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Touring Our Own City

Our Birmingham Peer Learning Group has just completed its second year together. We meet together monthly for lunch, talk about what’s going on in our lives and the world, share our struggles and seek to build a network of friendship and support. Last year we had a great retreat in Nashville together at the Scarritt-Bennett Center. It afforded some real quality time for relationship building.

Naturally, we started thinking about another “out of town” place we could go this year for a similar getaway. We struggled with where and when, though. Our calendars for the spring were pretty busy. Somehow, though, several group members mentioned that they were new to Birmingham and didn’t know much about their own city. Since I had been here 12 years and been through a civic leadership program, I had forgotten how long it takes to “know” a place.

We hit upon the idea of taking a “tour” of our own city. We used a church bus, I drove, and we met at 10 in the morning. A young man involved in urban development joined us as a guide for the day. He took us through neighborhoods and told us the stories of the city’s development.

We started at Sloss Furnace and heard about the history of the iron and steel industries and how they were the engines that drove the earliest development of Birmingham. Then it was on to lunch at a well-known, old “meat and three” restaurant, where we were joined by Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of the famous Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, as well as a professor from Samford.

After lunch we moved to the historic church where Rev. Price talked about the events in 1963 that changed the world. He talked about how it changed the church forever, too, and their current journey to find their mission for this time. We viewed pictures of the big stained glass window that withstood the bomb—with the exception of the face of Jesus, which was eerily blown out. Downstairs we looked at the clock that was in the sanctuary that day, its hands forever frozen at the moment of the blast.

We walked across the street to the Civil Rights Institute and experienced the next tumultuous period of Birmingham’s history, one that had shaped us until the present day. We were quiet as we moved past exhibits about Jim Crow days and newspaper chronicles of the massive changes that our city underwent in such a stressful time. We paused in front of the jail cell door behind which Martin Luther King had been locked when he wrote his famed “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to local moderate clergy, pleading with them to take a stand.

Next we moved to the Chamber of Commerce and had a lively hour with the interim director, Russell Cunningham, and one of his staff. We learned about the economic and political issues of the present in our city and region and how leaders are seeking to work together to make a difference. There were surprising things we did not know about the place where we live.

After this, we moved to a coffee shop in a popular tourist and entertainment area called Five Points and talked about what we had seen. The day ended with spouses joining us for dinner in another popular restaurant district where we ate, laughed, and enjoyed the day again.

We agreed at the end—we had enjoyed our own city with new eyes. Many in our group are fairly new to Birmingham, and it was a welcome introduction for them. We gained some insights that may help us in doing mission and ministry here. We also grew to be better friends by riding along and visiting as we learned.

Without leaving town, we saw some new worlds. We learned the shared past of the place where we live. We gained some insights that might help us in days to come. We became better comrades. All in all, it was a great day for us. It reminded us once again that, as Annie Dillard once put it in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, we are everyday trampling underfoot untold treasures, waiting for us to notice them and bend over to pick them up. That’s what we found right where we all are—a whole world of important things.

The Rev. Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and a member of a peer learning network sponsored by the Initiative for Ministerial Excellence, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This article originally appeared in the August issue of the Initiative’s online newsletter

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.