Few cities in the world have quite as rich a history relating to civil rights as Birmingham Alabama. The city’s deeply ingrained discrimination and segregation practices were painfully brought into the international spotlight through the civil rights marches and demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While the actions of Dr. King and others ushered in a new era of civil rights, they certainly did not end racism as we know. Rather, they changed the narrative around it. As evidenced by the events of this summer, racism is far from being a non-issue in America. Within Birmingham, explicit racism was no longer acceptable, but the bias still persisted. White families fled from the city into the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them. They created exemplary new public-school systems, churches, and “safe” communities, where one rarely had to interact with someone who didn’t look like themselves. These “over the mountain” communities still exist today, and while racism may be the furthest thing from many of the residents’ minds today, they are living in systems designed to perpetrate racism and keep their interactions homogeneous. The events of 2020 have made one thing painfully clear: we are a divided people. One New Birmingham’s (ONB) mission is to show the world that nothing could be further from God’s design.
Put simply, ONB is all about oneness in the body of Christ. ONB seeks to see the church operating in unison and harmony to be one church and one voice. It was created out of the reality that the modern church is seldom unified. Rather, the church has allowed culture to influence its purpose and impact and too often looks as divided as the rest of the world. Dr. King’s words still ring true today “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” We have chosen our cultural values over the Gospel truth. As Ephesians 2 tells us, God has gathered his people to him as one, fellow citizens with the saints. We are to be one with God and one with man, the true definition of righteousness and justice. However, the church has forsaken justice. What God described as a pillar of the church has been reduced to something present only when convenient. We have made justice a program rather than a priority. ONB is seeking to unite the church as an institution which values justice equally with righteousness.
After the racial injustices brought to light past summer, leaders in Birmingham began looking for a way to speak out and act. ONB was unofficially launched when pastor Thomas Wilder, pastor Tim Kallam, Dr. Selwyn Vickers, and Tracy Hipps released “A Response from Church Leaders in 2020 to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’.” Since the release of this document, dozens of other pastors and community leaders in the Greater Birmingham area have co-signed their response. After this, several pastors and leaders decided to begin meeting regularly to discuss oneness in Christ and its implication in Birmingham. Christian Service Mission has been involved with connecting churches across the city for over a decade, and was therefore able to help connect and unify pastors through their relationships. Some churches had already been meeting regularly for the pursuit of oneness and understanding. Pastor Wilder of Bethel Baptist church and pastor Kallam of Mountain Brook Community church have been meeting for years now to learn from each other and lead their churches to walk alongside one another. Bethel and Mountain Brook Community have very different congregations, both racially and culturally. This fact has made their relationship all the more important as they learn what it means to live in oneness with Christ.
As this diverse group of pastors and community leaders have come together, they have decided to use the strategy outlined by Dr. Tony Evans as a guide. In the Urban Alternative guide, Dr. Evans discusses how pastors must first assemble as one to strengthen relationships and worship together. Next, they must address racial equity and justice together as one unified voice. Lastly, they need to act together, working to make tangible changes within their church and greater community. ONB’s pastors and leaders have assembled, meeting regularly to discuss Dr. Evans’s Oneness Embraced. Additionally, they have begun to address racial issues and disunity in the community, hosting a virtual forum to discuss Kingdom oneness on September 28th. They will be hosting another forum before the election discussing oneness in Christ with regard to voting and our current political climate. These leaders have also begun to act, preaching to their congregations about racial justice and unity, bringing their congregations into closer proximity with those different than them, and creating programs to address needs within the community. As these pastors continue to grow in unity, they hope to continue to unify their radically different congregations and serve as an example to the broader church of how oneness and community transformation is possible through Christ.
Eighty-seven percent of Alabamians go to church, yet our culture is deeply segregated and divisive. While the church should be the voice of unity, it is instead often more divisive than the surrounding culture. The most monumental events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s occurred in Birmingham, is it not the ideal place for God’s Shalom to occur? It is time for the church to rise up and realize they have been given the keys to the Kingdom: they are the only institution which has the unifying power to bring radically different groups into one under Jesus Christ.
So, what should you do if you want to get involved? The most important thing you can do is go out and build relationships with someone different than yourself. The only way we can be one under Christ is if we know and understand each other. These relationships seldom fall into our lap, so don’t wait! You need to be intentional about seeking them out. It may be uncomfortable and challenging, but it is what God has called us to do. Secondarily, stay tuned for future forums and events put on by ONB. You can stay up to date with ONB by following @csmission on Instagram and regularly checking this link. Lastly, we ask that you would pray for this project. For Christians tired of all of the discussion surrounding race in the church, we would encourage you to look into this project anyways. While racial injustice may not be on your heart, it is clearly on God’s, and he has equipped his church with the tools to tackle the issue that no other authority or power on Earth has.