WASHINGTON—Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT) has issued a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The Christian leaders, who gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, to examine the relationship between poverty and racism, noted that no one has ever issued a clergy response to King's famous letter. King's letter was an answer to a message from a group of clergy in Birmingham in 1963. In their “Call for Unity,” the clergy appealed for restraint and "common sense," and a withdrawal of support for the civil rights demonstrations.
In their one-page letter, the church leaders remember with gratitude the sacrifices of the leaders of the civil rights movement, who demonstrated the power of Christian, nonviolent action. They also express repentance that “some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy.”
Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, a member of the CCT steering committee, represented the Committee on Cultural Diversity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at the meeting.
“During the struggles of the civil rights movement, Birmingham was one of the most segregated and violent cities in America. Today, the city of Birmingham is filled with monuments, places of worship, and home to the Civil Rights Institute,” Bishop Vasquez said. “I had the opportunity to visit these places; however, most significant to me were the stories and personal testimony given by those who suffered the injustices of racism and segregation. These individuals were filled with prophetic courage, even to the point of sacrificing their own personal safety to bring about equality and justice. Their non-violent efforts to confront racism are deeply rooted in Gospel values that all men and women, regardless of color, are created in the likeness and image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect and dignity.”
At a general meeting in 2004, the Catholic bishops voted to participate in CCT with the understanding that one of the five families of churches that make up the organization would be reserved for USCCB representatives. The other four families are composed of the historic Protestant, Orthodox, African American, and the Evangelical/Pentecostal churches, making CCT the most inclusive ecumenical forum in the country. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, currently serves as one of the five presidents of CCT.
In addition to Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Vasquez, the 12 USCCB representatives include Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange, California; Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts; Father James Massa and Paulist Father Ron Roberson of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Alejandro Aguilera-Titus and Beverly Carroll of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church; Maryknoll Sister Joan Delaney; Father Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligious officer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Paulist Father John Hurley, executive director of the Department of Evangelization of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; and Sister of Mercy Ana Maria Pineda, professor in the Religious Studies Department of Santa Clara University. Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Samra were unable to attend the meeting in Birmingham due to travel disruptions caused by wintry weather in the region.
In addition, Ronaldo Cruz of Pax Christi, former executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, gave an address on racism from a Latino perspective.