Church Leaders Respond to ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

CHICAGO, IL (January 17, 2011) – Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) President Gary Walter today affirmed this past weekend’s action by Christian Churches Together in issuing a historic response to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” penned by the late Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

The symbolic meeting in Birmingham of Christian Churches Together (CCT) leaders provided an opportunity to examine the issue of domestic poverty through the lens of racism. During the meeting, it was noted that apparently no one has ever issued a clergy response to Dr. King’s famous letter.

Debbie Blue, executive minister of the ECC’s Department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice was scheduled to participate in last weekend’s meeting, but was unable to attend due to poor weather and air traffic conditions that restricted travel. The Covenant is a member of CCT.

Dr. King’s letter was in response to a message from a group of clergy in Birmingham in 1963. In their “Call for Unity,” the clergy appealed for restraint and “common sense” – and a withdrawal of support for civil rights demonstrations.

In their one-page letter released this weekend, CCT leaders remember with gratitude the sacrifices of the leaders of the civil rights movement who demonstrated the power of Christian, nonviolent action. They also express repentance that “some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy.”

“Too often our follow-through has been far less than our spoken commitments,” the letter states. “Too often we have chosen to be comfortable rather than prophetic. Too often we have chosen not to see the evidence of a racism that is less overt, but still permeates our national life in corrosive ways.”

During this weekend’s visits to the Civil Rights Institute and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the CCT leaders, who are of multiple races representing a wide range of church backgrounds, say they found inspiration and renewed commitment.

They describe two windows at the church – one where the face of Jesus had been blown out from the bombing in 1963 that killed four girls, and the other that depicts a Christ figure who with one hand rejects the injustice of the world and with the other extends forgiveness. 

”In the spirit of this loving Jesus, and in the spirit of those who committed their very lives to that love, we renew our commitment to ending racism in all forms,” the leaders write.

“We begin by taking time on Monday, January 17, to reread the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – along with the message from the Birmingham clergy that prompted King’s letter – and to reflect on its meaning for us today. We urge all within our churches to do the same.”

Formed in 2007, CCT is the broadest Christian fellowship in the country with members representing Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Historic Black, and Evangelical/Pentecostal faith traditions. In addition to 36 national communions, its membership includes six national organizations: the American Bible Society, Bread for the World, Evangelicals for Social Action, Habitat for Humanity, Sojourners, and World Vision.

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