43 years ago: How a church split at the crossroads of diversity - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

43 years ago: How a church split at the crossroads of diversity

Church members discuss the events that led to their church's split. Source: WBRC video Church members discuss the events that led to their church's split. Source: WBRC video
Source: WBRC video Source: WBRC video

For a lot of Christians, Wednesday night is Bible study night, especially in the South. It's fairly common to ask someone what church they attend or invite them to your house of worship.

But inviting people to your church wasn't always as easy as it is now. In September of 1970, one child's decision to join a church forced its members to make choices that changed many of them.

Forty-three years ago, many people stood up for a little girl who went up to join their church. But instead of bringing their congregation together, their show of support tore their church apart. It happened Sunday morning, September 27, 1970 when an all-white congregation at the crossroads of diversity chose to stand still.

Twila Fortune was nine years old and Birmingham was still raw from the Civil Rights Movement and the bombing that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Twila and her mom had become familiar faces at First Baptist Church of Birmingham through their urban outreach programs.

Earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. commended Rev. Earl Stallings, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham in his letter from the Birmingham Jail. Years later, Twila and her mom, Winifred, came up to join the church. Some members, church officers and deacons disagreed with the new pastor, Herbert Gilmore, and tabled the request more than once. It was the subject of many church business meetings.

Then one Sunday morning, Twila and her mom filled out a membership card.

"The day they came in for the vote and they were rejected, my heart just broke. It was horrible and then, when Dr. Gilmore said, 'When I came, I said I would not be the pastor of a racist church and I won't,' and we all walked out. We left the choir loft and walked out," said Faye Wilson, a member of the church at the time.

"At that time I was just taken by the hand. My mother was in tears. I didn't understand why she was in tears, but I did understand that we were not welcome. It really hurt that she was hurt," said Fortune.

In all, 250 people walked out; some had been members all or most of their lives. People who worked in the church lost their salaries and families were divided.

A new congregation was formed, Baptist Church of the Covenant, which is still in the heart of Birmingham's inner city today. A colossal cross erected in the sanctuary is dedicated in honor of Twila and her mom. The church made headlines again when Sarah Shelton became the first female pastor.

"We commit ourselves to a membership that is open to all persons who accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and who desire to pattern their lives after the teachings of Christ," said Reverend Shelton, reading from the church's bylaws.

As for Twila Fortune, she is a Birmingham city police officer with children of her own and still attends Baptist Church of the Covenant.

"When you look at that cross and this congregation and know that these people stood with you, that's a very important factor in my life, 'cause this is like my second family," Fortune said about the church.

The former pastor, J. Herbert Gilmore, has written a book called "They Chose to Live: The Racial Agony of an American Church" about the event.

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