Several years ago, I was approached about participating in a program where pastors might become friends across differences – race, age and denomination – and learn from each other.
Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends: Arthur much younger, a different personality and a native of the North, me a son of the South.
It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence website.
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each other’s deacons’ meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years.
Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that.
Another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, joined us.
After the massacre at Newtown, Conn., in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our children, collectively, hits the deepest reaches of our soul as a nation.
While we wrangle over gun control and mental health, it is important, we felt, to find something to do.
We decided together to join our congregations in a project to work with a school where our resources, both money and people, could be lent in a spirit of love to help children and bear witness to a different one than the ignorant and fearful one of 50 years ago.
We settled on the Epic School in Birmingham. It is a wonderful school with many high-achieving students, but it also faces many challenges.
Its able principal told us that it has by far the highest population of special needs children, nearly one-third of them.
We met with the principal and only asked one question: “How can we help your school?” What unfolded was a list of needs.
We have agreed to contribute two members from each of our churches to serve as a liaison committee to meet and coordinate and publicize our efforts.
We will have an initial volunteers-interest meeting with everyone from the three churches and then our members will have the chance to volunteer talents, skills and abilities to help with after-school programs, athletics, tree planting, resources for classrooms and so on.
We also plan for our congregations to join together on Good Friday to worship together. Arthur suggested we call it, “Good Friday in Black and White.”
What more significant joining of Christians can there be than on that day at the heart of our faith, where misunderstanding, hate and sin were crucified, according to our faith, by God Himself?
Our hope is not only that we will help out a school, but that our congregations might develop new friendships from another part of town and enlarge our worlds.
A few weeks ago, my church voted unanimously, and enthusiastically, I might add, to participate.
Reconciliation is not an implication of the Christian gospel; it is at the heart of that gospel.
There is an old bluegrass gospel song by Carl Story that says, “If you hate your neighbor, then you don’t love God.”
Some things are debatable, but that one isn’t. We are standing up for love. Change begins with the acceptance of some responsibility that is ours to take.
Alabama is more than 1963. We are a beautiful state with wonderful people. I read that we are sixth in the nation in total volunteer hours.
Most of us would like the bombing to be something that is remembered as a turning point, not a defining image of us. It won’t change until we replace it with another one.
My prayer is that this year, in 2013, it will be the image of the faith communities of our state, and tens of thousands of our citizens, joining hands to get involved in schools, getting to know neighbors, solving problems where we are and being reconciling love for our nearest neighbors.
My prayer is that when Alabama is mentioned, it will no longer spark jokes about our poverty or our past, but that they might say, “How they love one another!”
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.