Willie Waller

Willie died a few years ago but he wouldn’t mind me telling you his story, at least the part of it that has stuck with me. Willie and I met in February 1995 when I became the Director of Operations of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. South Highland Presbyterian is a beautiful building – built in phases in 1892, 1926, 1955, and 1996. The sanctuary and chapel are stunningly gorgeous.


In 1995 South Highland built a 25,000 square foot, $4 million dollar children’s building and renovated the existing facilities. It was a much-needed overhaul of the current buildings with a badly-needed structure designed for kids. South Highland had a glorious past but had struggled to retain its members so the children’s building was the church’s effort to tell those who moved to the suburbs that the church was very much alive with a vibrant program for kids. It worked – South Highland to this day is a wonderful church.


In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was racked by racial strife. City and county leadership didn’t want Blacks to have equal rights, equal education, equal opportunities, etc. In the midst of that tension, there were good relationships (but not equal) between individual Blacks and Whites – they were cordial and friendly to each other but there was a caste system between the two races. They lived on different sides of the railroad tracks and different sides of Red Mountain. In the 1960s, White Flight created the booming cities OTM (Over The Mountain, Red Mountain) which today form the business engine of north central Alabama. Willie grew up in a segregated and sometimes violent city.


Willie had already been the custodian at the church for 16 years when I got there. He was an institution: he knew all the members, he knew their cars and would get members out of worship if they left their car lights on; he knew how to run the building; he was THE caretaker of God’s house. Before coming to South Highland, Willie worked in one of the steel mills near Birmingham. That’s where breathed asbestos particles and developed a horrible illness which clogged his lungs. He got a monthly $300 check from the asbestosis lawsuit settlement but the illness shortened his life. He didn’t die from that though, his kidneys began to shut down and he had dialysis three times a week. The docs put a tube in his arm – that really grossed me out to see that tube. His death was greatly mourned by the mostly white congregants of South Highland – they still miss him today.


On to the story, my most painful story about Willie. During the renovation work in 1996, all the bathrooms got a makeover. There was one bathroom, literally under some stairs, that was impossible to re-do. When I man used it, he would hit his head on the angled ceiling (which was the downward angle of the stairs); women never used it because it was so bad. So I had that made into a mop-sink, janitor’s closet. It was perfect. There was floor sink and a faucet – I thought it was a great solution.


Shortly after that bathroom was completed, Willie came to my office. “Steve,” he said, “where should I use the bathroom now?” I didn’t understand the question. I told Willie that the church had sixteen bathrooms and he should use whichever one he wanted to, except the pastor’s private bathroom. Willie replied, “I can’t do that. See, I can only use the bathroom that you took away.” I still didn’t understand, “What do you mean you can only use that bathroom?” “Steve, when I started working here, I was told that the bathroom under the stairs is the only bathroom I could use and now you’ve done taken it away.”


I was stunned. The history of Birmingham’s Civil Rights struggles was now squarely in my face. This Black man, a very proud and dignified man, was told he could only use the “Colored Restroom” in the church and all the other bathrooms were for “Whites Only.” I sat there not knowing what to do, how to say what, and somewhere between anger and astonishment.

After 15 seconds of silence (which felt like minutes), I said, “Willie, you can use any bathroom in the entire church. Every bathroom here is available to you. And if anyone, and I mean anyone, says anything to you about you using a bathroom, you come tell me or Dana [the senior pastor, Dana Waters, a wonderful gentleman] and we’ll take it up with that person.”

Later, I told Dana about the conversation and he supported me and was equally incensed that one of God’s children, a servant in God’s house, would be relegated to second or third-class status. We agreed that we’d do our part, the right thing, to help erase Birmingham’s taint, if it ever came up – it never did. It was nice to know the church had grown up and moved on past those issues, at least in its building. At some point later, I saw Willie in bathrooms throughout the church – it was nice to see him using the “Whites Only” bathrooms.


I miss Willie. He brought home to me for one instant, for less than five minutes, the struggles that he endured for over 65 years. I’m sorry he experienced discrimination at all but it was disgraceful that he experienced any in God’s church. I was glad I could be part of giving grace back to a really, nice man, Willie Waller.


Lead On!

Francine Heard It

Francine heard it. She told me when I came to work that morning that the explosion rattled the windows throughout South Highland Presbyterian Church. After all, the church is only about six or seven blocks from the New Woman All Women Clinic. As the windows shook, a police officer lay dying and a nurse was critically wounded and Eric Rudolph fled Birmingham in a gray pickup truck. It would be years before he was discovered in North Carolina, living as a hermit in the forest, scouring dumpsters for food, and then tried and convicted for his entire life.

But he is not the story.


The blast also rattled Francine. It shook her bad. Because she remembered another explosion: Sunday, September 15, 1963 at 10:25 a.m. She was going to church, not to the 16th Street Baptist Church where the dynamite was planted but to another predominately African-American church.


