A few Sundays ago, I did my best to smooth down Sweet Pea’s unruly cowlick and had Boss press his *nice* shirt and pants. We went through the ritual of putting on our “Sunday best” and headed to downtown Woodlawn, which is just a few blocks from our house. It was a special day for the congregation at Woodlawn United Methodist Church and I wanted my family to be a part of it.
Rewind (give or take) five decades: The city of Birmingham is in utter turmoil. The issue is black and white and there are warriors on both sides. From what I’m told (and I can’t claim fact or fiction since I wasn’t around), Woodlawn is not only a much busier neighborhood but its community center becomes a meeting place for Klan gatherings and the like. The infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor, a member of Woodlawn United Methodist, takes to the pulpit to further drive his message…times are much different in Birmingham. In fact, events are leading up to what will forever plague the city as “Bombingham”.
I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be a young person during that time, during those Sunday services. I assume their vulnerable minds were crowded with great confusion, apathy and fear.
Well, we all know the rest of that story…
<Sidenote: I came across some of these details while reading Paul Hemphill’s Leaving Birmingham. For your information, I’m planning a gathering to discuss this book mid-November. If you’d like to participate (there’s a fine group of people expected so far), email me for details. We’d love to have you!>
So, fast forward back to 2010. Here we are on a fair October morning, my small family, making our way up to the makeshift sanctuary on the 2nd floor of the same building that houses Cornerstone School. (The original sanctuary was destroyed by fire last summer.) We follow typical protocol: a few hymns, prayer, an offering, some announcements… Then, the man we came to see takes the pulpit. Birmingham Mayor William Bell stands before (what’s left of) the WUMC congregation to speak on behalf of the city’s bright future and his hopes for the revitalization of the Woodlawn community. (I’m assuming this church, much like the neighborhood, has lost many of its members and neighbors to bigger, newer sanctuaries, situated at a higher elevation.) More than fifty years has passed since “Bull” Connor filled his pew at this very church and I can only imagine how it would have all gone down on his terms as the city’s black mayor rose to speak to the congregation. My, what time can change…and heal.
Mayor Bell spoke briefly and directly. He described an early Woodlawn that was thriving and the kind of place you could produce a living and raise children. Something, though, went wrong. As in many cities across America, communities change. People move. Time passes. History…happens.
Bell went on to speak out of the Bible and told the stories of Jonah and Jeremiah. To recap Jonah’s lesson: What God has intended for you, nobody can take away. And, Jeremiah’s lesson: No matter what other circumstances people create, you can still live your truth.
We can rebuild. There is a spark in Woodlawn and there are people who see the true beauty and potential of this community. Woodlawn’s story isn’t finished being told and there’s a great chapter ahead.
The mayor mentioned his own unusual circumstances recently as he took office with a dark cloud hovering over City government. His daily prayer, he told the congregation, is to recognize his own weaknesses and, being full aware of those weaknesses, make each day stronger for himself and for this great City.
The young Reverend Matt Lacey (who I hope you all have an opportunity to meet soon) stood to thank Mayor Bell for his time and visit to the church. This young minister, full of energy and passion and awareness, stood next to a man whose generation has seen all five decades (and beyond) of pain and progress. For me, still so new to Birmingham and to its history, I felt immense pride in that memorable moment. What hope there is for my generation in moving forward while embracing what has brought us here! Like this church, I sense Woodlawn (as it is a part of greater Birmingham) rising…
Following the service there was a potluck fellowship and, well, you know Sweet Pea and I found our way in line for some fried chicken and homemade cherry pie, but before I crashed that party I took my two-year old son to meet his mayor. “Mayor Bell,” I said, “this is my son. This is the future of Birmingham. We are thrilled to be a part of this gathering today. Thank you.” Bell and I spoke briefly about the new Railroad Park and about my super-secret-service-Magic-City-handshake and then the mayor departed so he could be with his own family and church for this rest of his Sunday. Sweet Pea won’t remember, I’m sure, but I had tremendous faith as I presented him to this man who holds so much of his future in his hands. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was the aroma of freshly baked rolls wafting through the air, perhaps it was just being in the right place at the right time, doing exactly what felt right.
Friends, I wish I could adequately express how important this experience was for me. I walked away with this: We (my family) came here in a great moment for the city of Birmingham. My son has so much to look forward to. We moved here almost one year ago (right between Smitherman and Royal, to be exact) and to say I was skeptical of city government is a severe understatement. I’m beginning to build on my own faith/hope/optimism, though, in what the city can do and (drumroll) I am beginning to find reasons to believe in Mayor Bell. He has a long way to go, yes, but – look at how far he (and this city) have come…
God help me live another fifty years… May I live to tell the story of my generation’s great struggle in making Birmingham THE best city to live, work and play in.
<By the way, I’m looking for ideas as to how to commemorate our one-year anniversary in The Magic City. November 20 is the date. Please send your thoughts and recommendations. I find this to be a most fitting reason for celebration.>