This weekend I traveled with a group of ladies to visit the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church is a national landmark because of its centralized role as a gathering spot during the civil rights movement and for the suffering that occurred September 15, 1963 when the church was bombed. As church members prepared for an 11 a.m. service that Sunday, sticks of dynamite placed in a stairwell outside the window of the church basement exploded, killing 4 young girls and destroying much of the church.
After taking a guided tour in the lower level of the church building, our group was taken to the church sanctuary to continue to hear more about what happened on that tragic day. Among many things, we heard the story of the Wales Window.
THIS article matches what we heard in the tour. In Wales, over four thousand miles away across the Atlantic Ocean, John Petts, an artist known for his engravings and stained glass, read about the tragedy in his morning newspaper and offered his services to create and install a replacement window for the front of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Petts’ depiction of a black Christ is recognized throughout the world as one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most iconic pieces of art. The right hand is said to be pushing away hatred and injustice while the left is offering forgiveness. The lines of dark spots through the center line represent bullets, the swirls in the blue glass represent water from fire hoses, and an overarching rainbow, represents diversity. Petts accompanied the image with the words “You do it to me”, based on a verse from Mathew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Directly after the tour, we met with Carolyn Maull McKinstry for two glorious hours. She was a participant in the Civil Rights struggle and an eyewitness to the bombing. As a young girl working in the church library that fateful morning, she answered the phone to hear a man say, “You have three minutes,” before he hung up. Her young ears didn’t recognize his words as a warning for a bomb. She had just reached the first pew in the sanctuary when the explosion occurred and some of her friends were killed and many were injured. All were traumatized and became a part of history.
Our trip was a culmination of a book study on Weep With Me. I had done the study independently last year, but went through it again with a group this spring. The last chapter encourages readers to write a lament over the history of blacks in America. I read my lament on the last day of the tour to group members and share it again HERE. A lament includes weeping and wailing in deep remorse. Many of the Psalms are in a lament format.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) I left Birmingham thinking it would be appropriate for this window to also be called the Wails Window. The world has heard the wailing of suffering people, and God has heard the raw sounds of pain, too. Though I still have many questions and know so little, learning from my black sisters in Christ what life has been like for them and their parents and grandparents has made me more empathetic. Not a minute has been wasted.
I have been surprised.
One of the surprising things I have learned is how often my black friends say, “It’s okay,” or “That’s the way it is,” as they shrug their shoulders. I went on this Weep With Me journey thinking the white participants were the ones most needing to process the pain of black people in order to better understand our country’s history. I have since learned that my black sisters are only beginning to process the pain too.
I also learned this weekend that black families tended not to talk about emotions, much like white families in the 50’s and 60’s. Anyone my age is familiar with statements like, “What happens in this house, stays in this house,” and our culture at-large encourages us to “suck it up” and “be strong” and “move on.” The Monday morning after the church was bombed, Carolyn was back in school. There were no grief counselors. Life just went on.
But life didn’t go on.
Hearts have been numbed. Coping mechanisms have been developed. Pain has been suppressed. And as bad as that sounds at first, in one way this is not bad news.
Whites and blacks can process history together on the path toward racial unity.
Picture Explanation: The church plaque; the Wales Window; a pipe organ; the site where the bomb imploded; our group surrounding our amazing speaker and author.
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Thank you Laurie for capturing and explaining this trip so well! I’m glad the whole Weep With Me experience has surprised you as lament has lead to empathy and empathy has led to trust! It’s been a joy to see trust deepen love.
Thank you for planning the trip and making room for the conversation. Your work is not wasted.
Laurie, you express the trip, learnings and emotions beautifully.
You were there with me, so I am glad you see the account as an accurate one.
I wasn’t on that trip with you but your words made me feel like I was. There has been so much pain in our history (the black community) and you are correct when you hear us say it’s okay. Thank you for wanting to know more. That is what I love about you my sister in Christ. You desire to learn and listen. God continue to bless you dear one.
Oh, sister. I am glad you felt like you were there with me! I would have loved having you beside me. I am glad it rang true with you. I am happy to learn! We are one.
“Whites and blacks can process history together on the path toward racial unity.” This is a statement that brought tears to my eyes, Laurie. Why? I was blessed to have grandparents and parents that not only had empathy for their friends in Peyton Colony near Henly, Texas and Blanco, Texas, but had a front row seat watching my parent’s empathy turn into compassion with their advocacy towards getting the “Civil Rights Act” signed on July 2, 1964. I have written Posts about that day and the sisters I was standing with when it was announced.
Love your Posts❣️ I too felt like I was on the trip with all of you!
Oh, I am so glad you have so much personal experience to bring to the reading of today’s post! I have a long way to go, but proximity develops compassion. Unity isn’t going to happen without interacting.
Wow, Laurie, I learned so much from your post. It was great to read the affirmations of sisters who were there with you and who appreciate your heart for racial reconciliation. Thank you for sharing your experience with us and helping me to learn!
I learned a lot too! We think we know stuff from books and movies. That learning is actual, but conversations with those that know the subject better and traveling to actual places is always the better way to learn, if possible.
Thank you Laurie for such a beautiful recap of this time spent with sisters in Christ. I smile and weep as I recant the time together!
Thank you for being a supportive friend and letting me travel along.
This one I’ll be reading again, Laurie, for, you’re right, it produces needed conversations and empathy, outrage and lament for injustice, and prayers for healing and for God’s pathways going forward. What a gift you had to travel with friends and see and hear about this awful tragedy first hand. The Wails Window gift is unbelievable. Thank you for using this space to share.
Thank you. I had no idea what I was going to see. I just drove to an address, joining a tour that was organized by people who know more than me. I grew in understanding and am glad my post was helpful.