In 2008 I sat in The Birmingham Country Club having a dinner, way outside my economic bracket and comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful meal and to pick up your sea food buffet while walking on the coloured dance floor that featured on Saturday Night Fever was an interesting experience and I am thankful. However, my friend Craig had had to find me a jacket, shirt and tie. I am hippy boy at heart! As I sat looking out over the lights of Birmingham I was wondering where the different areas were. I had been to the Civil Right Museum that afternoon and was struck by that history. I wondered where the different segregated areas of the city were at the height of Jim Crow laws, the Klan and the Civil Rights Movement and how they looked today.
It was then that it happened. One of my hosts, and can I say again I was honoured to be with them and thank them again for the evening, said to me: -
“Steve, Living in Belfast. Tell me what it is like living in a divided city. We can’t even imagine what that must be like.”
I kid you not. I have been sharing the story with friends in Birmingham this last week and they are as wide mouthed as I was then.
Since then I have been interested in Birmingham and as I arrived at Newark Airport this last week I made for a little store and literally walked right into Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s book While The World Watched. A book about Birmingham in New Jersey. It seemed strange and that it was meant to be bought. I started reading. McKinstry’s dad worked at the The Birmingham Country Club and on an awful Sunday in September 1963 a bomb went off in her Church at 16th Baptist Church killing instantly four of her teenage friends. Now I was back in that day in my own life in 2008. The Civil Rights Museum is across the road from 16th Street Baptist and I had wanted to know what went down there. Her dad at The Country Club. Apart from the Cathedral Church of the Advent who graciously invite me to speak these are my only known Birmingham landmarks. All in one book, answering my questions about the divisions in Birmingham…
Yet, McKinstry has done so much more than tell of the divisions. This is a beautifully written memoir and is objective in deep and tender, honest and vulnerable subjectivity. Here is a young girl being brought up in a dangerously segregated city, aware of bombs and her inability to sit in certain places and then gets caught up in this horrendous act of violence. There are no post trauma counsellors and help to deal with the debris in mortar, flesh and soul. Hiding it from her husband and not fully understanding herself she turns to alcohol to deal with the deep sadness that losing your best friend in your mid teens causes.
In the midst of it all there is a young girl becoming a woman of faith and her testimony of Jesus following is authentic and beautiful. Songs and prayers and Scripture are natural to the poetic way that Carolyn writes. Ultimately, redemption rolled in and, moving back to Birmingham, Carolyn finds her vocation later in life as a speaker and peace activist.
As someone on the fringes of peacemaking back in Belfast I was particularly drawn to her confrontation with the bombers. Out of the blue she is called to be a witness for the bomber, in a trial forty years after the deadly deed. The struggles in herself as the memories were reawakened as she looked into the eye of someone who killed her best friend. It is hard reading but her ultimate forgiveness is, as the courage to forgive always is, inspiring and challenging. For Carolyn Maull McKinstry it was an act to free herself from bitterness and thus the long term pain that those bombers could have inflicted.
Reading While The World Watched immediately before, in and just after leaving Birmingham certainly sharpened the story for me but I would recommend this very easy read to anyone interested in faith and reconciliation. Indeed, anyone interested in a real human story that interacts with the fall of humanity and the redemption of humanity with all the emotions of life on the journey.
The final challenge is, are we going to watch while evil flourishes or are we up for the following off Jesus in the bringing in of God’s will on earth as it is in earth. I sense, like the Belfast I travel home to, that Birmingham has some work still to be done. As I have been saying on this American trip I have been on, from the ideas of John Brewer, we need to ask if we are going to settle for passive peacemaking comfort and uselessness or become active. McKinstry does a fine altar call for the latter.