"Not that we didn't feel safe here before, but we have a new normal now," says church administrator Morgan Dixon. Credit: Carly Ries

is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Morgan Dixon, church administrator, youth minister, and GirlTrekker.

“I work at DuPage AME Church in Lisle. AME is an acronym for African Methodist Episcopal. It is a predominantly African-American denomination, and we got a lot of publicity last summer because of the massacre in Charleston at one of our sister churches, Emanuel AME. That was in June, and then Sandra Bland, who grew up in our church, was found dead at the end of July, so we have been dealing with that great loss. Last summer was a little bit much, to say the least. 

“As a result of the Charleston shooting, our church has a new ministry called the Gatekeepers, and they are a security team that is a very visible presence here on Sunday mornings. Not that we didn’t feel safe here before, but I bet Emanuel AME didn’t feel unsafe before either. We have a new normal now.

“With Sandy [Bland], I think it has brought us together as a church family, and it has helped us to not take certain things for granted. Because of the way she was pulled over for not signaling, I don’t ever make a lane change now without signaling. We’re doing a church workshop for our kids called ‘Help, I’ve Been Stopped by the Police: Dos and Don’ts.’ 

“Many times, black women are the standard-bearers for our homes. We are expected to be these superhero figures, to bear all this weight. At the end of the day, who takes care of the superhero?

“Well, in 2012, I got involved with an organization called GirlTrek. It encourages black women and girls to take charge of their health through walking. I was gung-ho at first, and then life got busy. Then March 10 came, which is Harriet Tubman Day, and she is kind of the patron saint of GirlTrek. We had a group walk scheduled that day. It was a big day at the church—we had three services—and it was raining, but I was determined to go on this walk. We were supposed to walk 100 minutes to honor the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s passing. I was just trying to get it done. There was one little boy who walked with me. I don’t remember his name or who he was with, but he kept up with me the whole time. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t think I’d ever seen him before.

“In hindsight, that rain was almost like a baptism. It catapulted me into a persistent and focused state. Since then, I’ve been walking pretty much every day. It’s like there’s nothing I can’t do, because I walked in the rain for 100 minutes.

“There’s about 60,000 GirlTrekkers across the country now, and the goal is a million by 2018. My friends and I are OG Trekkers; we’ve been in the game for a little while. I’ve seen many women whose lives have changed as a result of it. We had a woman who lost her husband unexpectedly, and the walking has helped her grieve and move forward. She’s been able to literally step toward her new life now.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a concentrated focus on black women’s health in this way, and if there has been, it’s unbeknownst to me. Sandy trekked with us once. I think GirlTrek has helped us as a community because many times we use the walking as a way to push through and to get back to center. It’s therapeutic.”