The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bustling the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, as the faith community prepared for its Sunday service.
They gathered even though Black churches across the South were firebombed and the homes of their leaders were set ablaze by white supremacists intent upon keeping Jim Crow the law of the land.
As the service was about to begin, dynamite exploded beneath the front steps. Four girls were killed. Many others were seriously hurt.
Why were Black churches so frequently targeted by those defending the status quo? That’s a relevant question for Black History Month.
Short answer: Black churches were accurately perceived as a threat to the status quo. Faith-filled people gathered each week in beloved community, shared the Good News, felt the Spirit, had hope renewed, prayed for justice, and left their sanctuaries to go work with God to change their world.
On earth, as in heaven.
They didn’t merely recite those words to the foundational prayer; they lived those transformative words despite the cost. They went out their front doors to elevate the poor, liberate the oppressed, challenge unjust systems, and love everyone equally as a child of God.
Are we doing the same today in faith communities? How can we do it more like them?
We focus on building beloved communities where people’s physical and spiritual needs are met, and rightfully so. But it’s easy to get so caught up in what’s happening within our walls that we forget our faith communities are meant to be launching points into our wider communities.
“a taillight rather than a headlight”
We’re called to leave the safety of our stained-glass space and do this work of challenging attitudes and systems that treat some as less than a beloved child of God.
And that’s when the work of faith becomes dangerous.
A transformative faith community is a threat to the status quo. It’s always been that way. Jesus’ message — the last are first, the poor are blessed, the rich are living woefully, everyone is your neighbor to be loved – was unpopular then and now.
We’re called to be light for the entire world and salt for the whole earth. Not only are we obligated to help the hurting and the needy, we also are obligated to challenge the injustices that leave so many people hurting and needy.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was saddened by how in this prophetic work, the church has often been “a taillight rather than a headlight … an echo rather than a voice.” He was disheartened by faith communities functioning as little more than social clubs, “more cautious than courageous” in areas where faith ought to lead us.
“an echo rather than a voice”
His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white religious leaders who agreed with his principles but urged him to stop pushing for justice, which was placing them on dangerous ground within the white church circles that provided safe harbor for supremacists.
His response: “The judgement of God is upon the Church as never before.”
In religious circles today, there’s much discussion about where church is heading, what it will look like in years to come, how it’s changing, and what it should do to adapt to the times.
A starting point is to open wider to the love-bearing, reconciliation-seeking, justice-driven Spirit that refuses to be confined to sanctuary or pew.
To follow that Spirit as it leads us out of our safe spaces onto the holy ground around us where there’s much work to be done. To be light and salt where they’re not wanted or welcomed.
To be churches that are considered threatening because they brightly illuminate what many people would rather not see.