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Woodlawn: Friday Night Lights to Sunday Morning Pews

The new movie Woodlawn [interview with the director] recounts the powerful working of the gospel among high school football players in racially divided Birmingham during the 1970s. The film reminds us of the hope Christ provides for the many problems ailing our world. But it also raises the question of how a city known for its influential, Bible-based churches could end up as the most racially notorious city in the nation.

How can Birmingham and its churches, and other similar cities and churches, chart a better way in the future? Perhaps by looking at the past.

Shaping an Interest in Race 

I’ve lived in Birmingham for 13 years. I feel blessed to raise my four boys in such a wonderful place. I’m encouraged to see how the gospel is mending the city’s tainted racial history on many fronts, though there’s still much work ahead. My wife and I relocated here in 2002 so I could serve on the pastoral staff of a vibrant suburban church. Though I’d briefly lived in a small Alabama town in the early 1990s, my Illinois and Pennsylvania roots gave me a decidedly Yankee perspective on race relations.

During my undergraduate and seminary years in St. Louis, I heard John Perkins speak. The noted leader of Mississippi racial reconciliation prompted me for the first time to think extensively about how the gospel applies to race. At the time, I served with a cadre of college students tutoring elementary kids in Meacham Park, a predominantly black and lower-income community tucked within predominantly white and upper-middle-class St. Louis. My wife’s first job as a social worker was at a crisis nursery on the north side, next door to Ferguson. Perhaps the most poignant moment I recall during this formative period was watching Cry, the Beloved Country and then visiting the predominantly black sister church to our predominantly white congregation. (Yes, “predominantly” means 99 percent on both accounts.) Meanwhile New City Fellowship, an intentionally ethnically diverse congregation, also launched in St. Louis—a model I’d never seen before. These influences have shaped my interest in race, community, and church.

Responding to Changing Communities

Six years ago I had the privilege of stepping out to plant a new church in perhaps the most internationally and ethnically diverse of Birmingham’s suburbs. During my graduate studies in history a few years ago, one class addressed the theme of urban transitions, prompting me to write about how churches in ethnically transitioning communities at the time of the civil rights movement responded. With the release of Woodlawn, and having had the honor of meeting some of the men who played on that team or led in that gospel movement, I thought it might be useful for others if I dusted off that paper. It’s not Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story, but it is more of the story. (The whole paper can be found here.)

In sum, the growth, decline, and transition of several prominent churches in Woodlawn and East Lake, Alabama, from 1945 to 1970 illustrates the opportunities and obstacles religious bodies faced in changing metropolitan communities during this period—and continue to face today. Specifically, these churches thrived as they ministered during times of community growth, ethnic homogeneity, economic prosperity, and family solidarity. Yet predominantly white, middle-class, family-oriented churches struggled as they faced the ethnic, residential, and moral challenges of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually, churches responded in one of three ways: close the doors, relocate to expanding suburbia, or embrace the changing community.

Churches and Their Communities

As it did in all of Birmingham, race played a major role in Woodlawn/East Lake during the 1960s. Schools remained segregated until the 1960s, as did most churches well into the 1970s. Nevertheless, some light did shine. John C. Rutland of Woodlawn Methodist Church boldly confronted church member and Birmingham police commissioner T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, who was attempting to prohibit blacks from entering the church he pastored. This encounter showed the unique role churches and their leaders could play in leading the community through this tension. Most often, though, Woodlawn/East Lake churches discouraged blacks from integrating into their worship in one form or another.

The symbiotic relationship between a community and its churches provides a crucial framework for looking at the past and envisioning the future. The flight of Woodlawn and East Lake residents to more distant and homogeneous suburbs was propelled by several factors, but chief among them was racial tension. Churches ultimately failed to give residents of Woodlawn/East Lake a vision for integrated living that could overpower the driving desire for the comforts and homogeneity newer suburbs offered. Although at times Woodlawn and East Lake seemed subject to larger regional forces, its churches made choices to respond in their own ways, just as churches do in our post-Ferguson/Charleston/Baltimore world today. The way churches responded then—and respond now—directly affects whether churches in particular communities will survive, and whether they will demonstrate the kingdom of God in our world.

Our Challenge

At our denomination’s recent national gathering, the Presbyterian Church in America (which has spread throughout the country but started in the South) was challenged to grapple with our longstanding congregations’ responses during the civil rights movement. We’re a relatively small group of churches, but we’re experiencing a growing number of African Americans serving as church planters and pastors of established churches. Most in our denomination recognize we have a long, long way to go in reflecting the diversity the kingdom of God displays—if not through individual congregations, at least through a diversity of pastors and congregations united by our common creed.

Having studied the history of the black church for some years, I suspect predominantly white churches—like the one I pastor—are generally unaware of all our black brothers and sisters give up when they plant new churches or adopt existing ones. While I suspect most of us would affirm congregations that reflect the ethnic makeup of their community, the predominantly white church can be slower to do all it can to pave the way for diversity. Further, we’re often naïve about the history of the black church as the sole institution—dating back before the Civil War—where African Americans could gather with peers, sit under the direction of leaders of their own ethnicity, and encounter a credible presentation of the gospel.

So we have our work cut out for us. Even while we recognize that the gospel unites different ethnicities in Christ, churches must become part of the solution to a problem that continues to plague our country. Perhaps the Friday night lights of Woodlawn presented on big screens will do more than show us how the gospel transformed a city notoriously known for tragic things. Perhaps they will prompt us to think about the role Sunday morning pews can play in today’s dynamic communities.