What would it be like to be praying, singing and worshipping in a church service and to be nearly blown to pieces by a bomb?
This grotesque thought, based on reality, was on my mind as I sat in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, while attending Baptist Women in Ministry’s 2019 worship service held during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly.
This is church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, as part of the Ku Klux Klan’s resistance to the civil rights movement.
As the worship service continued, I could not block out thoughts of trying to come to terms with the reality of the tragedy that occurred.
The walls and furnishings have been repaired, but how could people repair their lives?
One person in particular has been very public about her work of repairing her life after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Carolyn Maull McKinstry was a teenager in the church when the bomb went off. She was the featured speaker at the BWIM worship service.
As McKinstry recounted the bombing, she told of losing friends who died in the blast: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley.
McKinstry was traumatized after the bombing and suffered from depression for over 20 years.
A number of years ago, upon reflecting on her pain, McKinstry wrote a letter to God.
Then, she wrote down what she felt God was saying to her, which was published in her book, “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Carolyn, I need you to tell people that this is not about skin color or ethnicity or religion. It is about love, it is about forgiveness, it is about reconciliation. I need you to be my messenger, my ambassador,” she wrote. “They will know I allowed you to live – I saved you so you could bear personal witness to my power to restore and forgive and draw people to me. … Tell them about me. Tell them about Cynthia, Addie, Denise and Carole. Tell them that when they are reconciled to me, they can be reconciled to each other.”
In 2002, Carolyn was subpoenaed in the State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry trial. Cherry was a Klan member involved with the bombing in 1963.
During the trial, McKinstry shared her painful memory of the bombing. Afterward, she chose to forgive those Klan members who killed her friends, which allowed her to move toward personal reconciliation.
McKinstry writes, speaks and has appeared on the History Channel, CNN, MSNBC, Life Magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show and National Public Radio. She shares about her story and her ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness.
In her book, she writes, “The deaths of my four girlfriends left me with a pain I cannot describe. But something beautiful has come of it, and that’s the vision God has given for reconciliation. My passion is to see people learn to work together and appreciate the diversity God created among us. This has become a calling for me, and I think about it all the time.”
Through her work of reconciliation, McKinstry has called people to affirm and adhere to “The Birmingham Pledge” that the city of Birmingham has endorsed in order to fight racism and strive for justice.
- I believe that every person has worth as an individual.
- I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.
- I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.
- Therefore, from this day forward I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions.
- I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity.
- I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.
If Carolyn Maull McKinstry can forgive and work toward reconciliation, can you?
By God’s grace, all of us have the capacity to do the repairing work of forgiveness but we also have the capacity to work toward reconciliation, respect and love. We must repair the brokenness in our culture if we want to have a brighter future.
Let us live “The Birmingham Pledge” so that the reparative love of Christ may be active in our church and community.
Alan R. Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.