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Sunday, January 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trip teaches church members about racism and themselves

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Sankofa journey


What is it: A bus journey to the South, incorporating visits to significant civil-rights sites, movies about race and group discussions. During the trip, participants of different races are paired up.

Who goes: Members and those affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination with more than 109,000 members in the United States and about 750 member churches in the United States and Canada.

Web site www.covchurch.org/cov/

formation/sankofa.html

For some, the most powerful part of a recent bus trip through the South was seeing close up what they'd only read about in history books: the childhood home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a bombed out Freedom Ride bus, a Ku Klux Klan robe.

For others, it was making friends of a different race, and realizing why some people never have to think about race while others have it constantly on their minds.

In November, about 40 Pacific Northwest members of the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church flew from Seattle to Atlanta for a bus tour of civil-rights sites in the South, including the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bombing in 1963 killed four black girls.

Called a Sankofa journey, from a West African word meaning "looking backward to move forward," the trips are designed to speak to a phenomenon King observed decades ago that remains largely true today: that Sunday-morning church services are the most segregated hour in the nation.

On a Sankofa trip, each traveler is paired with another of a different race — on this trip, mostly whites and blacks — to room together, share meals and talk about their experiences. Movies are shown on the bus, such as "4 Little Girls," Spike Lee's documentary about the church bombing.

Last week, leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some travelers recalled how their Sankofa experience changed the way they think and act.

"When I go to a public place or large gathering now, I will notice: 'There are no people of color here' or 'this is a nicely diverse group of people,' " said Krisann Jarvis Foss, 47, of Kent, who went on her first Sankofa trip a year ago and organized the November trip.

"I don't think I would've had any awareness of it before."

Promoting justice

The goal of the Sankofa trips is to raise an awareness in each traveler about racial realities past and present, through first-hand observations, movies, readings and conversations. Organizers hope that with each personal epiphany, participants will begin to think about what ways big and small they can promote racial justice.

Foss was so inspired by her two trips that she plans to organize a regional tour of sites significant to Asian-American, Native-American, African-American and Hispanic people in the region.

Rhonda Egging, a 51-year-old homemaker from Mount Vernon, wasn't excited at first about going on a Sankofa trip. "In my experience, it seemed like black people hate white people, so why bother, why try?"

She has lived a "suburban middle-class life" and didn't really have friends of different races. "I'm not avoiding people of color," she said. "It just hasn't happened for me."

But seeing Ku Klux Klan uniforms and "whites only" signs made her realize "I had not understood how bad it was."

There were other moments of truth as well, she said — such as the time she was standing in a park in Birmingham, talking with new black friends, when a white police officer came up to her — the only white person in the group — and asked if she was OK.

For Janet Batiste, a 58-year-old graphic designer from Bellevue, one insight about King was how prominent his family was. King "was born to privilege," she said. "In a way, he gave up privilege to help people in far less fortunate circumstances."

The civil-rights movement happened during her lifetime, she said, yet as a young black person she had felt little pull to march in the streets. Seeing the bombed bus and Klan hoods led her to soul-search: "Something significant happened. But I wasn't part of it. Why wasn't I?"

Just a few days ago, a clerk at a bank made it hard for her to cash a check, probably because of her skin color, she believes. Before her trip, she might have just let it go.

But the trip made her understand that some white people honestly don't realize their acts or words can be hurtful. "So now every time I experience something like that, I'm going to vocalize it to that person. To make a difference."

Giving church members a new perspective and providing a safe place to talk about it was a main reason the national Evangelical Covenant Church, founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885, created the Sankofa program in 1998.

The denomination has about 750 churches in the United States and Canada, with 72 in the Pacific Northwest.

When the Sankofa trips began, the denomination's ethnic diversity was limited, said Harold Spooner, executive vice president of the denomination's outreach ministries. The Sankofa journeys, he said, were intended to give meaning to the adage: "You don't know who I am until you walk a mile in my shoes."

The denomination has 145 ethnic or multiethnic churches, up from 64 in 1992. Its national office in Chicago organizes at least three Sankofa journeys a year, and regional conferences organize such trips as well.

For 28-year-old Rob Mohrweis of Yelm, visiting the small Georgia town of Cuthbert made the biggest impact.

Members of his group toured the town's jail and courthouse and talked with a civil-rights advocate there, who told them about jail conditions and said that people arrested — many of them black — often do not get adequate legal representation.

"I couldn't believe it was still happening," said Mohrweis, who is white. "That was the moment that made me say: 'I want to change my life and my world as best I can.' "

For the first time, he talked to his adopted Korean sister about her experience growing up in their family and found she had felt discriminated against at times.

He also decided that, as program director of a church camp in Yelm, when it comes time to hire summer-camp counselors, he will try to recruit and hire more people of color.

"For me, it would be important that a white kid who comes to camp here could see an African-American counselor and that it wouldn't be a problem for him. All of us agreed on the trip that our lives are what they are, but it's most important to change the lives of the kids, to hand down a better vision of what it means to be a different color."

Generation gap

Mohrweis' partner on the trip, David Blackwell, 36, of Fircrest, Pierce County, noticed a generational difference on the trip.

"The older generation was stuck on: 'Why did you do this, how come racism is still going on, why are you denying it?' ... The older generation is still bitter," said Blackwell, who is black.

"The younger generation is hopeful: 'I get it but let's move on, do something. Let's get to some reconciliation.' "

Blackwell, a hospital diet aide, learned from Mohrweis that younger people of all races are looking for answers — just as he is — and he said the trip reinforced for him that not all white people are racist. The two of them became good friends on the trip and are talking about seminars they will lead at Mohrweis' camp.

Foss, director of conference ministries for the church's Pacific Northwest region, is planning a regional Sankofa-style trip for church members, perhaps this year.

And she hopes for not only more multiethnic churches in the region, but better communication among them.

"We can have an African-American church here, a Latino one there, a Korean one. But if they don't connect, what's the point?" Foss says.

Of the 72 Covenant churches in the region, 11 are ethnic or multiethnic, up from six 20 years ago.

The Sankofa journey, she says, "was not the final goal, but a launching ground for promoting racial justice."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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