By Emma Welch
A Congregation’s Hope for Liberation
Beloved Community Church is a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ’s Southeast Conference located at 131 41st Street South in Avondale. Beloved Community Church began in 1999 as a place for those in the community who felt out of place in the church to come and worship without fear of judgement. The congregation purchased the spacious former Avondale Masonic Lodge, designed in 1908 by David O. Whilidin, what would then be called an inner-city neighborhood just two miles from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As Avondale has gentrified into a hip neighborhood of restaurants, breweries, and concert venues, Beloved has maintained its now prominent location. It is known for its community outreach programs and fight for social justice, as well as its racial diversity and the inclusivity of all sexual orientations in its congregation and clergy. Beloved Community Church has a history of standing up for equality and embracing people from all kinds of backgrounds. The congregation’s focus is on the liberation of God’s people — which is to say, all people — and the pursuit of the betterment of the Avondale community and beyond. In order to get a full picture of Beloved’s history and footprint within the Avondale religious community, we must look at some of their foci.
Beloved Community is a major voice in the Avondale community on racial justice and equality. On October 19, 2019, a meeting was held at Beloved Community Church regarding racial equality with a racially diverse group of more than sixty people. Reverend Jennifer Sanders “said the commitment to racial justice is the core of the church due to its interracial congregation” (Dunigan 2016).
Not only does Beloved engage in conversations with the larger community, but it brings these topics into its congregational events. In 2017, their liberation theology study group discussed an African-American focus with the facilitation of noted womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Beloved’s Wednesday night Bible study at the time also combined “an in-depth look at Scripture, American history, and the music and lyrics of six African American spirituals” (Beloved Community Church 2017).
The last example to mention here is the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Beloved Community Church members were among those in attendance. Denyse Thornley-Brown went to the event in order to “celebrate the faith and determination of those who marched 50 years ago.” Reverend Angie Wright remarks that “Bloody Sunday brought to light state-sanctioned violence against blacks and the power of God’s liberating spirit to bring an end to that violence and bondage” (Southeast Conference United Church of Christ 2015).
Another group of people Beloved seeks to liberate are immigrants to the United States. In August, a letter signed by forty-seven religious leaders within the Birmingham area was released calling for the protection and sanctuary of the immigrant community. The letter states “We believe that our ethical and theological commitments require us to take a stand against policies and language that dehumanize our immigrant siblings” (Sanders 2019). In this letter, these church leaders state that they will offer immigrants sanctuary, or if they are unable, will offer support for the churches that do. Further, they denounce the targeting and harm of our neighbors as it is not in line with the message of Christ as they know it, regardless of immigration status.
The last group that I will mention is the LGBTQ+ community. This group has long faced discrimination and outright contempt by religious institutions and congregants alike. Beloved Community offers a place for this community to worship God free of fear, judgement, and hatred. This is underscored by the fact that Reverend Jennifer Sanders herself is one of the few openly-gay clergy members in the state of Alabama. Unsurprisingly, there was pushback from the community in response to her taking the pastorship at Beloved. On October of 2016, a protest took place outside of Beloved Community Church. Reverend Sanders spoke to “a family of street preachers with signs that said REPENT OR PERISH” and offered water and chairs. Her response to those who reject accepting people in the church – including LGBTQ+ people – is “Here at Beloved, we will keep preaching a theology of inclusion, of radical fellowship, and of committed love and truth and speaking truth with love” (Garrison 2016). Christ did not ignore the outcasts, but accepted and loved them. Therefore, the church – as the embodiment of Christ – should do the same.
Beloved Community Church ministers to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the outcasts. It makes a home for those who otherwise might not feel comfortable in churches elsewhere. This is seen in the congregation’s support and demonstrated love for the groups mentioned above: for people of all races, for immigrants, and for the LGBTQ+ community. Their social activism and message of inclusivity have grown out of their hope for liberation – the liberation of all of God’s people. They have pioneered a path in their walk with Christ and continue to guide and support others in their walks toward a liberated, loving, and truly accepting world. A world “where all would joyfully share hope, comfort, dignity and freedom, so that the ways of the God of compassion and restorative justice would live on earth as in heaven” (Higgs 2016).
Beloved Community Church
Address: 131 41st St S, Birmingham, AL 35222
Congregation Organized: 1999
Affiliation: United Church of Christ
Beloved Community Church: A Diverse, Inclusive, Grace-Filled Community of People Following Jesus. 2017. “Category Archives: Bible Study” March 9, 2017. http://www.belovedcommunitychurch.org/category/bible-study/.
Dunigan, Jonece Starr. 2016. “Church Meeting Shows Diversity in Black Lives Matter Movement.” AL.com. Last modified January 13, 2019. https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2016/10/church_meeting_shows_diversity.html.
Garrison, Greg. 2016. “Protesters Picket New Avondale Pastor: Here’s Her Response.” AL.com. Last modified October 21, 2019. https://www.al.com/living/2016/10/protesters_picket_new_avondale.html.
Higgs, Lawton. 2016. “Lenten Reflection from Rev. Lawton Higgs: Praxis.” March 21, 2016. http://www.belovedcommunitychurch.org/lenten-reflection-from-rev-lawton-higgs-praxis/.
Sanders, Jennifer. 2019. “An Interfaith Proclamation of Sanctuary” August 13, 2019. http://www.belovedcommunitychurch.org/author/jennifer/.
Southeast Conference United Church of Christ. 2015. “Reflections on Selma.” April 9, 2015. https://www.secucc.org/2015/04/09/reflections-on-selma/.
BHAM Wiki. 2016. “Beloved Community Church” October 19, 2016. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Beloved_Community_Church.
Garrison, Greg. 2016. “Avondale Church Elects Lesbian Pastor with a Message of Inclusion.” Al.com. Last modified March 6, 2019. https://www.al.com/living/2016/10/avondale_church_elects_lesbian.html.
Published October 31, 2019
Emma Welch ’20 is a religion major in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Samford University.