How one congregation is working to heal America’s wounds –
I shared the story a while back of Birmingham International Church in an article titled: “The Church with the Rusty Steeple.” That church’s backstory was compelling, outlining the painful role they played during the civil rights movement. Now the church has moved to remedy its stigmatized past by working to heal racial and social relationships within its community. This raises a question: Can evangelical churches play a role in healing America’s wounds? Birmingham International Church is making the attempt.To fully grasp the significance of their efforts, we must first understand a little of the church’s history.
Fifty-five years ago, Birmingham (rather like Charlottesville) endured the white-hot spotlight of media attention over violent racial tension. Located across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station, the Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle (now called Birmingham International Church) sat in the heart of what is known today as the “Civil Rights District” of Birmingham. On a fateful Sunday morning in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and 30 of his friends sought to join the white congregation in worship. Dr. King and his group were met at the door and denied entry into the church by ministry leaders with guns half drawn.
From that day forward, over the course of fifty plus years, the church floundered and nothing could stabilize the ministry. A church of 1500 declined to 50, despite merging with another church, as God disciplined them. A string of well-intentioned pastors left frustrated. In more recent days they worked hard to restore healthy relationships within the body but still could not make progress as a ministry. They felt stuck and did not know why. Most had either forgotten or were ignorant of the story.
After much prayer over their lack of progress, the leaders decided they needed examine their history. They discovered the painful episode with Dr. King on that fateful Sunday and traced their “fall” (as Jesus described to the Ephesians in Rev. 2:6) to that event. When the story about Dr. King’s “guns-drawn” reception came out, it deeply grieved the congregation. Brokenness gripped them as they owned the sin of this painful heritage.
More importantly, they repented and sought to make things right. As soon as they did, a new spirit took hold in the church. Tokens of God’s favor on their repentance became evident too. They began to enjoy a new fruitfulness in conversions and growth.
But they knew they needed to do more than simply apologize to the Lord for their sinful past. They consulted with prominent black pastors in the area about what meaningful repentance would look like from their perspective. Their counsel was simple but not easy. The pastor encouraged the church to “go public,” to place a public notice of their repentance in the Birmingham newspaper. The following letter, written by the church’s pastor, Ron Higey, and signed by the church board, was published Sunday July 30, 2017:
To Our African American Brothers and Sisters in Birmingham
On behalf of the church, we want to express our deep sorrow and regret for the sins committed against the African American church and community.
My name is Ron Higey and I am the pastor of the Birmingham International Church. I came to the church in 2004 when it was known as Vestavia Alliance Church. As I served in the church I came to realize that something was holding us back from experiencing all the blessings of God as we were praying for and trusting God for. In 2015, we decided to explore our past to see if there was anything in our past that was hindering our growth today. We hired a consultant whose ministry is helping churches evaluate their past in order to determine its impact on today. This journey took the better part of a year. What we learned was eye opening.
We discovered that our church used to be called Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle and was located across from the current Greyhound Bus Station. In the 1950’s the pastor and the church took strong stands against corruption in city government. In addition to this, the church was socially involved in supporting various ministries to hurting people. We also discovered that the church was prominent and well known throughout the South as the pastor had a radio ministry.
For reasons unknown to us, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the church gave into a “spirit of fear.” We learned that our church was one of the churches that would not allow Dr. Martin Luther King to attend and worship. From this point on, the church experienced a steady decline that has plagued it ever since.
We know that words will never be enough, but we do ask you to forgive us as a church and pray for us that we never again give into a “spirit of fear.” I was asked, “Why are you doing this?” and the answer to this question is simple. In obedience to God and His Word – Matthew 5:22-23 & James 5:16. We are not motivated by guilt but rather by an understanding that the “sins of the fathers” can have an impact on the future. Confession of sin and reconciliation is what is necessary. Said another way, it is the right thing for us to do.
As a church, we want you to know that we are serious about this. Prior to exploring our past, we set aside our fears and prejudices and became a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic church. We acted to bring about change before we knew our history. But we are not stopping at this, in addition, God has blessed us and we committed to blessing others.
If you are ever in the Vestavia area, we invite you to visit us. You will find a warm welcome and loving acceptance in Christ.
The church’s letter started a dialogue. They began a series of “town hall meetings” titled, “Let’s Talk.” The meetings cover the hot button topics now dividing our nation, from immigration, to homosexuality, to racial injustice. The dialogue has been productive as this evangelical church seeks to balance truth and love amidst an emotional mine field of controversial topics. But it started with Spirit-led, heart-broken repentance for racist attitudes which impacted their history. Pray for them as they seek to minister healing in their community.
What about your church? Does your congregation have a history of “segregation” issues? Would your church be willing to engage the culture on such issues with a repentant heart, without adding to the divisiveness? Could your ministry function as a peacemaker in the community where God has placed you? Perhaps Birmingham and Charlottesville are God’s way of calling churches to be instruments of reconciliation and healing before the next national wound occurs.
What’s your say? Is there a place for the local church in the healing of our nation? Do churches have the courage and drive to fulfill such a role? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries. Blessing Point works to heal churches with painful histories. For more information visit blessingpoint.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.