What does it look like for churches to engage in discussions about race and equality in what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the most segregated city in America.”
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”“-Dr. martin luther king jr.
Dr. King wrote this quote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about the lack of help from the white church when it came to fighting for racial equality and civil rights. More than 50 years later, communities are expressing the same concerns when it comes to the role of churches in pursuing justice and diversity. But two Birmingham churches in particular have recognized the need for congregations to be at the forefront of those discussions instead of behind them.
June 2020 was a tumultuous time in America as the nation faced the horrors of the murder of George Floyd. This led to Pastor Nathan Carden of Ross Bridge Church and other Birmingham pastors to put on a prayer event at the Hoover Met.
“(The event) was a sign of solidarity and an attempt to model racial unity as we held a prayer service together,” Carden said.
Five churches originally signed on to participate in the prayer event, three of which were majority white and the other two being majority Black congregations. But on the day of the event, there was talk of white supremacist groups possibly organizing counter protests. This led the two pastors of the majority Black churches to feel it would be safer to pull out of the event.
“We understood but that in effect illustrated a larger point: We still live in a world where folks didn’t feel comfortable gathering, ” Carden said.
Large demonstrations and protests are not as common a year later, but Carden still sees the importance of his church continuing to push for racial unity and conversations surrounding race. The church organized two book studies, inviting their members to participate. The church read Byran Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” and John Perkin’s “Let Justice Roll Down.”
The most impactful thing Ross Bridge has done , Carden said, is reaching out to Allen Temple AME Church in Bessemer and hosting events and partnerships with them, especially because of the geographic proximity.
“We have held school supply drives, gave away 114 thanksgiving turkey dinners and collaborated on Christmas drives,” Carden said.
Once both churches feel comfortable due to the pandemic, Carden hopes to have joint worship services with Allen Temple AME church.
“I don’t consider us a socially progressive church around the issues of the day,” Carden said. “But our church is very interested in racial reconciliation and promoting racial unity as a gospel issue.”
Another Birmingham church that puts racial unity at the forefront is Iron City Church. Located in the heart of Southside, the congregation sees the importance of its location as a reason to pursue justice, but it is central to the church’s mission, as it places diversity as one of the four pillars of the church.
Pastor Kam Pugh sees that being in Birmingham affects how the church operates across the lines of division that have been in the city since its beginnings. If people recognize the racial history of Birmingham, that can be a catalyst to drive more churches to pursue unity and diversity.
“We believe that Christ calls us to unity, but not all communities are like us,” Pugh said. “It depends on how much a priority and reality it can be to minister across lines of division to see more diversity reflected in the church.”
While many Christians know what the Bible calls them to in regards to pursuing unity and justice, it can be difficult to live that calling out, especially when the faith is used for a person’s own glory instead of the for glory of God that Christans are called to pursue.
“Some people say racism is America’s original sin, but it is probably greed,” Kam Pugh said. “That has led to justifying a lot of wickedness and not seeing the full image of God in people.”
Since greed propels a lot of actions to be done “in Jesus’ name,” it can be a hindrance to following Jesus.
“We just had the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and some of the people involved would have claimed to have been Christians,” Pugh said. “We need to be honest to lament those things and say something’s wrong.”
Throughout history, there are many examples of how the mistreatment of Black Americans was often done by professing Christians. Pugh points out that the Black church is a prime example of what it looks like to pursue justice while holding true to scripture.
“A lot of people say Christians haven’t really been persecuted (in America). But if you know the history of the Black church and our city that’s not true, “ Pugh said. “We have a ton to learn of how to hold the faith while also pursuing justice and loving our neighbors as ourselves”
Pugh said the pursuit of justice starts with a humble posture and being intentionally prayerful is a way congregations can begin to be a part of solutions instead of perpetuating the problems.
“By the Lord’s grace, Iron City has been able to grow,” Pugh said. “But we still have a long way to go to reflect the neighborhood and see the fruit of Jesus’ kingdom being stronger than the works of darkness that drew these lines of division.”
Kam Pugh’s Book Recommendations on Racial Unity and the Church
- Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race by Michael O. Emerson
- The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
- The Birmingham Revolution by Edward Gilbreath
- Talking about Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations by Isaac Adams (Releases January ’22)