Tuesday, March 15, 2016

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

front of 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham
"That's good theology," the Reverend Kenneth Hicks, associate minister of 16th Street Baptist Church, remarked a number of times in response to a comment by one or another of the Sunday School teachers. Mindy and I had arrived early for the Wednesday night Bible study, and the weekly teacher training was going on. Every week the teachers of the adult, youth, and children's classes gather to go over the Scripture which will be taught in each of the classes the next Sunday morning. (This week the passage was Mark 10, focusing on the story of the rich young ruler. In the training session, when a woman commented on the divinity of Christ, Hicks said, "That's good theology," as he did when another teacher, a man, said, "We are saved by grace through faith and not through our own good works."

former pastors of 16th street Baptist Church
"Good theology" is a major reason we decided to go to the church. Sure, the history is what drew our attention in the first place. 16th Street Baptist served as a meeting place for civil rights leadership and mass meetings in the early 1960s.  The church provided a staging area for marches and protests. But the church is remembered most for a tragic event that took place Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. A bomb set near one of the entrances to the church exploded, injuring 20 people inside the church and killing four girls (aged 11 - 14). This tragic event helped turn the heart of the nation to sympathy for the plight of American Americans in the South.


memorial near where the four girls were killed in 1963
So the historical significance of the church got us interested in this particular church. But most of those events took place more than half a century ago. Was the church still a going concern? And if it was, was it perhaps living on its historical laurels? I was encouraged by a quick visit to their website when I found these words on their home page: "When all is said and done, all that we aspire to BE and all we attempt to DO is intended to glorify Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Jesus really is our MAIN ATTRACTION. He is the reason we are!" As the Rev. Ken would say, "That's good theology."

front entrance to 16th street Baptist Church
When we arrived at the church on Wednesday evening, we did have a bit of a struggle figuring out how to get in. The main doors were locked, as were a couple of downstairs doors with signs noting the hours of church tours. Eventually, we saw a couple bringing in food through a back door, and we followed them. (I believe the food was for the sack lunches the youth group would give to the homeless on Saturday.)

plaque acknowledging 16th street's place in civil rights movement
The couple carrying the food welcomed us and led us downstairs. A woman sitting near the table full of Sunday School teachers introduced herself as Candie Price. She explained about the training session and said the Bible Study would start soon and that we could sit anywhere. A number of people greeted us warmly as they entered before the study began.

Rev Price
The Reverend Arthur Price, Jr. (we didn't make the connection that he and Candie had the same last name...and were married to each other) led the Wednesday evening Bible study. He mentioned that the group is studying the major prophets, and on this evening he led a survey through the first chapters of Ezekiel. If you know this book, you know that Rev. Price is willing to challenge his people, taking on this grim foretelling of judgment full of opaque imagery. But Rev. Price brought clarity and practical application to these daunting passages.

reconstruction of 16th street church after bombing
Since we'd had a preview of coming attractions on Wednesday night, we definitely wanted to go to Sunday School before the worship service on Sunday morning. We got to church a little early, and different people helped us find the Married Couples class. The gentleman who ushered us to the church office building next door to the church (where our class was being held; the building was the parsonage until about 1960) prayed with us before leaving for his own class. The discussion in class was intelligent and lively. As we talked about the wealth of the young ruler in the Gospel of Mark, we discussed our relative wealth. One class member talked about his love of suits ("Confession is good for the soul, but bad for your reputation") and our relative wealth compared to the rest of the world. There was a good discussion about the importance of bringing people of different economic classes together in the church.

balcony of 16th street Baptist Church
When we entered the sanctuary for worship after Sunday School, we were offered a visitor's card for our names and contact information. During announcements in the worship service, the names on the visitor's cards were read and we (along with other visitors) were introduced individually and asked to stand. There were a couple of dozen students visiting from a high school, East Mecklenburg in Charlotte, North Carolina. Apparently, students from the school visit the church every year. 

We had expected (okay, hoped for) a robed adult choir, but instead had the treat of both a children's choir and a youth choir singing in the service, along with quite a lot of congregational singing.

Rev. Price was finishing a six part sermon series the morning we attended. The series looked at the miracles of Jesus in the Gospel of John, "Resetting the Ministry." The title of the sermon was "When God Delays" about the resurrection of Lazarus from John 11. When Rev. Price asked the congregation if they'd experienced unwanted delays, frustration, and tragedy in life, there were loud exclamations of agreement.

16th Street Baptist sermon
Rev. Price concluded the sermon with a delightful illustration about taking his wife to McDonald's during their days of dating. If one ordered by the numbers of the menu, he said, the orders always came more quickly. But if you wanted a special order ("hold the onions, mayo instead of the secret sauce"), they would write your name on the ticket, and the order took longer. But the delay was there to make things right, which is the reason God sometimes delays an answer to prayer.

the good Shepherd's face was broken in the bombing
16th Street Baptist has challenges that any big city church faces and some unique challenges of its own. It seems that many people have moved away from downtown and are commuting to the church from the suburbs. The church is surrounded by the poor and the homeless. And, uniquely,  the church has many who come to the church as a tourist destination rather than as a place of worship. Yet the church seems to be allowing God to turn all of those potential obstacles into opportunities to bring Him glory. That's good theology.

Mindy waiting for the tour of 16th St Baptist
Statistics
Service Length: 1 hour 48 minutes
Sermon Length:  38 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We (and all other visitors) were greeted officially by ushers and unofficially by members of the congregation. During the announcements, visitors were greeted by name (if they'd filled out the visitor card) and asked to stand. At another point in the service, members were asked to greet visitors with, "The Jesus in me greets the Jesus in you." Nobody said those words to me, but hands were shaken and hugs exchanged on all sides.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 174
Probable Ushers' Count: 225
Snacks: none
Musicians: keyboard (man), organ (man), percussion (man), clarinet (man), maybe a trombone? (man), youth choir (8 girls, 5 boys, 1 woman leading), children's choir (3 girls, 5 boys)
greeting a visitor to 16th Street Baptist Church
Songs: Thank You, Lord (solo)
How Great is our God
Doxology
What a friend we have in Jesus
I am a CHRISTIAN (children's choir)
Praise Him (children's choir)
When praises go up, the blessings come down (youth choir)
We have come into this place to worship Him
All things come of Thee, O Lord
Intentional (youth choir)
Softly and tenderly
Miles to church: 29
Miles from start: 8,169 8,537
Total 2016 Miles: 8,124 8,482
Church website: 16thstreetbaptist.org

window donated by children of Wales after church was bombed