, to rise up and be overcomers, forging the way for true freedom and equality for all. I felt this so clearly as I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, the place where America’s destiny was decided by a group of courageous and dedicated citizens of this country who dared to make a march for true equality and freedom.  

On the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama said, “In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war, the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge. It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America… We just need to open our eyes and ears and hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much.”

As we traveled through the various sites from the Civil Rights Movement and witnessed past struggles and victories, it was evident how far we have come but also how far we have to go in terms of overcoming racial injustice. While riding on the bus to and from sites (usually at night for long hours of time), I had two thoughts running through my mind.  

First, the walls of racism and indifference can only be truly broken down as we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. As Dr. John Perkins so aptly said in our time together in Jackson, MS: “Nothing can make us whole again, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” It is only through Christ that the dividing wall of hostility and misunderstanding can be brought down and removed between people of different cultures and backgrounds. The Church is the best vehicle to represent the Kingdom of God in which differences between cultures and races are appreciated and celebrated and where people of various different backgrounds can find a sense of belonging and unity as the family of God. I find this to be true as we plant churches among various cultures in the urban context. When I’m worshipping God with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, I find it very refreshing and unifying, and it gives me a little taste of what the apostle John describes in Revelation 7:9-10.

Secondly, a good starting point for racial reconciliation is to create genuine, life-on-​life relationships with people from different cultures and backgrounds. This creates a sense of safety and vulnerability that frees people to be real and deep in their conversations and relationships. This in turn builds a trust factor that fosters a deeper level for ongoing growth and learning. I have the privilege and benefit of cultivating lifelong friendships with people of different colors, cultures, and backgrounds.  I appreciate my friends speaking truth to me in places where I need to hear it and making me aware of things that I may not see accurately through my own cultural filter. The Sankofa trip was a good reminder of my need to continue to invest even deeper into my relationships – to have the positive and difficult conversations that will continue to break down barriers and facilitate healing. Before we left on the trip, someone read out of Ephesians 2, about Christ being our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. The experience brought us one step forward in healing and helped us all experience the peace and unity that only Christ can bring.   

Andy Entz is World Impact's Co-Director of Team Care and Development. Click here to learn more about Sankofa.