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Carolyn McKinstry: Choosing to Forgive

Church was a safe place for Carolyn. “My family’s entire social life revolved around the church,” recalls Carolyn. She was the Sunday school secretary - a position she held since the seventh grade. Her job was to compile the Sunday school report.

On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, fifteen year old Carolyn collected all the children’s records to finish the report. She headed towards the steps of the sanctuary but paused for a few minutes at the door to the girls’ restroom to greet her friends – Denise, Addie, Carole, and Cynthia. They were all combing their hair and getting ready to attend the 11:00 a.m. youth service. “See you later,” said Carolyn as she hurried up the stairs.

As Carolyn passed by the church office, she heard the phone ringing. She rushed inside and answered the phone. A male voice simply stated, “Three minutes.” Then he hung up. Puzzled at the call, Carolyn put the phone down and quickly made her way to the sanctuary. She remembers glancing at the clock – the time was 10:22 a.m. As she walked into the sanctuary she heard the blast. The noise shook the building. Then the chaos began. People were running to escape the building; Parents were searching for children; and others were bleeding from the broken glass.

Carolyn would later learn that under the pile of rubble in the bathroom lay her four dead friends. Carolyn’s brush with death had been close. The steps she had climbed only seconds before the blast had been demolished by the bomb. Her family did not talk about what had happened or why it had happened. Nothing was said – not at home, not at school and not at church. It seemed too painful for people to acknowledge.

Although Carolyn tried to process what happened at church on her own it would only get worse for her in the years to come. After the bombing the joy that Carolyn once enjoyed was no longer present. “My heart built a barrier that sealed off my hope, my happiness, and my very soul, just like the wall the church had built to seal off the restroom where the four girls perished,” shares Carolyn.

            In 1965, Carolyn left Birmingham to go to college at the all black Fisk University in Tennessee. On most days Carolyn felt depressed and sad, but she was not sure why. Sleep became a way of escape for Carolyn to deal with the constant sadness. She also began drinking a glass of wine or two to take the edge off her pain and help her forget. She told no one of her deep depression except God.

By 1973 Carolyn was married and had two daughters and she still struggled with depression. She began to drink stronger drinks to ease the pain. Each day Carolyn drank vodka. “I could easily drink half a bottle a day." She hid big bottles of vodka and gin all over the house.

One day, Carolyn had let her daughters go outside to play while she stayed inside to drink. One of her daughters ran into the street and was almost run over by a school bus. The neighbor came over and scolded Carolyn for not watching her children. Although Carolyn was angry that her neighbor had rushed to judgment, she knew she was right. Carolyn made a commitment to herself that day to change her self destructive behavior. She called out to God and asked him to deliver her from the strong addiction she had for many years. Over the next couple weeks Carolyn overcame her dependency for alcohol with God’s help and has never looked back.

In 2002, after almost four decades had passed since the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, Carolyn was served with a witness subpoena in the State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry case. Bobby was one of the Klan members involved with the bombing in 1963. During the trial, Carolyn had to relive the painful memories of the past. In the end, Cherry was convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

By God’s grace, Carolyn chose to forgive Bobby Frank Cherry, Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton, and George Wallace. Forgiving these men of their actions allowed Carolyn to move forward with the life God had planned for her. Although it has been a long process of forgiveness she says that by his grace she has sincerely forgiven all those who had such a negative impact on her young life. She says God has rewarded her by choosing to forgive. He has given her a ministry of love and reconciliation that would not be possible if bitterness still lived inside her heart.

That same year, Carolyn felt impressed upon by God to help raise funds for the needed repairs of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In a relatively short amount of time, almost $4 million was raised for the church repairs. Carolyn also played a role in helping the church earn the national historic landmark status.

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