For all its prestige it sure was a wacky place. The historic First Baptist Church was where I attended church in college. The historic sanctuary and the seven story education building were hallmarks of downtown. The pastors were some of the most illustrious of the Convention. As a college student I attended and became very involved in the Church. I participated in their nursing home ministry once a month leading a service; I visited weekly two shut-ins in high-rise apartments in downtown Birmingham, as well as taught their youth Sunday School class.
But it was a little peculiar. The Senior Adult minister, whenever we visited the nursing home, would spend literally five to ten minutes washing her hands to “get the nursing home patient smell off.” It was a very ritualistic washing. She would wash her hands all the while apologizing to me. I liked her and she was actually good at her work.
One of the young adults defriended me after one too many doses of the writings of fundamentalist commune guru Francis Schaeffer. Our friendship depended upon if I thought Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale. When I pointed out that it said big fish not whale and that I was not concerned with the literal truth but the spiritual truth throughout the Book of Jonah, he would not be dissuaded. Either I confess a belief in the literal swallowing of Jonah by a whale or we would have to part ways. Now I was not sure what this meant since neither of us was going to leave the church and we were not meeting anywhere else. But for a month he did not talk to me even when we sat on the same pew. Another young adult told me they saw angels regularly. Really I asked could they take me to see one. Not right now but maybe someday he would come back but he was currently out of town.
The youngish minister who was a namesake of the famous evangelist Sam Jones was in trouble. He was too familiar with the young adult women and some were uncomfortable with his closeness with young adult men. He also would claim to be a prophet and no one could challenge his teachings or actions. He was interesting but short-lived there. To replace him they chose a retired seminary professor Dr. Fussell. He moved slowly and sometimes paused a few seconds to talk. It was not clear how old he was and we joked when he preached about Adam and Eve that it was a first-hand account. We fondly called him Dr. Fossil.
Probably my most proud accomplishment was taking the Youth Sunday School class and growing it to forty; then when I left there were only two. Let me explain. The church sat in the middle of downtown across from the largest government housing program in Birmingham. The housing had once been inhabited by struggling white families but now was occupied by black families. The church, in highly segregated Birmingham, was not integrated. There was no effort to do such.
One eventful day a black man walked slowly, limping with cane in hand, across the street. He sat in the back of the church listening to Dr. Fussell preaching for several months. He asked to meet with Dr. Fussell and when they met, he asked if he could be a member of the church. This was the eighties. The Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and the seventies had come and gone. He was a veteran without a car and lived across the street and there was no other church within seven blocks. So he came here and now wanted to be a member. All hell broke loose in the congregation. In Baptist life the church has a formal vote to accept you as member. This is usually a rubber stamp and used as an affirmation to the new member as everyone agreed to accept you. I was surprised this was an issue because the church I grew up in was filled with Japanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Whites, Blacks, rich, poor, enlisted, officers and other persuasions.
This was not the case for this man. A specially called business meeting was invoked. The meeting was one of the most farcical I had ever participated in. First they tried to amend their by-laws so that the youth who were officially members could not vote. But the rule was if they had been baptized they could vote. This did not pass. Dr. Fussell who all the older members loved was the facilitator of the meeting and he had stated in the sermon that week he would not stay if they voted not to accept the man. Members who had not in my three years there stepped foot in the building came out of the woodwork. One of the deacons in his early nineties gave a speech that was straight out of the KKK handbook. He proclaimed we have a Negro mayor and council now, the schools are gone, and this one black man asking for membership was the black community’s attempt to take over the last white bastion: the First Baptist Church of Birmingham. The elders and some others applauded fervently. I had to check my calendar; I was confused what year it was. Two of my youth (without my prompting) stated they could not see how the church of all places would not welcome someone. The youth were going against the will of their parents and grandparents. They were also heckled by some of the older members. When it came time to vote, realizing that many members would be uncomfortable voting no in front of Dr. Fussell, they called for a secret ballot. This was a move I had never before seen and apparently one they had never done over a membership. But they went secret. The votes were gathered and he was refused membership by two votes. The deacon stood up and started chortling praise God. Others wept. Dr. Fussell, who announced the vote, grew very silent and adjourned the meeting. He did not linger. The man was told the vote. He never came back.
In the next few months, people left. Almost immediately all of the young adults were gone. It was only Ed and I left. I had that joy, joy, down in my heart. He stayed because he now had a niche. The one of two young single adults left. I stayed to see my youth off as they went to other churches. The two who had spoken up were the only ones left after two months.
The deacon died two days later. Some felt it was an act of God. I reminded them he was in his nineties, and I am not sure God had anything to do with that meeting. But at least I thought the old deacon had had his last hurrah. Dr. Fussell agreed to stay until they found another minister. The elders begged him to stay but he could not. But because of the split they could not find a minister for a while. I listened more respectfully to Dr. Fussell now. He was wise.
The church eventually sold the sanctuary and education building in an effort to survive. They did. They built a nice church in a suburb and even said they would accept blacks for membership now. They had seen the light. I stayed with my two youth until it was time to go to seminary. They left the church and had me over for brunch to say goodbye and thank-you. It turns out they stayed because they did not want to leave me by myself. So much for my martyrdom. I guess this shot of reality across my bow should have forewarned me of my fate with Baptists. Yet somehow I would not have been anywhere else. It is the manure of life that helps you grow.