At about 2:30 pm yesterday, I sat in the balcony of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama anticipating the afternoon worship service during the New Baptist Covenant regional gathering. It had already been a wonderful day of music, conversations, and speakers highlighted to that point by President Jimmy Carter’s presentation about three hours earlier. The schedule for the afternoon, immediately prior to the worship service, provided a variety of workshops on various topics concerning poverty, social justice, and racism. I chose instead to take advantage of the beautiful weather and wandered across the street to Kelly Ingram Park. (I hope you will please take the time and follow the links to the Wikipedia articles on Kelly Ingram Park and 16th Street Baptist Church.)
It wasn’t long until a guy named Dread rode up on his bike and began to explain the stories being told by the fountains, sidewalks, and sculptures found on the 4 acre space dedicated to “Revolution and Reconciliation” in the middle of downtown Birmingham. I assumed Dread was homeless. That seemed to make his recitation that much more significant. He drew me into the story in a way that made me feel a part of it without feeling guilty for being a white male. The story of that piece of ground was my story as well…it was a story that made me proud of those brave souls who stood against the dark principalities and powers that day. Those dark powers were fighting for their very survival that day…and they were losing. God’s power and justice was made strong in the weakness of those powerless revolutionary souls and the violence of the principalities and powers was rendered impotent in the face of the words, “I ain’t afraid of your jail.”
So there I was in the balcony across the street, 16th Street Baptist Church, just 30 minutes after thanking Dread for his words. My smile had not yet faded from my face following 3 stirring songs by a choir of African American kids…kids about the same age as the 4 girls who died on that very spot some 45 years earlier.
Kate Campbell came to center of the stage and paused…emotions rising in her voice and on her face. The significance of the moment was not lost on her or her performance or anyone in the room. When she began singing the words to Bear it Away, we all prayed it along with her…
Bear it away
Bear it away
Lift up our sorrow
Upon your shoulder
And bear it away
Kate closed her set with the song Freedom Train…a song based on a line from Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech. I watched people’s faces as they sang the song to themselves, eyes closed, taking in the rich air filling that sacred space.
I may not get
There with you
Keep on marching
Just the same
No turning back
It’s a one-way track
When you jump
That freedom train
The standing ovation following the last note was not merely for the performance of a couple of well chosen songs. It seemed to be a corporate recognition that much had happened since that dark day, September 15, 1963. It seemed that those gathered recognized that much was still to be done. However, the despair that filled the room 45 years ago had been replaced with hope.
I didn’t stay for the rest of the program. It had been a full day. I walked to my car under the shadow of the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was gazing across the street toward the church.