Beauty from the Ashes of 16th Street Baptist Church
Stories have the power to change lives. Unfortunately, many are never heard. All too often, the stories of ordinary people who faced tremendous trials with godly grace and dignity slip through the cracks of history. But when we are blessed to encounter an extraordinary tale of redemption, we are transformed.
I have been blessed to meet a dear sister in Christ who transformed my understanding of forgiveness. Her name is Junie Collins Williams, and her baby sister, Addie Mae Collins, was one of four little girls killed in the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.
Story that Made History
Addie Mae and four other girls between the ages of 14 and 15 (including her other sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph) were in the basement of the church, primping in the restroom and waiting for the special "Youth Day" service to start. Addie Mae was tying the dress sash of her friend Denise McNair. Junie, 16 at the time, had lately been skipping her Sunday school class to sit in the basement and read her Bible lesson quietly by herself. But shortly before the explosion, an adult reprimanded her for not being in class. Not wanting to get into trouble with her parents, she reluctantly obeyed and slunk to her class upstairs.
Suddenly, a tremendous blast of dynamite ripped through the brick walls of the church and killed Addie Mae, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. Junie's sister Sarah suffered blindness in one eye and permanent damage to the other as a result of the blast. But God spared Sarah's life and Junie's as well.
Their lives would never be the same. And neither would America.
How God Wove Our Stories Together
Forty years after this heinous act of murderous racism left its scar on our nation's history, I began working as a freshly minted college graduate at an urban church in Birmingham with an unlikely mix of ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and Christian traditions. During this time at Christ Episcopal Church in Fairfield (a post-industrial community on the southwest side of Birmingham) I first met Junie.
She enthusiastically joined our group even though we were just an ensemble of white women who enjoyed singing together (sometimes even on pitch). A soft-spoken woman in her mid-50s, Junie lived alone in a simple brick house in a nearby neighborhood. I gladly agreed when she asked me if I would mind giving her a ride to choir practice every week. Every time I drove up, she greeted me with a warm smile full of gleaming white teeth and a chuckle like the gleeful melody of a warbling songbird. She could always find a reason to laugh.
As we bumped over railroad tracks, passing ramshackle farm stands and dilapidated "shot gun" houses, I would tell her about my day at the church's summer camp. She shared whatever was on her mind. We were worlds apart in age, ethnicity, and background. But we shared love for Jesus and joy in seeing the diversity of his body on glorious display at our church.
Junie Shares Her Story
One day our pastor asked Junie to share her testimony with the children at camp. Nothing could have prepared me for the story. Until that day, I had no idea who she was. She sat lady-like in a folding chair on the stage as about 15 African American children sat down on the floor in front of her. She began by explaining that although telling her story is always difficult, she does so in obedience to the Lord.
Then, as if pulling a tightly woven thread of courage from deep within, she told us searing memories of that horrific day. Her pain and sorrow seemed fresh even after 40 years. The loss of her baby sister was almost more than she could bear to put into words. She told us how she had been the one who had to identify the body of her dead sister when her parents and older siblings could not be reached. There was so much debris and glass in her skin and hair that she had to look down at her Addie's shoes to make sure it was really her.
Despite the emotional trauma, Junie desperately wanted this young generation to know there is no wound too deep, no injustice so grave that the Lord can't heal it and make forgiveness possible. On her website, Junie writes this powerful message:
There is hope for healing in America. I know, because I have been healed. I could have let this situation get the best of me, but through God's work in me, I pushed my way through until what seemed to be a burden around my head was pushed off. And so, God took a day [that] was meant for evil, and turned it around for the good of all.
I harbor no bitterness and resentment against white people. God is no respecter of persons, so why should I be? I could not point the finger of blame at others. Neither could I feel sorry for myself (though there were times when I was tempted to do just that). To do either of those things would only cover the wound, but not heal it.
Many would say that Junie has a right to withhold forgiveness from those evil men who killed her sister because of the color of her skin. She could at least have decided to avoid white people. Instead, she sought the Lord, and he gently led her through a process of forgiveness. Junie's countenance, her smile, and the joy and kindness she exudes give evidence of the Lord's healing in her life. She now travels around the country sharing a message of hope and reconciliation.
The wounds are still raw and deep. The scars are permanent. But she chose to forgive her worst enemies. She even chose to attend a multi-racial church. And she befriended me, a young, privileged white girl.
God's Grand Story of Redemption
The prophet Isaiah proclaims the Lord's clarion call of justice to comfort the mourners in Zion and to grant them a "crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair" (Isaiah 61:3). Out of the ashes left by a bombing fueled by hatred, the Lord has wrought forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.
On the 50th anniversary of the bombing as our nation honors the four young girls, we know their lives were not lost in vain. Their martyrdom drew national attention, igniting the civil rights movement that eventually tore through the color line, struck down Jim Crow, and made significant progress toward racial equality in America.
Today we all benefit from the victories won by people who made incredible sacrifices for the cause of freedom. But freedom is not primarily an ideal, cause, or fight. Freedom is seen in the face of a black woman who refused to succumb to bitterness despite enduring unspeakable loss and brutality. Instead, she trusted Jesus to heal her, enable her to forgive, and give her the courage to share her testimony with the world. She is an enduring example of beauty rising from the ashes.