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Terry Blackhawk: My Father Goes to Sunday School

(16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama)

It’s 1990 or 1991, and here he is, my dad,

a stranger, showing up for Sunday school.

Earnest Unitarian, in town for the national assembly,

with his blue eyes, white hair, Colonel Sanders-

style goatee, he has decided to make a pilgrimage

to honor the martyred girls. What are you doing here?

an elder asked, a deacon perhaps, or prayer leader.

I believe it was a men’s class, serious students

who had studied and worshipped and likely grieved

together for years. I imagine their surprise,

but it’s clear my father was sincere and humble enough

in asking to pay his respects and so was allowed

to stay. It was summertime, hot in Alabama,

but I believe the church was cool, and the men

gathered there—how would those students of the Bible

have regarded him? Were they charmed, annoyed,

tolerant, condescending?  Did they pity a man

so unaware of codes and boundaries? Did they bow,

even in their own sanctuary, to whiteness

or did faith persuade them to offer him a chair?

The scripture that day was “Jonah and the Whale”—

an almost poetic stroke of justice, although my father

never said what he took from the story. My father,

the professor, who as a motherless teen thought ministry

might suit him, just as a pastor’s wife had ministered          

to his loneliness—even if I question his intrusion

and wonder why a wreath wouldn’t have sufficed

for his intent, I still think of that day as a nimbus

around him, a hiatus or ceasefire, midway

between Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, Carol Denise

and nine open-hearted souls in an evening class

at Mother Emmanuel, who twenty-five years later

would acknowledge a stranger and let him in. 

Copyright 2021 Terry Blackhawk

Terry Blackhawk is the author of many books including One Less River (Mayapple, 2019)

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 as an act of white supremacist terrorism. The explosion at the African-American church, which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the United States 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

2 comments on “Terry Blackhawk: My Father Goes to Sunday School

  1. terryblackhawk
    February 22, 2022

    I’m glad you caught the clumsiness…and the acceptance. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Barbara Huntington
    February 21, 2022

    Beautiful. We all can be so clumsy in our good intentions and acceptance of our flaws is powerful.

    Liked by 2 people

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