Last Wednesday, June 19, Baptist women and men filled the sanctuary at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. All of us knew the story of the church. We knew about the bombing that had taken place on September 15, 1963. We knew that white supremacists planted that bomb. We knew that four young girls were killed that day–in the moments between Sunday School and worship. We knew because we had read the history books.
But on Wednesday, we were graced by the presence of one who knew about the events of that horrific day, not because of stories in a book but because of her life experience. Carolyn McKinstry was our preacher that morning, and in her quiet, humble way, she walked us through two Old Testament stories about women living in crisis, and then she said, “My life was once in crisis. . . . I grew up in the turbulent times of Birmingham, Alabama. . . . When I was ten years old, my grandmother came to Birmingham very ill, and we learned that the hospitals would not take black patients. So it became my job to sit with my grandmother. We were able finally to get her in a hospital through a lot of phone calls. My job continued to be to sit with my grandmother, and if she needed anything I was to call my mother or to call my dad. I sat for two weeks in the hospital basement with her before she died. She was fifty-four years old. She taught first grade. I loved my grandmother. I have forever in my mind that image of sitting with her. In later years, I would go back to that hospital to serve as chaplain and to try and present a different image of how we take care of people when they are sick, how we love them back to health as opposed to locking them away in a basement where we don’t have to see them.”
A few minutes later in her sermon, Carolyn told the story of the bombing. She was present that day at Sixteenth Street, and all the girls who died were her friends. Their families lived in her neighborhood. Carolyn said, ‘When the church was bombed, something happened. I was in crisis, a new crisis was born. It would be twenty years before I could pull myself out of that crisis. I was trying to determine why I still lived. I was trying to determine what God wanted from me. Why didn’t I die? I wanted to. I suffered with depression for almost twenty years at a time when almost no one knew what it was. They just thought you were different. There was no one to talk to. . . . What I was never able to figure out was the type of hatred. Where did it come from? What could I do about it? What was I supposed to do about it?'”
Carolyn then shared these words, “In later years when I began to pray, when I learned about bold faith, when I learned about speaking what was in my heart, this is the point where I began to step away from darkness and into light. . . . I asked God ‘why,’ and God said, ‘Carolyn, you have to tell them, you have to tell everyone that only light dispels darkness. You have to tell them that only love dispels hate. You’ve been in crisis all this time, but you are not in crisis now because I am with you, and you can walk this walk.’ So God called me. God gave me a very special message, a message of reconciliation, a message that says ‘we see people the way God sees us,’ a message that says, ‘whatever separates us, whatever is between us, we have to remove that–if we want to be reconciled to God and to each other, we have to remove whatever separates us.'”
Near the close of her sermon, Carolyn told us that “On the day of the church bombing, the lesson for that day was “A Love the Forgives.” So every year on September 15, we invite churches all over the world to preach that message from Luke. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The message of forgiveness, the message of reconciliation.”
Of all the powerful words that Carolyn spoke on Wednesday, the ones that have stayed with me are these: “I am called to share the message of reconciliation. Crisis placed me on that journey. ” From crisis, from darkness, from depression, Carolyn learned the power of light and love and forgiveness. May her words stay with us as we live fully into God’s call to each one of us to the work of reconciliation.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo credit: Cherilyn Crowe