From Alan Sherouse, Pastor
I re-read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” today, which has become an annual practice for on this day we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired and prophetic with each read, if ever the canon was opened again, mark me down for a vote for this epistle as the first addition.
As I read this year, I especially noted a passing reference to a “Reverend Stallings.” I learned the name Rev. Earl Stallings recently from a dear member of First Baptist Greensboro. After recent reflection on the Letter from Birmingham Jail in a sermon, Esther Matthews mentioned casually in a call later that week, “You know, my cousin, Earl, was right in the middle of all of that!”
Cousin Earl/Rev. Stallings was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Birmingham in 1963, making him one of the eight white pastors of downtown churches who sent the “Call for Unity” to Dr. King, urging him to steer clear of Birmingham, encouraging him to accept gradual change, and telling him to wait on time to alter things. These eight pastors were the initial “white moderate” audience to whom Dr. King was writing — the foreparents of any of us who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
But for those of us who are white, Rev. Stallings might also provide a model of how the words of Dr. King we read and quote today can yet provoke us to action and change. After Dr. King’s arrest, Rev. Stallings felt deep regret about his part in the “Call to Unity” and his hesitation to join the work. He repented, in fact, changing direction most immediately on the following Sunday — Easter Sunday — when he was the only of those white pastors to follow through on a pledge to open the church to all people, and particularly to Black worshippers. It was the least he could do. But at that time the action was disruptive enough to prompt a walkout of half the white worshippers and lead to threats from within the community. And while it didn’t change his part in the previous disappointment, it also prompted Dr. King to reference him in his letter from jail: “I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis.”
Reverend Stallings’ action on Easter Sunday 1963 ultimately initiated tension in the church that led him to resign within the next couple of years. But it helped initiate more than that, too. In 1970, Winifred and Twila Bryant — a mother and daughter who were Black — asked to join First Baptist Birmingham. Their membership was voted down, which prompted 250 people to leave First Baptist Church to start something new. They became the initial founders of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, which recently celebrated 50 years as a leading progressive, justice-oriented church among Baptists and throughout the Southern U.S.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail is written to those who resist extremism and prefer middle ground; those who would seek what Dr. King called “negative peace” that is “the absence of conflict” rather than “true peace” that is “the presence of justice”; those who were leaders of a larger Church and individual churches that had disappointed and betrayed him and attempted to thwart the movement. But I’m remembering today that the letter was also written to some people who read Dr. King’s words and were moved to change. Dr. King called them “notable exceptions” — which can still include any of us willing to resist the impulses to patience, safety and self-preservation, and join more fully the work of justice.