Francine, now dead, was a church lady. She wore fancy clothes to church with a matching hat – she was quite a sight as an adult when she went to church. I’m sure she was poor – that was a common denominator for blacks in Birmingham in the 1960s – but she was also proud even on the day of her funeral in her fancy, going-to-meet-God clothes. She loved the church, I’m sure she loved God, too, but she really loved her church. To see and be seen – to talk and be talked about: that was church. Francine was a trip – fun to be around but sometimes she just got talking and you didn’t know the difference between fact and fancy. Sometimes she didn’t know either.


She told me about the day the bomb went off that killed four girls in the church bathroom as they were prettying themselves for church upstairs. They never made it. Sticks of dynamite rocked the foundation of the church and of the Black community. The white community, too, was horrified for the most part. But Birmingham had already started its white flight to the new cities of Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover adjoining Birmingham.


I moved to Birmingham in 1995. That’s when I met Francine and a whole lot of others who were there in the marches, saw the dogs and the water cannons. Both Black and White – I talked with them and learned about their lives. Bill French told me about the day his shoeshine man said, “Mr. Bill, don’t go down that street this afternoon. There’s gonna be trouble down there.” Odessa Woolfolk ran the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for its first five years and I heard her tell of life in Birmingham – sometimes known back then as Bombingham – in the 1960s.


My wife worked at Woman’s Missionary Union up on New Hope Mountain next to six-lane Hwy 280. A couple of miles from WMU, Hwy 280 crosses the Cahaba River. The new Hwy 280 bridge parallels the old two lane bridge which connects a Target shopping center with HealthSouth corporate offices. Under that small bridge four men plotted to blow up a church. I don’t know nor do I want to know the details of their planning, what was going through their minds, or how much hate it takes to plan destruction. Whatever they talked about under that bridge changed Birmingham and America forever.


For decades the men were not prosecuted. In 2001, District Attorney David Jones, pulled all the pieces together and took Thomas Blanton to court. I met DA Jones earlier when he prosecuted a man who tried to break in South Highland Presbyterian when I was there. Small world.


Blanton was convicted and sent to prison where he died a few years later. I went to see an hour of his trial before a lunch recess was called. I passed through the metal detectors, entered the courtroom floor and found a seat on the second row. I was just a few feet from the accused. He was quiet, let his lawyer do the talking, and just sat there. I wondered what he was thinking – but I really didn’t care. He convicted himself by the actions that carried out his 1963 thoughts. I went because I knew this was Birmingham history and I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see if this old man had any compassion or remorse. Thomas Blanton didn’t seem to care one whit.


A couple of years passed and I changed jobs to Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. It is in Homewood, about 10 miles from 16th Street Baptist Church. While I was there, the family of Denise McNair joined the church – Denise was killed at 16th Street Baptist. They were active members and involved in the life of the church. I didn’t get to know them before I left town – I just knew they were good church folk.


In forty years Birmingham has changed – an African-American family with a widely known name joining a mostly white congregation. Birmingham has come a long way – Dawson has had an African-American deacon chair. Birmingham is better but it still has a long way to go. It is a strange circle of ripples that I saw played out in front of me while I was there. I got to see people who were personally involved in the events of 1963. Four men and women – four girls – four ripples.


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Tony and Tommie Lee

I hired Tony as a custodian a few months after I came to South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Nell told me I had to hire him – that he was a solid worker and would do things right the first time. Tommie Lee was a kitchen worker and had been at the church forever – all work at the church stopped Wednesdays at noon so everyone could get some of Tommie Lee’s rolls (one of the best perks I’ve ever had).


On a Thursday morning in winter, Tony came into my office first thing. He said that the night before, he gave Tommie Lee a ride home. They had locked up the church and left after dark. Tony said that a block from the church his car was stopped by three police cars. The cops drew their guns and told Tony and Tommie Lee to get out. The cops wanted to know why two Black people were leaving a white church. With guns still on him, Tony said they were employees of the church. He looked in his wallet and found a pay stub with the church’s name on it. The cops accepted that explanation and left them.


By the end of that day I created ID cards for my African-American staff. The white staff didn’t need them, not in Birmingham. I had never before or since created ID cards for church staff. On a couple of occasions after that, my staff had to show their IDs.


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The Triangles

Richmond – Liverpool – Benin

  • Richmond sent tobacco and other goods to Liverpool which sent trading goods to Benin and West Africa which sent enslaved people to Richmond.
  • An awful triangle which led to some 12 million humans being removed from their homes and forced in permanent unpaid labor.
  • The Reconciliation Statue is in each of these three places.


Birmingham – Selma – Montgomery

  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail by MLK, Jr asks white ministers why they aren’t outraged at what caused demonstrations. Just five months later, four girls were killed while attending church.
  • Selma’s famed bridge is named for a CSA soldier. Why does it still have that name? Why doesn’t the bridge honor Congressman John Lewis who was beaten on that bridge on Bloody Sunday?
  • Montgomery has Dexter Ave Baptist Church where MLK, Jr was pastor. As of April 2018, it also has the Memorial for Peace and Justice. It honors over 4,000 people who were lynched. 800 steel monuments are permanent placed in the memorial. There are counterparts waiting for 800 counties to claim and display their monument and tell the stories of the lynchings in their boundaries.


