I See Freedom in the Air (May-Jun 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Randy Gill
May – June, 2002

Separate but equal.

“We’re not saying you can’t eat. You just can’t eat here.”

You can ride any bus in town – as long as you sit in the back.”

“The ‘colored’ rest rooms are just as nice as the ones for ‘whites only’.”

African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama had heard remarks like these for as long as most of them could remember. Tragically, many had even begun to believe that they were somehow inferior and unworthy of the accommodations and privileges white people took for granted. Segregation was a way of life in Birmingham, endorsed and embraced by city government and enforced with particular cruelty by the police department. Even well meaning whites, many of whom hired African-Americans as cooks, drivers and gardeners, were often oblivious to the pain and embarrassment their way of life brought to so many of the people in their city. They were puzzled, even angry, when a protest movement began in 1963. “Is it really that bad?” they wondered.

Months later, after almost no visible progress, the movement to end segregation in Birmingham was grinding to a halt. Money for bail had run out and support for demonstrations was beginning to ebb. If something dramatic didn’t happen soon, the months of organized resistance would end in failure. James Bevel, a leader in the faltering movement had an idea. Since the adults were afraid of losing their livelihoods during a lengthy jail stay, what if the children marched? The call went out for young volunteers and the first group of protesters gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church on May 2nd, 1963. They sang together and listened intently as movement leaders tried to prepare them for what was about to happen. Before leaving the sanctuary the children were told, “You’re about to face some pretty angry people. They’re going to laugh at you. They’ll yell terrible things. They may even try to hurt you. Whatever happens, just keep quiet. Don’t make a sound until you’re arrested. Then I want you to sing with all of your might.” Shortly after 1 o’clock sixty marchers came through the front doors of the 16th Street church. For hours police, reporters and angry citizens had surrounded the building. The first group of children was quickly arrested. Immediately they began to sing, “Up over my head I see freedom in the air!” Over the next two hours the scene was repeated again and again. Almost one thousand children went to jail that day. The marches continued for several days and hundreds more were arrested. By May 7th Bull Connor, the Police Chief of Birmingham had lost what little patience he had. He called out attack dogs and fire hoses and let both loose on the young protesters. That night people all over the world saw the brutality on their television screens. Pictures of the “Children’s Crusade,” as it became known, appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Within three days, the leaders of Birmingham, bowing to intense public pressure, acceded to the demands of the protesters and brought an end to months of unrest. It was the first major victory of the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of a decade of change in this country.

The story of the “Children’s Crusade” and dozens more like it from the Civil Rights Movement have always had a profound impact on me. I’m not African-American and I’ve never known the kind of discrimination people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. experienced daily. But I do have a heart for justice and a growing sensitivity for those who are denied its benefits. Still, the first time I heard a comparison made between the treatment of African-Americans for much of our country’s history and the ongoing treatment of women in many of today’s churches I bridled. I had nothing in common with the angry, jeering mobs that stood in the way of Civil Rights protesters fifty years ago. It was offensive to me to be associated with the rage and prejudice of a man like Bull Connor. Over time, however, I came to realize that I had, in fact, been an unwitting supporter of discrimination in the church – not against African-Americans but against women. My prejudice, subtle as it was, didn’t come from hatred. Instead, my indifference and insensitivity was the product of conditioning and tradition. I wouldn’t have used the term “Separate but Equal” when discussing women in the church. In fact, I would have been indignant if someone had characterized my mindset with those words. But when it came to worship, I accepted the concept all the same.

I’ve joked about the “woman song leader” who sits on the front row of a country church and sings loudly while her husband pretends to “lead” from the podium. I’ve listened to sermons or bible lessons delivered poorly by an unqualified male while a well-educated, spiritually sensitive female college professor sits quietly in the pew. I’ve beamed at a 10-year-old boy as he reads scripture for the first time in a public assembly without giving any thought at all to how it would feel to be a mature 40-year-old Christian woman who might never get a chance to do the same thing. I’ve patiently explained to female college students that women with spiritual gifts have ample opportunities to use them in “Women’s Programs” and “Ladies Bible Classes.”

Women in our churches have lived with remarks and situations like these for as long as most of them can remember. Regardless of the gifts God has given them they have been expected to embrace a variety of “acceptable” roles while being routinely denied others. Tragically, many women have even begun to believe that they are somehow inferior and unworthy of the accommodations and privileges men take for granted. Segregation based on gender is a way of life in the majority of our churches. And many of our members, male and female alike, are oblivious to the pain and embarrassment our practices have brought to so many in our congregations. They’re puzzled, even angry when they hear women express their hurt or frustration. “Is it really that bad?” they wonder.

Today, a growing number of churches are setting aside the prejudices and traditions of the past. They are admitting that gender arguments have often been more cultural than biblical. They are acknowledging our past inconsistencies in applying the few verses that speak of women and worship. They see the egalitarian intent of passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) and are attempting to provide opportunities for women to use their God-given gifts for his glory in their public assemblies.

Even in churches allowing an expanded role for women, however, subtleties and nuance often get in the way. The particular caveats vary from congregation to congregation but the bottom line is usually the same – “When it comes to worship we are not equal. A woman may sing, or read, or teach or pray all she wants . . . as long as a man is not there to hear her.” Separate but equal. I hate the comparison, but I can’t deny it. “Up over my head I see freedom in the air.”


Editor’s Note: New Wineskins editors realize that the issue of women’s roles in the church will not be solved by in this forum. We offer this article and the following resources as entry points or as continuing dialogue on issues that we believe each congregation must decide for itself.

 

 

More helpful background in understanding the relationship between how we read Scripture and how we approach this issue (and many other issues) in the upcoming Richard T. Hughes’s book, Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ

New Wineskins

Randy Gill

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About...

This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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