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The Day of the Lord

September 30, 2008

thedayofthelordBirmingham, Alabama – It is a hot southern Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, and the downtown is deserted. At the foothill of the city’s high-rises, small groups of people stroll slowly on the empty streets and quietly into the side door of 16th Street Baptist Church. A brown-brick building, from the sixties, marked by a blue neon sign, the church stands at the center of a neighborhood of car dealerships, gas stations and auto-parts shops. Plastic bags fly along the jagged sidewalks swept up by a warm breeze. All businesses are closed in a sign of respect for the Day of the Lord, which around here is exclusively dedicated to prayer. Only the Civil Rights Institute next door–a museum commemorating the struggles that stormed through Birmingham in the 1960s and finally led to the abolition of segregation– is open for visits.

Contrary to the sleepy neighborhood, the basement of 16th Street Church is bustling with activity. Congregants are wrapping up Sunday school and preparing for service. Young girls wearing summery old-fashioned taffeta dresses stream out of their classes side by side their brothers in suits and ties. Elegant women stand on the laminated floor and compliment each other’s outfits. Two older men sit chatting on a fake 70s-style leather couch, while local notables in framed photos hang from the walls watching over them.

16th Street Baptist Church is a cultural landmark and a symbol of African-American Alabama. On September 15 1963, in the midst of Birmingham’s racial turmoil, a bomb exploded here killing four young girls. Reverend Martin Luther King spoke to a crowd of 8,000 at the funeral that followed. Joan Baez recorded the song “Birmingham Sunday” chronicling the aftermath of the bombing. And in 1997, film director Spike Lee shot a feature-length documentary, “4 Little Girls,” about the racially motivated attack on that fateful Sunday.

It is no surprise then that this congregation takes particular pride in the history of its church. “I’ve been a member here for many years,” says 43 year-old Marvin Hicks, a Birmingham-native who relocated to the town of Jamison, about an hour south, three years ago. Mr. Hicks still drives the forty-something miles to Birmingham at least twice a month to attend service at 16th Street Church: “This place has a good history, and good singing,” he adds with a smile.

Mass certainly rises to meet expectations.

Four women open the service singing a bluesy Christian hymn. The congregation rises from the red velvety benches and sings along; the more fervent worshippers dance. One of the four singers, a young large woman begins shaking uncontrollably as if possessed by unnatural and unseen forces. Her hypnotic quivering continues until she almost faints on the first-row bench. A man tries to reanimate her with a fan. The whole scene is repeated only minutes later, when the young lady resumes singing with the choir.

Pastor Arthur Price Jr. takes to the pulpit and asks his parishioners to pray for those who are sick, to pray for the country, the city, and the Presidential election. “Make sure you are registered to vote,” Reverend Price says, “You can’t be a member of 16th Street and not be registered; too many people have paid an awful price so that we could enjoy this privilege.” On a Sunday when thirty-three pastors across the country decided to officially endorse either John McCain or Barack Obama–in violation of churches’ tax free status–this is the only reference to politics and the presidential campaign in Reverend Price’s sermon, otherwise focused on the reality of “pain” which he asks his congregation to accept as just another part of life.

“I have Republicans, Democrats and Independents in my congregation. I certainly can’t tell people who to vote for,” explains Reverend Price, a native of Philadelphia who moved to Birmingham six years ago from a church in Buffalo, New York. He is convinced that this campaign will be historic no matter who wins: “As a congregation that is predominantly African American, we are undoubtedly proud of the Democratic nomination of the first African American candidate for President. Having said that, it is also exciting to think that the next Vice-President could be a woman.”

Rev. Price points out that there are only a few non-African American members of 16th Street Church, between five and ten out of a total of over three hundred. None are here today. His parishioners range, from the homeless to the cardiologist.

