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Selma Churches Remember a Very Different Palm Sunday 50 Years Ago

Christine S. Weerts

Christine S. Weerts - published on 03/26/15

Once segregated parishes look back at changes in race relations

The Palm Sunday processional at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama, will begin — as it always does — at the doors of the century-old church. This year, the wide-open doors will welcome to the service members of St. Paul’s as well as members of African American Episcopal parishes: St. Mark’s in Birmingham and Church of the Good Shepherd in Montgomery and Selma’s Brown Chapel AME.

Fifty years ago, those doors were shut twice to African Americans and out-of-town Episcopalians who sought to worship with the all-white congregation.

We are very excited about the service," said Rev. Carolyn Foster, a deacon at St. Mark’s. "It is important to get past the shame and guilt of that time and move forward."

The Palm Sunday service, a reading of the Passion and a Litany of reconciliation, is a time for the church family to remember those sins of the past and present, as well as celebrate the work of Christ in opening hearts — and doors to all people, said Rector Jack Alvey.

"The fact that we can tell this story today today is liberating because we open ourselves up to the good news of Jesus Christ; good news that says God is in the business of transformation.

"To see men and women of all races kneeling together at the altar reminds us we are all part of the problems in the world and only with God’s help can we live in a society that is truly one with God," Alvey said.

Fifty years ago, the City of Selma drew thousands of people of all faiths when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a witness to support voting rights for blacks. He issued his call after sheriff deputies and state troopers attacked peaceful marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, sending 100 to the hospital on March 7, 1965, a day called "Bloody Sunday."

A week later, the Episcopalian clergy, including members of the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity, and Seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was helping in the civil rights campaign (and in August 1965 was killed for his activism), as well as rectors and lay members from St. Mark’s in Birmingham, and children from a local housing project showed up at St. Paul’s. The doors were shut by members of the church vestry serving as ushers.

Not all St. Paul members agreed with the action. About 25 members walked out of the church that morning and said a prayer with the visitors at the closed doors.

On March 21, 1965, the doors were shut again to "outside agitators." Finally, after much soul searching, prayer, and relying on the strength of the canon law — which states that no Episcopalian should be turned away from any parish — the vestry voted to open its doors to all people. On March 28, 1965, the doors opened to all and the work of reconciliation began in earnest.

It was not without pain. Several members of the vestry and church left St. Paul’s and never returned, rather than agree to integration. At the same time, other members stood up for justice. Wrote one of the  visitors denied entrance earlier in March: "What I remember most about the church visit was the position of a local lady, elegant and ramrod straight, a member of the parish, accompanied by what appeared to be her professionally dressed son. She took on the men with crossed arms and let them know that if we were forbidden to enter, then she would stand outside with us."

On Sunday, clergy and parishioners will stop at the steps, where the delegation was blocked from worship, and "will name and recognize that we are all responsible for the systems of injustice and hate in our world."

"The Palm Sunday service will signify our commitment to find common ground in a faith that believes

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