Monday, January 19, 2015

What I Learned From A Baptist Bishop

I didn't know who Bishop Calvin Woods was when my client called and asked me to write a video script celebrating his accomplishments. The video was for a series called History in Motion and is part of an award presented each year by Regions Bank during Black History Month. 

I set up an interview time, and on Tuesday afternoon, we met. Bishop Woods grinned when he saw me, and his smile was infectious. Although I extended my hand to him as I introduced myself, that sort of greeting seemed far too formal. At once, we hugged and laughed. I felt an immediate affinity for this 80-year old man who was clearly so full of love and joy.

Proof of Bishop Woods work in the 60s:
Jack and his friend TJ in 2006. They
met in preschool at age 2.5 and are still
best friends today. 
Sitting across a conference table, Woods' story quickly unfolded. He was a leader in the Alabama Christian Movement for Equal Rights, which was started by Rev. Shuttlesworth. Many people know of Calvin's older brother Rev. Abraham Woods, who served as the president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (A street in downtown Birmingham bears his name.) But Calvin, who began to preach at age 19, was right in there too. In 1958, he was arrested for encouraging his congregation to boycott riding buses in Birmingham. In 1963, he was beaten, arrested and hauled off to jail for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. Later that year, he delivered a list of conditions from ACMER to city hall, and helped negotiate the integration of Birmingham's white business sector.

By 1966, Birmingham was still one of the 10 most segregated cities in the country. Dr. Martin Luther King tapped Calvin Woods as one of ten SCLC City Conveners in the nation. As such, he helped educate Birmingham ministers in the practices of non-violent protest. (But make no mistake, Woods was not—and is not—a passive man.)

Throughout his interview, Bishop Woods attributed his life and accomplishments to God. This wasn't an act of feigned religiousity or humility. I can't even begin to explain what it was like to sit across from a human being who is so genuine and loving and unselfconscious. This man has seen and experienced things in his lifetime that should have left him bitter and shaken — or at least resentful and jaded. Instead he exuded a confidence and presence that contained both the wisdom of ages and childlike wonder. (When he told me he had visions of Jesus and speaks with angels on a regular basis, I believed him.)

In 1963, when Woods was doing hard labor for his "crime," I was an infant, not even a year old in Little Rock, Ark. (the scene of hotly contested desegregation at Central High School.) I was blissfully ignorant of the lives being risked — and lost — in the name of equanimity, not just for people of a certain color, but for everyone. I am still wrapping my head around the incredible feats of bravery and perseverance performed by the men and women who led and supported the Civil Rights Movement.  The fact that I grew up in a different world, a world were I am hardly aware of the sacrifices that were made back then, is a testament to what was accomplished.

Sure, our world is far from perfect. Since its beginnings, mankind has —for the most part — resolved its problems through force and violence. But something in our collective karma changed when those young men and women sat down at a lunch counter and asked to be served. Our primal responses shifted when children locked arms, ignoring the jeers and hateful words and worse being thrown at them as they marched through the streets of downtown Birmingham. Dr. King knew that non-reaction was a shield and a sword. And in a very definitive way, these non-violent protesters changed the world with ... peace. And the world watched (through the miracle of broadcast TV) and saw a truth that was so undeniable that centuries of fear and hatred were finally brought to light.

"We had no idea we would make an impact in the world," Woods said at the end of the interview. "But our work is never over. You can’t stop talking about love and faith and prayer." 

Despite the terrible violence in Paris this past month, the world my son Jack is growing up in is a still more peaceful, loving world because of the wisdom of Dr. King, Bishop Woods and all those who met hatred with love and compassion. But in the words of the good Bishop, "Our work is never over."

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