Despite the fact that 16th Street Church maintains a strictly non-partisan approach, Reverend Price says that he talks to his congregation about issues that are important. “We talk predominantly about economic issues, such as homelessness and equal housing for the poor. We also talk about the war in Iraq,” Reverend Price adds. The ongoing economic crisis has begun to take a toll on the community and Reverend Price recently started noticing that people are coming out to church less frequently, for example, cutting down on the Wednesday night bible study, and are giving less in donations.

Marvin Hicks is one of the members of the congregation who is feeling the downturn. He is particularly hit by the rising gas prices. “I work as a truck-driver all across Alabama and my gas bill is now about $600 a month,” says Hicks. His company pays him by the hour, gives him health care benefits, but does not pay for the gas he uses. As a result, the $600 a month must come out of his pocket. Married to an accountant, and a father of three, Mr. Hicks is an Obama supporter: “I’m going to go for change and stick with Obama,” he avows.

“I find the economic situation troubling, but I haven’t yet felt any direct impact,” says Valisa Brown, a medical researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Mrs. Brown has been a member of the church for ten years and she is here today, like every Sunday, with her husband, an assistant principle at a local high school, and their two boys aged two and five. “I found this church like many others do; I came here as a tourist and liked the Pastor and the things that were going on here,” Mrs. Brown explains.

She confesses to be very excited about the Presidential campaign and says that, had there been no kids, she would have splurged and gone with her husband to Denver for the Democratic National Convention: “If Barack wins, my children will only know a country where a person that looks like them is the President.”

Mrs. Brown grew up in a town in rural Alabama that relied on the logging industry and on a clothing factory that closed down while she was in high school. Her grandparents raised her. Her grandfather worked in a company that made paper products while her grandmother cleaned houses.

After graduating high school in 1988, Mrs. Brown put herself through college thanks to scholarships and earned a B.A. from the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and a Master in Public Health from UAB. “I hope that my children will be able to see that there is life beyond Alabama, that their opportunities are limitless, that they can do whatever they want to do and be whatever they want to be,” Mrs. Brown declares.

Obama’s story, she think, will only help illustrate the possibilities.

Growing up in a community plagued by poverty, for both African Americans and Caucasians, she says she didn’t feel as many tensions in rural Alabama. However she remembers the day her grandfather received a Klux Klux Klan pamphlet in the mail supporting a candidate for a local election. “Racism is always there,” says Mrs. Brown recalling the times when she has walked into a shoe store for shopping and other costumers have automatically assumed that she is an employee. “I have a $200 purse on my arm, how do you think that I work here?” she says with laughter.

More than on the streets, at the workplace, or in school, it is in the churches that Mrs. Brown sees the strongest racial separation: “They’ve always said that the most segregated time of the week is Sunday,” she concludes before heading out for lunch with her family.

“This is a militant church, and it will be triumphant.”

Valisa Brown might very well be right. The Presbyterian mega-church Briarwood lies only a few miles outside Birmingham and it offers an insight into a very different reality. Briarwood, started in 1960, is considered the flagship establishment of the Presbyterian Church of America, an organization founded in 1973 by a group of 250 churches that thought that mainstream Presbyterianism was too liberal.

The congregation counts approximately 4200 members. The church includes a Christian school, serving 1900 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and a seminary. In 1988, Briarwood moved to a huge $32 million campus on the hills overlooking I-459, and in 1998 a $5.5 million expansion was added.

This October construction on another $28.8 million expansion will begin. “We need more room because we don’t fit anymore,” says Stan Goebel. “We need new parking lots, more offices for the staff, and we are going to build a new 32000 square feet youth center,” adds Goebel, who is a missionary of Briarwood, and walks the projects in Birmingham to talk to people about Jesus.

As the sun slowly sets on the hilly suburbs of Birmingham, big SUVs drive into the wide tree-lined parking lot outside the church. Older couples, families with young children, and teenagers stream into the redbrick building. The 6pm Sunday service is only the last of a long series–Briarwood offers regular mass at 8am and 11am, and then so-called ethnic masses in Spanish, Korean and Japanese throughout the day. “At some point I remember learning that Briarwood has about 1000 weekly activities,” says Glenda Wood, a homemaker who volunteers at the church about 15 hours a week, and is shuffling a big cart filled with binders around the spacious lobby.