If you can’t visit those triangles, then make one visit – to the African-American Museum in Washington, DC. Spend a full day there. Absorb the full story. And, when you’re done – ask someone, anyone of a skin color different from yours, to tell you their story. Listen deeply.


Lead On!



For the past 25 years I’ve lived in 2 cities: Birmingham, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia. These two are integral to African-American history in the US. Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America and one of the centers of the slave trade. Birmingham was founded after the Civil War but was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement and infamously had a bombing in September 1963 which killed four girls who were at their church (the family of one of those girls worshiped at a church where I worked).


Bombingam – it will be a hundred years before it lives down that name – is still living its racist history. Here’s what I witnessed living there from 1995-2005

  • A bombing of a women’s clinic just six blocks from a church I worked at. The bombing killed a police officer and maimed a nurse.
  • I regularly drove on a bridge under which the 1963 bombing was planned
  • I attended briefly the trial of one of the 1963 bombers. The prosecutor is current US Senator Doug Jones; his opponent this November is an ardent support of Donald Trump. Doug will probably lose – to a man who endorses a racist president.
  • I supervised dozens of African-Americans. I always treated them with the same respect I treated everyone else – the way I wanted to be treated.


  • Hollywood Cemetery is the final resting place of over 18,000 CSA soldiers and it has a CSA flag (not the battle flag)
  • Monument Ave was a real estate venture in 1920 and to attract home builders, they erected statues of CSA generals, all sons of Virginia. Those statues honor men who were traitors to the USA. A few years ago a statue of Arthur Ashe was added, but the rest of Virginia’s history is completely ignored on Monument Ave.
  • Maggie Walker got a statue in the city a few years ago. She was the first female bank president and the first African-American bank president. But it took almost a century after her death for her to be honored.


These cities have scars. Your city has scars, too. They may be covered up (16th St Baptist Church was repaired after the bombing) or they may be on a pedestal (as Robert E Lee is in Richmond), but they’re there. Acknowledge the scars, learn from them, talk about them with others. Never forget what made the scars lest you cause more scars.


Lead On!


Church Finances during COVID-19 (part 1 of 5)

Issues to address immediately:

  1. Online giving – if you don’t have it, get it now. My currently preferred vendor is Tithely. They can get you set up in a few hours (they say they can do it in minutes but…). Then, promote the heck out of your online giving.
  2. Audio & video technology – This crisis has forced many churches to acknowledge their AV equipment wasn’t ready. PLEASE invest more money into this area. You won’t regret it. After this is over you’ll have really good microphones. With your video equipment, you can improve or launch an online service so that members can watch you whether they’re homebound, traveling, sick, in a retirement community, or just want to watch the service again during the week.
  3. Paycheck Protection Program – the $2.2 trillion CARES Act (and its related additional acts) provide churches federal money. This is the first time the US government has offered money to faith groups. Fill out the forms, work with your local banker, and get the money. If you don’t need or want the money – get it anyway. You can always
    1. Return the money later
    2. Give it to a non-profit that you partner with
    3. Use it for missions in your community


I think every church in the world has realized the need for those two things. These are no longer “wants” but actual needs. Yes, it will cost some money but it may be the difference in survival and closing your doors.

Lead On!


Listen to the podcast:

An Expensive Football

Years ago my church had an auction to raise money for a summer missions trip for the youth. It was a big event – it took two days to stage, the youth were waiters, we had a professional auctioneer (he donated his services), it was an event! One of the live auction items was a football signed by a nationally known coach who was a legend in the state. The football started at $100







At this point everyone dropped out except for one older man and a younger man whose 10-year old son was sitting beside him. The boy was incredibly excited about the prospect of getting this football.







The father bid again, $4,000

The other man bid $4,500


The father looked down at his son, shook his head and said he couldn’t go any higher. The son was crushed. He hung his head and was terribly disappointed.

The auctioneer awarded the bid to the older gentleman who came forward, wrote a check, and was handed the prized football. The man looked at the football and walked to the boy and handed him the ball. “It’s yours.” And he left.

This is a completely true story – you can’t make up this stuff.

Lead On!



When I was a poor college student I had barely enough to get by. I certainly didn’t have any money to tithe. And when the offering plate was passed, I wanted to give but I couldn’t. I had no financial margin in my life.

One Sunday morning I walked from my parking spot to the church and noticed on a ground a $10 bill. I put it in my wallet knowing I could use it for a meal or some expense. Before going too far I felt a nagging question (from God? Probably): why don’t you put this found money in the offering plate.

I sat through the service and when the plate was passed, I passed. The money never left my wallet. I felt guilty afterward – I was given money, I was asked to give it away, and I didn’t.

That was almost 40 years ago but I remember it quite well. The lesson I’ve tried to learn is to be generous whenever I can. Opportunities will appear out of nowhere and you’ll be asked to give. Do it – you won’t regret being generous but you will regret being stingy. I still do.

Lead On!