At first, 1963 was simply another year in the fight to eradicate segregation. Throughout the year, racial strife went to new levels, with Birmingham being a focal point of the violence.
However, on Sept, 15, 1963, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed and four young girls — Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — were killed. And though this event marked a significant turning point in the civil rights movement, hate, bitterness and judgment has continued to flourish in society in the 60 years since.
To help bring about the deep healing that is needed, the historic Bethel Baptist Church in the Collegeville neighborhood of Birmingham hosted “There IS a Balm in Gilead: Healing from the Events of 1963.” This event, held Sept. 12–14, brought together clergy and those in related fields as well as some who were there to discuss this topic from many angles.
Tony Evans, founder and pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and founder and president of the Urban Alternative, wanted to be involved since its inception and delivered the final keynote address.
“Not only does Birmingham need healing, but America needs healing. We continue to suffer from the wounds of division and calamity and crisis, racial animus (and) negative political discord that is often bred along racial lines,” Evans said, adding that “it has been normalized in our culture.
“You and I are now living in the divided states of America — no longer the United States of America.”
Evans addressed the issue from a theological and biblical model, saying that he believes that “there are two answers to every question: God’s answer and everyone else’s — and everybody else is wrong.”
Woman at the well
He referenced John 4, comparing the current racial opposition to the hatred at the time between Jews and Samaritans. Like those alive now who have always known this type of strife, this had “become their lifestyle,” with the races being raised to believe they couldn’t interact.
The place of this encounter — Jacob’s Well — mattered. Jacob was the father of both Jews and Samaritans. It was a place of common ground.
“The moment you start at the end zone of your Blackness or the end zone of your whiteness, we will never hit the 50 yard line of our oneness in Christ,” Evans said. “That is what the enemy wants us to do.”
In John 4, Jesus asks for a drink. Evans paraphrased the woman’s answer:
“Do you actually ask to put your Jewish lips to my Samaritan cup? Were you being for real? Don’t you know we don’t do that in this neighborhood? This is the way it’s been since 722 B.C. That’s not how we roll up in here.”
Jesus didn’t change who He was to interact with her. Before He touched her soul, He recognized who she was as a human being — not as a woman or a Samaritan.
After Jesus drank and they discussed the woman’s marital status, she told Jesus what she and earlier generations had been taught: They worship on Mount Gerizim and Jews worship in Jerusalem.
‘Spirit and truth’
Paraphrasing again, Evans said, “We go to church over here. We’re on different sides of the tracks. We like different kinds of preaching, different kinds of singing. We have different kinds of worship services. We worship an hour and 15 minutes; y’all worship for 2½ hours. We are different.”
Jesus told her that “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” and Evans took the liberty of adding, “Your daddy was wrong. Your granddaddy who taught your daddy was wrong. Your great-granddaddy who taught your granddaddy who taught your daddy was wrong. Your whole race has been wrong because you brought my daddy into it.”
Evans said that just because someone quotes the Bible doesn’t mean a person isn’t “perpetuating a lie.”
“We have been perpetuating the evil of racism in its various forms, in its various structures and its evil applications that are against the truth of God,” he said.
“We’ve given skin color the level of idolatry.”
After asking the audience a pointed question — “Is our identity in Christ trumping our race?” — Evans shared the following three practical steps toward healing:
- Assemble. Once a year, the Christian churches in a community come together for a “solemn assembly” — a sacred gathering that includes fasting and is used when “asking God to intervene during a desperate situation.”
- Address. Speak with one voice about the subject at hand. Give a biblical response, not an opinion, to the issues.
- Act. Do something for the community as a group. This could be helping schools, supporting the police or assisting any other aspect of the community.
Evans concluded with a thought to ponder.
“We’ve got to be out of our minds in this divisive culture in which we currently live if we don’t use this division as an opportunity of Jesus Christ to unite — to show what the Kingdom of God looks like across racial and cultural lines so they can get a blueprint of heaven operating on earth because we decided to become Christians and let our race adjust to that.
“In the area of race, God has been abandoned in the name of color or culture or even history. Your goal today is [to bring] about the Balm in Gilead, this healing salve.”
To learn more about Tony Evans and the Urban Alternative, go to tonyevans.org.