Over the last week, I’ve received a swift lesson in how things happen in this city. I wrote an open letter to our Mayor and to a prominent church leader in the community and even as I wait to hear.  I must admit that I’ve been up, down, and sideways as to how I feel about what’s happened over the last week.  I didn’t realize how much I appreciated my anonymity.  But I also did not anticipate how careless and thoughtless people become when you challenge the actions of those whom they admire.  There is a strong cult of personality in our city.  So to keep this brief – I’ve been dragged, ridiculed, insulted, berated, belittled, and dismissed by many.  I’ve had my words invoked even when my presence was not welcomed.  But at the same time I’ve been challenged, encouraged, and approached by many who have long wanted to articulate what I expressed this past week.

I’ve lived in Birmingham for twenty years.  I’ve been serving a local church here for 17 of those twenty years.  I admit that I wasn’t really fond of this place when I first got here – I’m from Ohio.  But with two of my three children being born here, and having established some deep roots here – we’ve grown to love this place.  History is literally beneath our feet everywhere we go in this city.  All the quirky little spots that you wouldn’t expect to find here, and the way most people will look you in the eye and speak –even when you don’t know them –  these are a few of the things that have kept us here in Birmingham.  These are the things that make this place beautiful.  These things inspire my love for this place but also incite me to speak the truth to her – I cannot separate the one from the other.

Birmingham is a beautiful place with an ugly problem. 

And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple.[1]

But like the lame man, sitting at the Gate called Beautiful (Acts 3:2), Birmingham is a beautiful place with an ugly problem.  At the geographic center of the Southeast, with a beautiful landscape, and with all her beautiful citizens – Birmingham is a beautiful place with an ugly problem.  Birmingham is divided by major highways.  Our highways may as well be concrete walls.  The socio-economic and racial divides in this city have informed a pathology that insists on politeness and Southern genteelness, while nodding and winking at public policies rooted in a past stained by racist sentiments and policies.  White-flight, and the nastiness that fractured Birmingham into a bunch of municipalities that starve the city center and ruined a school district, uprooted churches, and left entire communities bereft of a viable tax-base – are Birmingham’s ugly problem.

We are in a beautiful place, with an ugly problem.  Crippled by a past we refuse to reckon with – sins that we refuse to confess, difficult conversations we refuse to have, in a beautiful place with an ugly problem.

Lame, we are, because we lynched our past (Jefferson County is one of the bloodiest counties in the state).  We buried convict-leased bodies in coal mines or burned them in Sloss Furnaces. This beautiful place has an ugly problem.

Birmingham, a post-civil war city, is a place where we debate about Confederate statues placed in our public parks by private citizens, while prominent local pastors asks blessings during Confederate Memorial Day celebrations.  A beautiful place.

Birmingham is where communities once abandoned because of white-flight, now grace the pages of Southern Living because of funky new gastro-pubs and micro-breweries that spring up from the fallow ground.  These ‘new’ businesses are flourishing on the forty dirt-cheap acres, left behind decades ago because we couldn’t stomach the idea of living together in the same community.  They are now prime real estate.  We are in a beautiful place with an ugly problem

Birmingham is the beautiful bride with bad breath – the broad-shouldered beau with a broken smile – the brilliant and shining city with a rusty backside.  Birmingham – the buckle of the Bible-belt – the land of big, beautiful churches, too often marred by a bland homogeneity that bans justice for all while beseeching civility.  Birmingham is a place that treats reconciliation as an indulgence that may be purchased with a few coins, Thanksgiving baskets, and Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

Birmingham is a beautiful place with an ugly problem. 

We are lame.  We are crippled. Incapable of elevating ourselves. We are in a beautiful place with an ugly problem.  Lest we hear the Gospel.  Lest we abandon our tendency to anesthetize (allowing ourselves to be bought off) by our terribly low expectations for a few alms (silver and gold, have I none.) –  we will remain in this beautiful place with an ugly problem.

The facile, conscience-soothing efforts we embrace in the name of change will fail unless we delve beyond the surface.  We must confront (look at us) and thus uncover the circumstances that conspired to cause our current condition.   Then we must speak boldly, prophetically, and compassionately to this brokenness, “Walk!”   And then, finally, we can hold hands – then we can help – and only then we may lift our city to a place of prominence that befits her.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 3:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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