Martin Luther King Day and Race in a Birmingham Congregation

On purpose I didn’t post this on Martin Luther King Day. I post it now because the holiday brought to memory an event when I was pastor of a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama a few years ago (Writing this in January 2018). I pray all believers will consider what is written and apply it to their situation, culture, and/or context.

I had a conversation with the Chairman of Deacons and his wife of a congregation I served in Birmingham a few years ago. The reason was I sensed racial tension in the congregation soon after becoming pastor. Being white, I needed help to understand the dynamic taking place. So I asked for a conversation with the Chairman of Deacons and his wife (Who were black as per their description) about the congregation.

He was retired military. They were both strong Christians who love the Lord. They are full of grace, wisdom, patience, and love. They helped me more than they know and we are still friends today. I made sure then, and again in January 2018, that I have accurately presented what they said.

This was my request to them: “Can you help me understand the congregation and the racial dynamics at work there? I sense tension every Sunday as I preach and I hope you both can help me.” What follows are their comments. The Chairman gave me permission to use what they said and use his name if I so desired.

My purpose for posting this is hopefully some will read it and think seriously of my friend’s perspectives that are still at work in our nation and in congregations. Now the words from a brother and sister in Christ about a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Hopefully this can help Christians see there is work still to be done for God’s glory. “S” is the Chairman of Deacons, “C” is his wife.

S: Thanks for taking the time to send us your thoughts. Yes, you can use our conversations in the future. I don’t have a problem even if you use my name. I have edited your comments and highlighted the changes (NOTE: I have edited this manuscript to be faithful to “C’s” recommendations). It is refreshing to have an open and candid conversation about race and its impact upon church members. We are always available to assist you. XXX Church is not perfect, but it is my Church and I do care about our reputation, our focus, and our role in the community. Change comes with time and also with acknowledgement that change is needed.

C: We don’t have any black leaders today. Neither Sharpton nor Jackson represent us, and by and large they aren’t seen as leaders by the black community. They’re not my leaders… The media is determining who the Black leaders are, rather than asking Black people who they support, most non-blacks assume all blacks support the rhetoric and views of the Sharptons and Jacksons of the world. NO one talks about Colin Powell, Condy Rice, Thurgood Marshall, etc.

C: I’ve lived all over the world and I have never encountered nor experienced racism like I have since we moved to Birmingham 12 years ago.

S: When family from both the north and south come to visit us, they tell their friends they’re going to Atlanta rather than deal with the grief and ribbing from their friends about coming here (To Birmingham).

S: Blacks are seriously distrusting of whites in Birmingham because of the history of this city. There are still places today in Birmingham and Alabama we know it’s best not to go or be there.

S: Part of the memory/problem is that the white church didn’t stand for truth during the 60s. Regardless, it is wrong for three little girls to be killed when they go to church. The silence of the white church in Birmingham during that time is a tragedy in our view.

S: This generation (60+) will have to die off before things will change. Like the generation of rebellion in Israel had to die before they could inherit the Promised Land.

C: We’ve encountered a lot of “ignorant racism” at the church. People say and do things that I really don’t think they realize how it affects us. Comments like, “Black as the Ace of Spades” used to describe the physical appearance of a visitor to a member made during a Sunday School class. There was one time at a meeting of ladies I attended the hostess purposefully didn’t want me to sit on her couch but in a specific chair. It was obvious it was because I was black. There was a time when S was Chairman of Deacons when a man asked me if I was lost. He then told me there was a black church just down the road. He wasn’t being mean, he just didn’t realize what he was saying.

S: We’ve been members (Of XXX Baptist) for 12 years and while I was Chairman of Deacons people were introducing themselves to me and asking if we’re visiting…

S: The majority of the present membership of XXX Church lived through, and may have agreed with, the activities that took place in Birmingham during the 1960s. Their actions, and/or non-actions, during these turbulent times is seen as a reflection of their views. That makes it hard for blacks in the community to trust them because of what they know what their past is.

Personal Aside (2018): I found out while serving as pastor of this congregation that one of the Deacons (RGC, since deceased) was a fireman in Birmingham during the 1960s. He was one of those who turned fire hoses on blacks that is shown time and again on television. Every time it played, he literally saw himself on the screen. I was told before he died he was deeply sorrowful, repented, went to 16th Street Baptist Church to ask forgiveness. If what I was told is true (And I don’t doubt it is), I have no doubt RGC was forgiven. This is an important part of the narrative of XXX Baptist Church.

S & C: We don’t think it is possible for XXX Church to reach the community as it is now, from either perspective. The divides and differences are just too great. The distrust & attitudes are too large.

S: From our perspective XXX Church will never be what it once was no matter what is attempted. They simply cannot return to the days of 60s, 70s and 80s. Social changes are not reversible. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are no longer simply in the background, they are a part of daily society with the same rights as everyone else. Birmingham itself is a reflection of the change. Government leaders are now black, racial demographics have changed, and the focus of the Church has changed.

C: It is the constant ignorant racism and lack of genuine care I observe that I can’t stand. For instance, while S was Chairman of Deacons, I was out of church for a year and NO ONE contacted me from the church! S: When my sister died right after I was Chairman of Deacons, I got ONE sympathy card from the membership. In addition, the simple step of placing the death notification in the Church bulletin was omitted until I brought it up. Another instance was the last presidential election. You would not believe the emails I received from members of the church about Obama (I’m Republican, though they didn’t know it). The things they sent me were deeply hurtful and racist and I don’t think they even knew it! Some of the things they wrote and forwarded to me are unbelievably insensitive.

S: Blacks don’t feel welcome when they come. Being welcomed is more than a smile and a handshake. It is sitting with them, taking them to lunch, taking them to a Sunday School class. Their (Blacks) fear is that they won’t be readily accepted and they come putting everything under the microscope so that it is almost impossible for them to be open enough to join. When blacks/Hispanics do come, they feel they are tolerated, (but) not welcomed.

Me: Why are ya’ll still here (At XXX Baptist)? Why have you endured all this and still attend? S: Because God called us here. Being a Christian separates you from others, but doesn’t make you identical to all other Christians. Our Church must be inclusive of all who believe. NO matter the hardship and despite the problems, we choose to follow God.

Personal Reflection After Listening to “S” and “C”:

From these encounters I have found myself wondering if we as the white church have had our head in the sand… and still do?  I am wondering if I have my head in the sand and am somewhat clueless to the great obstacles in front of me as I seek to do ministry for God’s glory.

S’s updated evaluation on January 17, 2018.

Ron, most of the things said remain true today, however going to ZZZ Church is totally different from XXX Church. Maybe because the church is demographically younger, but the congregation is more open and accepting. Although few blacks attend, we feel welcomed. There are occasions when comments are made that are inappropriate, but they generally come from the older folks. The current political climate does not help, people feel empowered to verbalize and demonstrate their racism. We have made progress, but the road is still long and often hard. The youth of today offer a much better future.

My thoughts, January 2018.

While I was pastor, the deacons of another congregation close by rejected hosting the first black Southern Baptist Convention President (Dr. Fred Luter) when he visited Birmingham. To their credit, XXX Baptist Church was willing to host him in our worship service! This is a testimony to of the progress XXX Baptist had made since the 1960s.

Galatians 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Romans 12:10 “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Sadly, racism is still present… even in congregations. So how long will it take for the above passages to be true? I can only say: I am responsible for me. I am to be guided by what Paul wrote in Philippians 1:27, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NIV). I am called to stand for righteousness and truth, for God’s glory no matter what anyone else does or says, the rest is in God’s hands. By His grace and with His help I will do the best I can.

(Picture Credit)