Sometimes I get a chance to meet famous people. At the top of my list you will find two U.S. presidents (a brief conversation with each,) two movie stars (who staged a photograph with my daughter and me,) and that time the pope was only 25 feet away and waved at me. (Well, there were 10,000 other people in the crowd...but I always reckoned he was waving at me.)
I've also met multiple book authors, a big thrill for me.
This past week I added three people to my list...whose names I didn't catch. I'm going to write and try to find out who they are. But even if I can't track down their identities, I'll not forget them.
The first person was our guide at a black Baptist church in Birmingham. On September 15, 1963, a member of the KKK, a radical Christian group...(yes... Islam isn't the only religion that harbors terrorists) planted a bomb just outside the ladies' restroom at that church and set it to go off between Sunday School and Worship. There were five girls in the bathroom at the time, chattering, dressed in their Sunday best. Four were killed immediately, one decapitated. Meanwhile, at that very moment, Martin Luther King was preaching at his own church in Atlanta. Our guide happened to be sitting in King's church that day when the phone call came from Birmingham, interrupting the worship, reporting the tragedy to Dr. King. Our guide bore witness: what it was like to watch Martin Luther King receive the news of children being massacred-in church--by racial hatred.
The second person was a woman who hailed from Marion, Alabama. In 1958, In Marion, Jimmy Wilson, a black man, was sentenced to death for stealing $1.95 from Estelle Barker, a white woman. Only the intervention of national and world leaders convinced the governor to commute the sentence.
In 1965, a local black pastor was instrumental in recruiting blacks to register to vote. He was arrested for disturbing the peace. While in jail, a white mob determined to pull him out an lynch him. This second (so far anonymous woman) was 14 at the time. She and the Christians from all the black church marched to the jail and surrounded it to protect their pastor. She was arrested that day and hauled to Selma to the jail there.
The third person was a woman who participated in the Selma march for voting rights. She was in Brown Chapel (an A.M.E. church) when nearly a thousand voices sang spirituals until they had worked up the courage to leave the church and march to the state capitol (50 miles away.) There message to Governor George Wallace: "Let my people vote!"
The two women did not know they were making history at the time. They were just going along with the other church folk. It was a time when people had decided to no longer look the other way when someone was being bullied. They, and all the other church folk, had simply had enough. It was time to do something.
As we talked with these three ordinary people, who were a part of an extraordinary time, they made it clear that back then, they did not know how the story would end. They didn't know how many more would die. They had no idea whether the federal government was ever going to come to their aid. They had no idea how many black lives would be intentionally crushed by official powers, nor whether the U.S. would ever change. They certainly had no idea that half a century later people would travel from across the country to hear their stories.
Each of these three individuals taught me something about the essence of Christianity. They weren't trying to push their individual way into heaven for a personal reward. They weren't trying to make the evening news. They didn't feel self-important. One woman said, "We were scared, but our parents and the other folks of the church were with us, and we trusted them. And most of the time we were having fun, because we were together with each other. There were awful times, sure. But at the time, we were just being ourselves."
I've been thinking about it. Maybe a true church is where 90% of the time you are with people you love and trust, and being your better self, and just having fun. And 10% of the time, we link arms in the battle of the day, even willing to go to jail, be beaten, or die...for a Lord we trust. May God shape and bless the church. --Mike