Will Birmingham Give Birth to National Racial Reconciliation?

An ecumenical and interracial alliance of Birmingham’s Catholic bishop, mayor and Baptist dean of Samford’s divinity school provides a model for discussing and healing racial divisions in the U.S.

Civil and religious leaders gathered in Birmingham at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School to discuss racial reconciliation.
Civil and religious leaders gathered in Birmingham at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School to discuss racial reconciliation. (photo: Dan Burke)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The city of Birmingham is famous for its place in history as ground zero of the civil-rights movement — but a first-of-its-kind meeting of religious and civil leaders has possibly sown the seeds for a new national movement of racial reconciliation between black and white Americans.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell Sr., Bishop Robert Baker of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham and Dean Timothy George of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School came together this month to host a national conference on racial reconciliation in the U.S. called “Black and White in America: How Deep the Divide?”

The conference took place at Alabama’s Samford University March 3-4 and saw black and white religious and civil leaders come together to have an honest dialogue about the realities of race in the U.S., but also raised discussions about how to chart a common theological path forward to reconcile hearts and heal the persisting racial divide.

“This idea really began in the heart of Bishop Robert Baker,” Dean George told the Register. He said his “No. 1 priority” was starting a conversation about racial reconciliation between black and white Americans that would spread from the ground up and make sure they remembered their shared history and the lessons left by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We’ve got a lot of consciousness-raising to do,” the dean said. “Communities of faith have something to say to this that nobody else can say, because we’re not just talking about socio-political or economic issues — although those are critically important — but we’re talking about the values by which you live your life: friendship, relationship — and what are you going to do with your neighbors?”

“Those issues, I think, have to be really addressed at a personal, familial and local level,” he said. “And then there are big macro-level issues that our society has to grapple with too.”


Race Reconciliation

Dean George said it appeared that many fruitful discussions among participants carried on even after the speakers or panelists concluded. While the discussions could be intense at times, he said the dialogue remained respectful, as people tried to bridge their different points of view.

“I think this whole idea of reconciliation, of putting the past behind us and working together for a better future for everyone, was a key point that was trying to be made,” Mayor Bell told the Register.

During the conference, Mayor Bell, who is African-American, shared Birmingham’s story of coming together since the civil-rights movement. He told the Register that he appreciated the testimony of Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, S.C., who is white, about how decades of building bridges and trust in their city defeated a white supremacist’s bid to start a race war when he murdered in cold blood the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his fellow African-American church members during a Bible study.

“It could just have easily turned into something ugly,” Mayor Bell said, “but because people were committed to really keeping that community together, it sent a bigger message than what [other] people thought they would hear: one of reconciliation and forgiveness.”


Pastoral Guideposts

Two important Catholic pastoral and theological contributions were made to the conference, which saw a variety of Christian leaders, as well as an imam and a rabbi, taking part.

Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., who is author of two reflections on the racial divide in the U.S., presented a pastoral reflection in six parts over the course of an hour that covered many aspects of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and also discussed the Church’s own wounded relationship with the African-American community.

The bishop explained that “Black Lives Matter” was coined to raise social awareness that there were disparities in society between how blacks and whites were treated. However, the participants of the movement perceive that such obvious rejoinders as “All lives matter” are “a way of ignoring the terrible reality that the actions of some police, the decisions of some criminal-justice agencies, the activities in many prisons and efforts to make it difficult for black people to vote strongly suggest that black lives really do not matter.”

He said that language also matters, and people should cease referring to African-Americans as a “minority,” since no one refers to Irish-Americans, Swedish-Americans or Luxembourg-Americans as “minorities.” He said the word “minority” carries negative connotations of “poor,” “broken family” and “troublemaker” that become the lens through which African-Americans are seen — and they get called a “minority” even when they comprise the majority of a city’s or county’s residents.

Bishop Braxton also indicated that the Catholic Church has a lot of work to do to improve its own institutional relations with the African-American community in order to understand their concerns and points of view. Historically this relationship — despite the solidarity of supportive Catholics and even some popes — was impaired by the institutional U.S. Church’s involvement in slavery, its lack of participation in the abolitionist movement, its own issues of racial discrimination, and lack of dialogue with African-American leaders and thinkers until the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King to the civil-rights movement. As a result of this historical lack of dialogue, the U.S. Church’s formal statements in the 20th century were not “significantly informed by the voices that have articulated the depth and meaning of the African-American experience.”

Additionally, when most of the 3 million black Catholics out of the 70 million in the U.S. Church enter a parish, they typically encounter depictions of God, the saints and angels as white Europeans and see no religious art reflecting African features.

Bishop Braxton noted that in order to make progress, people must pray, particularly the Rosary, listen to “people who do not think like us” and seek them out if they are not in one’s social circles, learn from others’ experiences that may make them feel uncomfortable and then reflect and act upon what they have learned.

“If we are not making that dialogue … heart speaking to heart, we cannot make progress,” he said. 

“Everybody can do something in the concrete situation in front of them.”


Theology of Reconfiliation

At the conference, Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri, Nigeria, laid out a theology of reconciling black and white Americans as brothers and sisters, based on their relationship as sons and daughters of God through his unique Son, Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Obinna describes this theology as reconfiliation, “which stresses the dignity of every human, of every son and every daughter, irrespective of hurts and ill feelings.”

The archbishop explained that the origins of this theological reflection are rooted in confronting racism in his own people, the Igbo, where there is severe marginalization of certain Igbos known as the Osu or “outcasts.” Intermarriage between Osu and non-Osu Igbos, he said, is culturally forbidden, and he has worked to “confront this divide in my own culture.”

“I decided to reject identification with any of them,” he said, explaining that, as a result of his reconfiliating work, including marrying Osu with non-Osu Igbo, he has been called “the outcast bishop.” However, he added that he is not alone in this work.

He added that Christianity is at the heart of this movement, “drawing sons and daughters of God from every family and nation” into the one family of God by grafting them into the humanity of Jesus Christ.

“With such confiliation, such unifying sense of humanity, a new America will be in the offing,” he said.

At the following prayer service, Archbishop Obinna also presided over a foot-washing ritual, where the participants paired off — each pair having one black person and one white person — to wash each other’s feet as a sign of service and reconciliation.

Cross-Cultural Awareness

The issues raised by the conference underscored what Bishop Baker told the Register: While the Church has done a good job celebrating multiple cultures, there is a need for the Church to listen to the experiences of others and practice more “cross-cultural awareness.”

Part of his plan is to make videos of the racial-reconciliation talks part of the education materials for Catholic schools and show them as models for how to bridge the racial divide in discussion.

Overall, Bishop Baker and Dean George said their hope was that the structure of the conference provided an opportunity for people to know each other and deepen friendships. They plan to meet soon to review feedback from the conference and assess how to proceed.

“We did identity the type of leadership that would be needed — resourceful, creative leaders, who are right now trying to build bridges between the races,” Bishop Baker said. 

Mayor Bell added that he would like to see the discussion they began in Birmingham expand to a national dialogue of religious leaders, including the Christian Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal churches, “to come together and talk about the impact we can have.”

“Just like we had in Birmingham, but with the heads of all the religious groups about the impact we can have in our communities by bringing a moral sense of commitment to a better way of life.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.