In early December I participated in an ecumenical dialogue held periodically between The United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church. During the three-day meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, we visited the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. The church is historic partly for tragic reasons.
On September 15, 1963, just before Sunday school, a secretly placed bomb, made of 15 sticks of dynamite, exploded. It ripped through this house of holy worship and took the precious lives of four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley and Carole Robertson.
As I sat in that serene church on a sunny December afternoon, it was hard to imagine the horror of it all and the evil infecting the hearts of people who would commit such a horrific crime.
Following our visit there, we walked over to the Civil Rights Museum where we could see the patient, painstaking progress that has occurred step-by-step since 1963.
The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy at the joint funeral of three of the girls were ringing in my mind: “This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience,” he said. “In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard—at times, as hard as crucible steel—but today, you do not walk alone.”
Down through these many hard years it is at times clear that the African American community has not walked alone. Much progress has happened, and many on “the white side” have found their conscience, some even enough to journey with those trying to overcome racial oppression.
Fast-forward to the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who, just 18 months ago, entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and viciously killed nine people gathered for a Bible Study.
It is clear to me that we still have a long, long way to go. Despite years of progress, the evil root of bigotry is alive, though not well, and it sprouts acts of disrespect, blatant hatred and racially motivated violence every day. We—all of us—must challenge it and try to dig up that diseased root. It must become a daily effort and our daily witness.
I echo the words of Dr. King: “White people need to come to terms with their conscience.” As we remember the life of this great civil rights leader, and as we celebrate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on January 18-25, may white members of our denomination take time to deeply examine our conscience…down to the root. May we acknowledge sins of commission and omission, sins of thought, word and deed.
May we search our attitudes and behaviors, examine our church practices of reaching out and welcoming in. Do we use our voices, our political power to speak out against the continuing civil rights abuses in this country and for the improvement needed in human relations?
Where can we be in better alignment with, and a better reflection of, the great love God has given to us through Christ Jesus, a love that we are to share with all our brothers and sisters?
I pray that we all will strive daily to overcome hate and division and to embody what this “drum major for justice” called “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” Amen.
Read and comment on this essay on The Bishop’s Blog: ‘A Long, Long Way to Go’