Two Countries, Two Churches, One Wrong

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I had no idea that this topic would once again be at the forefront of our nation’s conscience. That once again unspeakable evil would occur in the basement of a church. That this post would not merely be an anecdote comparing the histories of two countries I had the privilege to live in, but that it would have to shine a light on all the work still ahead of us in these countries today.

It began with a volleyball tournament. In April this year, Sunshine and I were headed to Birmingham, Alabama, where her volleyball team was going to compete in the regional championship.

We arrived on a Friday evening, and I was a bit miffed when finding out that we wouldn’t play our first match until 2 PM the next day. Coulda saved the money for that hotel room and driven out in the morning, was my first thought. So I started thinking out loud: “What could one do in Birmingham on a Saturday morning?”

The answer, coming from an almost-teenage girl, totally surprised me: “We could go to 16th Street Baptist Church,” said Sunshine without a second’s hesitation. “We were just talking about that in Social Studies.”

I could claim that as one who was tortured, yes tortured as a child by parents dragging me through one unspeakably boring church after another – Renaissance, Gothic, Roman, you name it; Europe is full of them! – I hadn’t wanted to bring up a church visit to a 12-year old. But in truth, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

It was my child who reminded me that there was living history all around us.

So we spent the morning touring 16th Street Baptist Church and surroundings under a sparkling blue sky.

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

Sunshine was particularly taken by the memorial to the four girls who died in the horrific bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Carol Denise McNair. I in turn was particularly taken by the image of my girl mingling with the dead girls, not much younger than herself at the time they were killed, playful children with the same dreams and aspirations shared by kids the world over.

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

Even as inanimate statues, the police dogs make you cast a wary eye in their direction. One shudders at the thought of their hot breath and teeth inches from one’s face, barely restrained by threatening policemen.

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

The church itself was closed to visitors, but you can tour the basement, so that’s what we did. There is also a museum across the street, but we had to leave before it opened. Our visit only took about an hour, at most, and was soon eclipsed by the sound of loud shouts, bouncing balls, and squeaky sneakers meeting gym floor during two long days of volleyball. (Note: Sunshine’s team came in last.)

Only weeks later did it occur to me that I had once visited another church that was just as deeply intertwined with the struggle for freedom and equality.

On a tour through the township of Soweto near Johannesburg almost exactly five years ago, we had visited Regina Mundi Church. In it, you can still see bullet holes from June 16, 1976, when during the Soweto Uprising student demonstrators who fled into the church were shot at by police. While no one died in the church itself, 175 protesters were killed that day, including Hector Pieterson, whose picture made news around the world and to whom a memorial not far from the church is dedicated.

Hector Pieterson memorial in soweto
It is actually the anguished face of Mbuyisa Makhubo that we remember from this picture. He is the  one carrying the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson after he was shot.
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
Regina Mundi was built in 1964, less than a year after the Birmingham church bombing. At that time, 16th Street Baptist Church was already 92 years old.
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
Iconic picture of the “Black Madonna” in Regina Mundi Church in Soweto

Two different countries. Two different continents even. Two different churches, one young, one old, one Catholic, and one Baptist. Two civil rights struggles.

But one wrong.

When you live in South Africa, history seems to be a lot closer. It seems only yesterday that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and that he was overwhelmingly elected as the first president of a free South Africa. It seems as if South Africa trailed much behind the United States in terms of civil rights. That apartheid was so obviously wrong over there, while we had come to our senses such a long time ago over here.

But of course that’s not true. If anyone thought the American civil rights chapter is closed, then what started with Michael Brown’s shooting and the ensuing protests in Ferguson almost a year ago reminds us all that there is much left to be done. Last week’s cold-blooded shooting of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, 52 years after the Birmingham church bombing, was an unspeakable act of evil. Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lee Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Clementa C. Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Wonderful people with the same dreams and aspirations shared by people the world over.

There is much left to be done, but there is also a lot of hope.

“We have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history,” President Obama said in his eulogy of Clementa Pinckney. Aside from the awesome symbolism of an African-American president singing Amazing Grace at this eulogy, aside from the almost unanimous shock and outrage in Charleston and beyond that seems to have brought the country together in some ways, I think this idea of how we look at history is what gives me hope. My daughter wanting to see history, and not for one second looking at it as “their” history but simply as our common history, should bode well for the future – both in South Africa and these our United States.

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
My daughter Sunshine, then 12, on the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church

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