The online reviews said the park was filled with a large number of homeless men. A couple reviews even mentioned needing to get security from the buildings across the street. I confess, as a mom with three young kids in tow, I was a bit hesitant to go. But, was I going to let a little fear trump my desire to see the sculptures in the park that I had read were a powerful and moving tribute to a horrific part of our country's history? This connection to the past was something I wanted to share with my family.
The Birmingham park we wanted to visit housed nine statues that chronicled a portion of the Civil Rights movement, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Children’s Crusade, and memorials to a number of local leaders and pastors.
The first sculpture we walked up to was at the corner of the park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was entitled The Four Spirits and was a memorial to the four girls killed in the bombing of that church in 1963. As we stood studying the sculpture, another visitor walked up, gave it a 10-second stare, and walked on.
That was when we heard the loud, appalled voice of Andrew, one of the men who lived in the park.
“See that?” Andrew directed his words at my family, but gestured toward the other man who walked on by. “That is what so many people do when they walk by these sculptures. They give it a quick look and keep on walking. They don’t take the time to notice what it is really about. Can I show you what this sculpture is really about?”
We all nodded and Andrew continued.
He painted the story of what happened during that bombing. The children were all downstairs in their Sunday school classrooms. The adults were upstairs chatting after the service.
“Most people think,” Andrew explained, “that the bomb was thrown in through a window. Not true. It was in a bucket that was placed under the stairs to a back door, near the lower level window to the Sunday school class. That is why it harmed the children and not the adults.”
Andrew turned our attention across the street to the church. He pointed out the back door where those stairs used to be. He said it was a blind spot and the church never rebuilt those stairs because they had learned a bit about their blind spots.
He then turned back to the statue of the girls, got down on his knees, and touched the picture, name, and birthdate of each of the four little girls who had been killed in that bombing. He paused on each one and read us their names.
“Addie Mae Collins born on April 18, 1949.”
“Cynthia Wesley born on April 30, 1949.”
“Carole Robertson born on April 24, 1949.”
“Carol Denise McNair born on November 17, 1951.”
There were three other names there as well; two young boys who had been shot and killed later that day in Birmingham and a young girl who had been in the church, but was still on her way downstairs when the bombing occurred. She lost both her eyesight in one eye and her little sister in the explosion.
Andrew then turned our attention to the side of the statue to where it was engraved: “A Love That Forgives.” He explained that this was the sermon title from the church service earlier that morning. The Pastor had preached on Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Andrew recited the verse with passion and said, “Think about that. They were called to forgive those that hurt them.”
He then looked at my girls and told them to take notice. Take notice so that these sort of terrible things do not happen again. Instead of hate be filled with love and forgiveness.
I was fighting tears as I listened to this man speak to my family. What if we had just quickly passed by instead of taking the time to listen to the gift of Andrew’s words? What if we just took a ten-second glance of the statue instead of taking the time to examine it and see the honor, meaning and love in it? We would have missed so much.
Instead we stopped, noticed, connected, and were blessed. Thank you God for that gift.
- Kara Hackert