The Life-Changing Power of Forgiveness

It was Youth Sunday at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—September 15, 1963. Fifteen-year-old Carolyn Maull was on her way to the sanctuary when she paused for a moment at the door to the girls’ restroom. Four of her friends—Denise, Addie, Carole, and Cynthia—were in front of the mirror getting ready for the 11:00 am service. 

After greeting her friends, Carolyn continued on her way, running up the stairs to the sanctuary. The telephone was ringing in the church office, so she rushed inside to answer the call. Before Carolyn could say a word, a male voice on the other end of the line said, “Three minutes” and immediately hung up.

Then, in Carolyn’s words: 

I walked into the sanctuary, toward the stained glass window of Jesus, his kind face and loving eyes focused on me, and that’s when I heard it. Boom! The blast shook the church.

The blast shook the nation. Carolyn’s four friends were killed in the explosion, tensions escalated, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing became one of the most pivotal moments in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. 

The blast shook Carolyn’s world:

Our society still had a long way to go, of course, but in the early days of September 1963, I felt genuine hope about the future. . .I was smart, talented, and I loved my school and my church. I had my family and lots of good friends. Life was good. . .That sense of well-being was shattered the instant the bomb went off. . . the day I grew up.

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I (Steve) grew up in rural West Virginia. Like Carolyn, I felt genuine hope about the future and for all the same reasons. Life was good. Unlike Carolyn, the violence of the early 1960s entered my world through images on a TV screen—troubled times ‘out there’ somewhere, but far removed from the safety of my small-town life.

Fast forward over fifty years. I walk into a lecture hall at Duke for Session 1 of the 2016 Summer Institute for Reconciliation. I grab an empty seat and introduce myself to the woman sitting next to me. “Carolyn, from Birmingham,” she replies. “Nice to meet you.” Her eyes were kind and our conversation was easy, so when the time came for our lunch break, I asked if I could sit with her. She agreed and so it began: two lives lived from totally different trajectories intersecting over sandwiches in a cafeteria at Duke.

I’m posting this on Sunday, September 15, 2019—exactly 56 years since that Sunday bombing in Birmingham. I’ve never forgotten Carolyn Maull McKinstry or the incredibly positive impact her life and story have had on my own. Specifically:

  • The hard work of forgiveness, which for Carolyn has been a costly, painful, and liberating process. 

  • The power of love, which for Carolyn is active, barrier-breaking, and world-changing.

  • The significance of small acts, which for Carolyn means you and I have the power and responsibility to bring healing to our homes, our neighbors, our cities, and our world. 

I’ve also never forgotten my promise to Carolyn in 2016 that I would share her story with others. While I’ve shared it many times in the context of workshops on forgiveness and reconciliation, this is the first time I’ve passed it along in printed form. Fortunately, Carolyn’s own writing makes that task easier. The excerpts below are Carolyn’s, from her book While the World Watched. Consider this post your glimpse into Carolyn’s heart. Then go on and get this powerful story in its entirety; pick up her book.

The Hard Work of Forgiveness 

A quick ‘Steve note’: Forgiveness is always hard work. But in this case, the extent of violence and harm, the lack of justice (which would have been a mitigating factor—only one attacker was convicted, 38 years after the bombing), and the reality that no one talked about it after the fact (no trauma teams) all highlight just how against-the-grain Carolyn’s forgiveness was. And by the same token: how important and how healing her forgiveness still is.

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Carolyn:

In the time immediately after the church bombing, no one spoke of the tragedy or the girls who died. Not the afternoon of the bombing. Not that night. Not the next day or the next month or the next year...It was like the word cancer. No one wanted to say it out loud or acknowledge it. And with the restroom “death chamber” [at the church] sealed off and walled up, offering no visible reminder of the bombing, it was almost as if it never happened.

I cried regularly for twenty years after the bombing. Every time I saw something that reminded me of my friends’ deaths, I relived all the past pain and sorrow. 

In my anger and hurt, I became dependent on alcohol to numb my inner pain, and I couldn’t sleep at night. I spent years struggling with depression and strained relationships before I was finally able to release this hatred that I harbored in my heart…

I’ll never forget the day I fell on my knees and prayed a specific prayer of surrender: “Please, God, give me the strength to put it all down…” That prayer was the beginning of the healing process for me. I made a conscious choice that day to forgive the men who had caused me, my family, my friends, and my community such fear and pain.

I still had much to learn about forgiveness, however—that was only the first step. I had a lot of growing and maturing to do, and they didn’t happen overnight. Even now, when my memory returns to those dark, frightening times, I must go back to God in prayer...to help me see offending people through his eyes, not my own...

Once I forgave, the burden I had carried in my heart lifted...When I stepped into the witness box in that courtroom some forty years after Bobby Cherry had bombed my church, I looked at the man in a different way. Though I was still afraid of him, I could also see another side to him. He looked like an old, tired—albeit hate-filled—grandfather...

I know all of us are capable of evil, but I also believe that as people made in God’s image, there is also good in all of us. Surely we must become intentional in looking for that good.

The Power of Love

Steve: The ‘power of love’ isn’t something sentimental. It isn’t a feel-good thing. It’s active. It works. In Carolyn’s story, love counters fear and retaliation. In spite of pain, and in the context of repeated offenses of a similar nature, Carolyn not only sees the good but chooses to act out her own good. In spite of everything, she loves.

Photo by  John Morse

Photo by John Morse

Carolyn:

Above all, genuine love does something—it never sits back and watches. Compassion doesn’t require a large committee or a formal, organized approach. You and I can each become a “committee of one.” 

One of the biggest lessons in forgiveness I’ve learned is that God has called me—and each of us—to care for our neighbors…

In order to truly love our neighbors, we have to get to know them. As we live and work and commute in the course of our busy everyday lives, we often miss opportunities to truly connect with the people who live around us. We can become so comfortable and protected in our own comfort zones that we fail to reach out to neighbors who are different from us. Genuine love sees beyond the external differences and finds the similarities of another’s heart.

The Significance of Small Acts

Steve: It’s incredibly easy to lose hope in the face of such big, violent, pervasive issues. The path of least resistance is despair. But as Carolyn showed me over lunch, we make an impact through small acts—one conversation at a time, with our stories. 

Carolyn:

Governments and organizations haven’t been able to erase human suffering on earth. I have come to understand that hearts must be changed one person at a time in order to truly put racial prejudices and violence behind us. 

The better way—the only way—is the personal way, The only hope for true transformation is for concerned, compassionate individuals to stop watching and decide to become ambassadors of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation…

Only God can change hearts, but he can use us and our stories to reach out and touch those in need of healing...We as a people can no longer be silent. We must speak out in love and speak out against those things that hurt others...


Now it is time to prove what love will do. 


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at admin@cstevebeck.com.