I write these thoughts as I prepare for a shared dialogue sermon with Aaron Johnson this Sunday at Oakhaven Church in Oshkosh. For more about Dr. Johnson’s presentations here in Oshkosh, see any of the following links:
I look forward to sharing perspectives with Aaron on Sunday. (This message is now available on Oakhaven’s podcast page ) Give it a listen if you were not able to be with us this weekend.
Those of us age 50 and over probably have your own vivid memories of the turbulent 60’s. Here are a few of my recollections.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 50’s turbulent 60’s. I was brought up in a Christian home and seldom missed church Sunday morning including Sunday school, Sunday night and Wednesday night services. I attended youth functions and played basketball in a league organized for churches in our area. Our region is often referred to as “the Bible belt”. I lived near the buckle. Churches on every corner, revivals going on somewhere in Birmingham nearly every week of the year.
Our congregation was all white people. Good people, Bible believers, toters and quoters. It was this group of Christians who taught me the gospel, how to think, how to live, how to grow. I am forever indebted to those fine people. They insisted that I consider myself on a life-long journey to Christian maturity. Who I am and how I have come to think and act is a product of that environment.
In spite of all that…… I failed to answer the call to civility, good will and brotherly love at a time when the world was looking for someone willing to take risks…. Someone to take the lead, to step out on faith and to demonstrate Christian virtues in a time of great upheaval.
A short drive from my house was a neighborhood we only drove through on our way downtown for shopping or to watch a movie at the Empire or the Alabama Theater. The neighborhood of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church was only minutes from where I lived but it seemed a world away. I couldn’t have felt more distant and detached if we had been from a different planet.
When the news broke that Sunday afternoon we were just arriving home for Sunday dinner. The day was September 15, 1963. I was twelve years old.
And Denise would have been twelve on November 17. We were only 3 months apart in age. But she never celebrated her twelfth birthday. As I understand it, Denise McNair and her three friends had gone downstairs that Sunday morning while the 16th Street Baptist Church was between Sunday school and morning worship.
In an unholy instant, 19 sticks of dynamite stashed under a stairwell exploded ripping through the northeast corner of the building. In a moment four young girl’s lives were snuffed out: Denise McNair; Addie Mae Collins; Carol Robertson; and Cynthia Wesley, died, and another 22 adults and children were injured. The explosion was the work of racist extremists who sought to send a message to those who desired to expand the rights of people to receive equal rights regardless of race or color.
This event would be pivotal in getting the attention of a racially torn South that things were out of hand. In time there would be changes of heart….changes of mind and thinking. Racism is wrong. It is not Godly and it must not be tolerated in Christian circles.
The saddest truth is that I recall very little being said about the events of September 15, 1963 at my home congregation. Perhaps it was from fear of retaliation among those hard-core racists who threatened violence toward any white people who dared speak out against racism and prejudice. There was a lot of fear in those days. But in my case, and I can only speak for me, I had a lot of fear and a lack of faith to stand for what I believed in. I also have to admit that these events happened almost 50 years ago and the memory of what was or was not said in my church could have become hazy. What I’m not hazy on is my own experience. Regrettably, I know that my experience of those events was far too detached and disconnected even for a young boy of 12.
Brotherly love cannot be secret, it must be bold. It cannot be silent, it must be spoken. Brotherly love is not something to merely be theorized. It must be demonstrated. We cannot allow ourselves to be distanced and detached from those who are experiencing injustice.
I cannot go back and respond differently to the events of September 15, 1963. I can however, embrace the present and the future of God in living a life determined to “love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.”
There is a world awaiting our response.