Last week was the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In September 1963, in the wake of serious gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, the KKK plotted a deadly act of racialized terror. In their typically cowardly way, they planted a bomb beneath a church, which exploded just as a group of little girls were getting ready for a service. Four of those girls died instantly, becoming in the words of Dr. King, “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
Yet there was a fifth little girl in that bathroom. Her name is Sarah Collins Rudolph, and she lived.
She was found in the rubble, her body riddled with shards of glass and debris. It took months of recovery, and to this day, glass remains in the eye she did not lose. Trauma counseling was not commonplace in those days, so she was simply sent back to school and encouraged to carry on. Little surprise, then, that she didn’t speak about the bombing for decades, not until she was in her 40s and desired to begin the work of healing.
I met Ms. Rudulph this spring, when she joined the participants of our Civil Rights Pilgrimage for dinner. She is a quiet, reserved woman, clearly still haunted by the horrific violence she somehow survived. She is also extraordinarily courageous, for she now spends much of her time sharing her experiences with groups like ours. Can you imagine replaying the worst event of your life over and over to strangers? Yet tell it she does, in hopes that we will not forget the evils of our segregated past, nor tolerate anything less than liberty and equal justice for all.
Of all the living saints we met on that pilgrimage, I continue to think of Ms. Rudolph the most. She was very much on my mind this past week, and not only because of the anniversary of the bombing. I’ve been wrestling lately with the idea of repair. Jesus had a lot to say about repair, or to use another word, reconciliation, and we would do well to think about it a lot, too.
Repair obviously means to fix something, and in the realm of human relationships, repair requires meaningful acts of apology, penance, and restitution. A victim may choose to forgive the one who hurt her (as Ms. Rudolph has), yet repair has not occurred until something real and genuine has been done to right the wrong. Until then, while life may go on, the wound will remain, like the glass that remains in her eye.
What does repair look like for Ms. Rudolph, and all the other victims of racialized violence in our country? Is it enough that we passed a series of laws expanding civil and voting rights (laws that continue to be regularly threatened in courts and legislatures)? Or given that racial injustice and violence were woven deeply into our national life for hundreds of years, in ways that continue to be felt today, does the work of repair demand more?
Healthy people and healthy societies are good at repair. They have the humility to admit when they were wrong, and courage to do the work it takes to make things right. Sometimes the work of righting old wrongs is simple and straightforward. Sometimes, though, it is big and costly, because the wrong was big and costly.
Psychologists know that a failure to truly repair a wrong leaves festering emotional wounds, because we never properly heal from our trauma. Like the glass still lingering in Ms. Rudolph’s eye, even decades later we will go on suffering the effects of whatever terrible thing we experienced. No matter how loudly people tell us to “move on,” without repairing the damage, we will not become whole again. But when people are brave and mature enough to do the work of repair, the final pieces of glass can be removed from our eyes, and we can begin to see a better future.