Sunday, April 20, 2014

...An Easter Morning at 16th Street Baptist Church

Photo by Rod Scott
Birmingham, AL

from the Wiki:
The stained glass window above was donated by the people of Wales
after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed 
by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched.
The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness.
The words “You do it to me” refer to Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats.

Several years ago, my friend, Jane, and I attended Easter Sunday services at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham...the church where, on the morning of September 15, 1963, four young black girls died as they walked to the downstairs assembly room: Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). They never had the chance to grow to adulthood. To make the journey of self-discovery. To live out their highest ambition. All because of cowards who placed dynamite with a timer beneath those basement steps. 

Fast-forward to our Easter visit. Jane and I were both raw. She mourned her daughter, Karen, who had recently died. And I struggled to make sense of life in the aftermath of a series of losses. We weren't running away that day. Just walking to Jerusalem, to an empty tomb, down a different path. 

Typically, Easter in Birmingham is warm enough for linen, with a light cardigan or jacket. April 8, however, dawned a chilly 30 degrees, then limped to a brief high of 43. And felt colder in the gusting wind. Easter egg hunts were held indoors. One friend reported weeks later she finally located the missing egg behind a planter in the rarely-used formal living room. More accurately, the offending egg found her.

Spring pastels were exchanged that morning for winter black and heavy coats. Straw hats went back into hatboxes and out came wool felt cloches. Understand: Jane and I are both hat people. In the south women of all races once wore beautiful hats to church on Sunday. This custom was killed off by "Seven Day Wonders", those bouffant hairdos of the white community that had to last between beauty parlor appointments. Otherwise sane women wrapped heavily teased hair in toilet paper at night in an effort to maintain lacquered pouffiness.

Black women, however, still embrace hats in the south. Jane and I would once again be among our own kind. Sort of. We struggled against the harsh wind as we climbed up the steps. A nice usher led us to a pew where we were given a warm welcome by our neighbors. We were the only white people in the church. What stunned, however, was the realization that we were - with one exception, a wizened little lady with a turquoise turban - the only women wearing hats.

After two hours of incredible music - a jazz band, no less - and a relatively brief sermon, the service ended and our pew neighbors wished us a "Happy Easter". Invited us back. The couple in front turned around and spoke. The wife first, then the husband who paused for a moment and said, "Nice hats." With a smile.

On Monday, I told a black co-worker that I had attended Sixteenth Street Baptist with a friend. I closed with the news that we were the only two women with hats.

Deborah exclaimed, "No! You can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am."

"Celeste, my people ALWAYS wear hats."

"Not at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, they don’t, Deborah."

"Well, I never."

Here's the rest of the story. Over the years, the community changed as residents moved to suburban neighborhoods. This inner-city church was in a re-building mode: updates to the structure as well as the creation of an environment that welcomes the young people who now populate the area. The day we attended, the ushers had shed coats and ties for white tees with "Sixteenth Street Baptist Church" printed in black. They welcomed every one alike, whether in Sunday finery or jeans...or, in the case of Jane and me, hats. 

Because they know what is important. On that bloody awful September morning in 1963, when Addie May, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were killed, "the explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps... and all but one stained-glass window." [from the Wiki]. The frame stood fast but the face of Jesus was blown out by the blast. And the sermon planned for that day was not delivered: “The Love that Forgives." 

News photo of damage to the surviving windowUnknown source

This photo by Rod Scott of Birmingham shows the present-day stained glass window.

I was in seventh grade when the church was bombed, old enough to remember the coverage. At twelve, I could not comprehend the hate behind such acts, nor can I now. But for two hours that Sunday, when Jane and I came in from the cold, we sat beneath that window, walked past those basement steps. Gaping holes have been filled but scars remain. In the building. In all of our lives. However brief the intersections that cold April morning, Easter has never been the same.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

another year...shift happens

Sixty three. My goodness. And wouldn’t you just know my natal day has landed on Holy Saturday...the day of waiting. Supremely appropriate since, most days, you can still find me at the intersection of “Dang Tired” and “Oh, sweet Jesus”, somewhere between “Don’t know” and “Not yet”. Waiting: not my strong suit. 

I will, no doubt, forget the lessons that I learn today and will need to learn them all over again. But I also know that I am loved without fail...steadfast, even when I miss the mark. I rely on the cyclical nature of grace. And relish my friends, grateful for ties to the past and new intersections. Whether we connect online, at a reunion, in groups of two or three, in memory...all is gift. 

My birthday wishes remain...
   that the journey will make us stronger, not harder
   that our dreams will be worthy
   that we’ll honor each other with each choice, each thought, each spoken word...agree or not
Thank you for your birthday to all,