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Selma’s faith community seeks racial healing

[QUOTE@right@180=“We’re trying to find ways to get people in Selma to truly know one another.” — Juana Maxwell of One Selma: Coming Home United in Faith]SELMA, Ala. (BP) — When Jerry Light moved to Selma to become pastor of First Baptist Church several years ago, he was surprised that only two African American churches identified as Southern Baptist.

“It bothered me because Baptists are always missions-minded — both locally and abroad,” Light said. “I know Selma has a racial stigma hanging over it but that was a long time ago and we need to move beyond it.”

Light and First Baptist began making a concerted effort to reduce some of the divides in Selma, a city of 20,000 where more than 75 percent of the residents are African American.

Among the first steps: First Baptist hosted a joint Vacation Bible School with an African American church in town.

And Light met Juanda Maxwell, a member of Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma.

Together, Light and Maxwell spearheaded an organization named One Selma: Coming Home United in Faith, a group that began meeting last fall with the aim of lessening the Alabama town’s racial divide by starting with the local faith community.

“In a conversation [Juanda and I had] one day over the phone, we hatched the idea of having a unity march,” Light recounted.

The Unity Walk, which took place in March, attracted about 2,000 participants and commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 peaceful protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery were met by Alabama state troopers and a mounted group with billy clubs, cattle prods and tear gas.

Light and Maxwell advocated for the march to take place toward — rather than away from — Selma to “show that as a community we’re together and headed home,” Light said.

The pastor said the march opened his and Maxwell’s eyes to the appetite for change in Selma. From there they worked with Sony Pictures to bring a showing of the movie “War Room” to Selma, which also proved to be a success.

They then started planning their next initiative, Return to Worship Week, a community-wide and denominationally inclusive outreach to encourage people to go to church — any church — in Selma during the week of Sept. 13-19, whether it entailed re-engaging in or experiencing church for the first time or, for church members, inviting friends and family. It was called Return to Worship Week, Light said, because not all churches worship on Sundays.

Local churches joined together, put up yard signs and distributed door hangers to publicize Return to Worship Week. A banner also was hung on City Hall.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was among the churches that embraced Return to Worship Week, hosting an ice cream social after the worship service Sept. 13. Rector Jack Alvey said the event brought some people who had been absent from the congregation for some time along with a handful of visitors.

“It just was amazingly wonderful and good for Selma,” Maxwell said of Return to Worship Week.

“All of these [events] are steps toward a goal, which we feel is inspired by our Lord. And we’re working together, that’s the best part of it — working together black and white,” she said.

“We’re trying to find ways to get people in Selma to truly know one another,” Maxwell noted. “The only way we think you can effectively do this is through the faith community. Our faith and our service in Christ — that’s the only way to change it, the only way we can actually do something that will last.”

Light said the “next tangible project is having a minister’s conference for all the ministers in Selma. … We want everyone to be a part of this event.”

Alvey, of St. Paul’s, said, “I believe there is a hunger for improved race relations in Selma, and I think some of that hunger comes from the fact that for 50 years Selma has been painted in a very negative light in that department.

“I have also perceived the Spirit working in Selma to show the world how the Good News of Jesus Christ can reconcile people of all races and colors,” Alvey said. “I feel that Selma, led by the church communities, is starting to live in that reality and God has certainly provided rich possibilities for reconciliation.”

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  • Anna Keller/The Alabama Baptist