During the 1960s, the violent law enforcement response to civil rights protest marches made Birmingham, Alabama, the epicenter of the civil rights struggle. More than 50 years later, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshad Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery have brought forth demonstrations of deep anguish, fear, sadness, and rage in communities across the nation. Here in Birmingham, we know all too well that these are just the latest manifestations of our country’s longstanding sin of racism.

On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. composed his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It was addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” and in it, King admonished white churches for acting as bystanders in the civil rights struggle: “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.”

As we face another potential turning point in our country’s struggle toward racial equality and justice, will white clergy and white churches take this historic opportunity to respond more forcefully and righteously than they did in 1963? A good starting point is a cornerstone of Christian values: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39).

Unfortunately, we too often limit our definition of “neighbors” to those who look, think, and vote like us, just as Jesus described in Luke 10 in the parable of the good Samaritan. As King famously pointed out, “the most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” and churches remain among the most segregated aspects of American life. But for white Christians to truly be partners in confronting racism, our notion of whom we embrace as neighbors must expand. The American church, particularly the white church, has an opportunity to guide its congregations in this project through a strategy of intentionality that centers around embracing a clear narrative of our country’s racial history, active listening, and open dialogue.

First, we must strip the romanticized veneer from the narrative of American history. This reckoning with the racism that pervades our past is being done very effectively by organizations like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which houses a replica of the cell door behind which King penned his famous letter, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which commemorates the victims of lynching and chronicles the ideology of white supremacy in the United States. By confronting the deep, unvarnished narrative of America’s racial history, white Christians can better comprehend how black Americans process events like the killings of unarmed black men and women by police today. 

King, like Christ, was especially concerned about those who seek to maintain the status quo instead of living out the true creeds of their faith. He remarked in his letter, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is … the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …” To truly understand the aspirations of African Americans—as well as the structural barriers that stand in their way—white clergy and Christians must engage in meaningful dialogue with African Americans and, crucially, actively listen without judgment and defensiveness.

However, these first two cannot happen without intentional effort by all Christians to engage with people from different backgrounds. In America today, African Americans and other minorities have no choice but to live in the majority’s culture. Members of the majority must choose to understand minority cultures. White clergy can help build bridges between their congregations and people from different backgrounds, facilitating the personal connections that are key to creating meaningful change both on an individual level and a systemic one. 

As long as we continue to ignore systemic racism, America can never achieve its fullest measure of greatness. In the words of King, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” Should they choose to seize this moment, white churches can be on the vanguard of a new movement toward true racial reconciliation and justice.

In Birmingham, we the undersigned intend to do so, pursuing the cause of justice in word and deed. We invite our fellow Americans to join us in this commitment.

Lead Authors:

Thomas Wilder, senior pastor of Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville 

Tim Kallam, senior pastor of Mountain Brook Community Church

Selwyn Vickers, M.D., FACS, Christian Service Mission board member

Tracy Hipps, executive director of Christian Service Mission

We acknowledge that the list of co-signers is not inclusive of all churches or faith organizations in Greater Birmingham. For those who have not yet had an opportunity to sign, we invite you and all those across the state of Alabama who wish to join with us, to do so. Send an e-mail to info@csmission.org to add your name to those who stand for true racial reconciliation and justice.

 

Co-signers:

Dr. David Adkison, M.D., Christian Service Mission board member

David F. Austin, senior pastor of Unified Fellowship Community Baptist Church

Rev. Steven Baccus, senior pastor of Gardendale-Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church

Dr. Thomas Beavers, senior pastor of New Rising Star Church

Bart Box, senior pastor, Christ Fellowship Church

Tommy Brigham, chairman of ARK Realty and the ARK Fund

Joel Brooks, lead pastor of Redeemer Community Church

Rev. Dr. Nate Brooks, pastor, Greater St. John Baptist Church

Joel Busby, lead pastor of Grace Fellowship

John Cantelow III, senior pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church

Todd Carlisle, Christian Service Mission board member

Damon Davis, senior pastor of Collective Community Church

Chris DeGreen, senior pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church

Keith Duke, Christian Service Mission board member

Dr. David Eldridge, senior pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church

Bob Flayhart, senior pastor of Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church

John Gibson, executive director of Serving You Ministries

Alton Hardy, senior pastor of Urban Hope Church

Robert Holmes, elder at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church

Steve Longenecker Pastor Grace and Truth Church

Robert Marks, M.D., MPH, elder at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church

Matt Mason, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills

Leon Miller, pastor of Kingdom Family Christian Fellowship

Adam Mixon, senior pastor of Zion Springs Baptist Church

Dr. Randy Norris, senior pastor of The Station Church

Dr. Rob Paul, Huffman Baptist Church

Andrew Pearson, dean and rector of Cathedral Church of the Advent

Robert Record, M.D., founder and CEO of Christ Health Center

Dr. Harry L. Reeder III Senior Pastor Briarwood Presbyterian Church

Ike Reeder, President of Birmingham Theological Seminary 

William Seigel, Christian Service Mission board member

Rodney Standfield, senior pastor of Love Fellowship Christian Center

John Stein, Christian Service Mission board member

Tim Tomlinson, president, Bethlehem College & Seminary, Minneapolis, Minn.

Jimbo Tucker, lead pastor of Redstone Church

Dr. Michael Wesley Sr., senior pastor of Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church

Dr. Andrew Westmoreland, President of Samford University 

George Whitlock III, bishop at The Vine Birmingham

Dr. Danny Wood, senior pastor of Shades Mountain Baptist church

Miguel Zayas, senior pastor of Inverness Vineyard Church

Pastor Chris Hodges, Church of the Highlands

William S. “Buddy” Cox III, Partner at Bradley Law Firm

Dr. Seth Landefeld, Holy Family Christo Rey High School Board Member

Matt Francisco, Pastor of Discipleship, Redeemer Community Church

Chad Granger, Assistant Pastor, Urban Hope Community Church

Jason Zinn, Area Director, Young Life Birmingham Central

Dr. Todd Harringon, Pastor, Haven Field Community Church

Reverend Rich Webster, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church

John Beatty, Area Director, Young Life Birmingham South

Tanesha Sims

Roger Smalligan, member Rock Family Worship, Huntsville, AL

The Rt. Rev. John McKee Sloan, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Reverend Glenda S. Curry, Bishop-elect in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Amanda Ingram

Reverend Mary Bea Sullivan, Interim Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church

Reverend Dr. Malcolm L. Marler, Sr Director, Department of Pastoral Care, UAB Medicine

Jim Dye, COO, Realty South

Jamie Barnhart Leo, Christian Service Mission

Alonza Jones, President, Biblical Marriage Institute

Gilbert E. Johnston, Jr

Michael Sillers

Reverend Douglas M. Carpenter, retired, Episcopal Priest

Pastor Joe Elmore, retired, United Methodist

Chuck Clarke

Chris Jones, Senior Pastor, Meadow Brook Baptist Church

Pastor Van A Phillips, Sr. Holy Trinity WOM and Principal at Center Point High School

John S. Woods, Music and Worship Pastor, Dawson Memorial Baptist Church

Reverend Mary Wade, Executive Director, International House of Ethnic Religious Peace and Reconciliation

Dr. Buddy Gray, Senior Pastor, Hunter Street Baptist Church

Kermit Kendrick, Hoover City Schools Board Member

Jeff Friedlander, Director, Be One Ministries

Chris Roe, Executive Director of Encounter Ministries/UAB Campus House

Jeff James, Senior Pastor, Green Valley Church

Charles Little, Board Member, Birmingham Metro Campus Ministry

Photo by Zach Searcy