The inside of the church is adorned with a shiny-white plaster octagon, encompassing a large stage which holds the pulpit. Two huge flat-screen televisions hang on each side of the stage and during mass display the lyrics of the poppy Christian songs played by a young man with a guitar and a woman with a violin.

The TVs also display a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the points made by Pastor Harry Reeder as he gives his sermon. There is no mention of politics or current events in Reverend Reeder’s homily and the Pastor exclusively concentrates on complicated theological issues that are occasionally hard to follow.

The church teaches strict bible-based theology and focuses on missionary activity and outreach: “This is a militant church,” says Pastor Reeder in his sermon, “And it will be triumphant.” Briarwood is even known for something called Embers to Flame, re-energizing teams that this congregation sends out across the United States and the world to revitalize churches in crisis.

“We believe that the gospel of Jesus saves people. We try to reach out to others and see who responds,” says Reverend Harry Reeder who took over as Senior Pastor at Briarwood nine years ago.

Like Reverend Price of 16th Street Church, he has decided not to endorse a candidate from the pulpit today: “I believe I have a right to do it if I so choose, but I don’t think it’s fair to my congregation. We don’t tell people how to vote,” says Rev. Reeder.

But just like the 16th St. church, he also talks to his parishioners about issues that he deems important. “We believe that the sanctity of life should be protected, and so should the sanctity of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Finally we focus on mercy, in addressing problems such as the AIDS epidemic,” Rev. Reeder states.

Briarwood has a set of ethnic congregations, created for those members who would rather worship in their native language. Nevertheless, this church has only a few African American members: “We are getting more diverse but we are not as diverse as I would like. African Americans are probably about 10% of our congregation,” Rev. Reeder maintains.

Tonight, only the pianist is African American. In any case, Pastor Reeder explains that he is not a proponent of the concept of race: “The bible says we are one race, people made in the image of God.”

While it is not easy to speak with regular churchgoers, one is immediately approached by many who are directly engaged in the activities of the church and who are more than happy to volunteer information.

Biker and missionary Stan Goebel, who came to mass in his leather pants and carrying his helmet, says he likes Briarwood because it is an encouraging, nurturing church. A 55 year-old son of a minister, never married, Mr. Goebel started his outreach activities in 1979. He sees the economic crisis hitting the poor neighborhood he walks and even the bikers he hangs out with who “are not riding anymore as they used to because of rising gas prices.”

Mr. Goebel admits to not having followed much of the Presidential campaign: “In general I’m more of a McCain man, because of his stance on abortion and homosexuality,” he maintains, adding that he also likes Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin because she is a sharp woman with good values.

Sitting with her three children on the next bench, 35 year-old Jacklynn Gothard is also a Sarah Palin fan. A graduate of Mississippi State University and a nurse at Brookwood Medical Center, Mrs. Gothard is married to a preacher who recently moved to Briarwood from Chicago, IL. “I will vote and I will vote Republican,” Mrs. Gothard states. She says her vote will be more of a vote against Barack Obama, whom she doesn’t trust for the “nebulous platform of change he advances,” than a vote for John McCain.

Mrs. Gothard doesn’t have a specific viewpoint on the war in Iraq, but she is worried about the economy. Like many others in this spread-out town where people need cars to go about their daily schedules, the Gothards have been feeling the impact of rising gas prices and have started clustering different activities together so as to reduce the number of trips they take. As a result, Mrs. Gothards will vote on the basis of issues such as energy independence.

As a Christian conservative, she also looks for a candidate that shares her pro-life view and her understanding of marriage—a union between a man and a woman. Asked about what she hopes for the future, Mrs. Gothards says: “I want clear-cut values; not a future where there are no absolutes anymore and our kids grow up without foundations.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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