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Church Bombing Survivor Shares Story of Love

Through affliction, Carolyn McKinstry found God’s love. She now uses the story of her painful role in the civil rights movement to help others work toward reconciliation, she told Belmont students Wednesday at a convocation lecture.

“We have all heard about the love that forgives, and we have here today someone who models that and works toward racial reconciliation,” said Vice President for Spiritual Development Todd Lake. The Office of Spiritual Development and the Martin Luther King Jr. Week Committee co-sponsored the convocation “Costly Discipleship.”

In 1963, then 14-year-old McKinstry was primping for Youth Sunday at 16th Street Baptist Church in a downstairs bathroom with her friends Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. She left the other girls to fulfill her role as the Sunday school secretary in an upstairs office. McKinstry answered a ringing office phone to hear a man’s voice saying, “three minutes.” Shortly thereafter, a bomb exploded, killing her four friends. The attack on the church garnered national headlines and marked a turning point in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That day’s sermon was to come from Luke 23 and 24 with a focus on “A Love that Forgives,” she said, but it took McKinstry several decades to find forgiveness through God’s love. During her youth, McKinstry marched with King and faced Bull Connor’s German Shepherds and fire hoses yet faced depression (Connor was the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala. who directed the use of fire hoses and police dogs against peaceful demonstrators). The bombing tragedy became McKinstry’s “springboard for reconciliation,” she said.

McKinstry attended Fisk University and Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. She eventually became chaplain at a Birmingham hospital that years earlier had placed her sick grandmother in its basement with little treatment because she was black.

“I was to show the love and compassion to others – regardless of religion, race and ethnicity – that was not shown to her,” McKinstry said. “I learned that I can take the life that God has put in front of me and live it according to his will.”

She since has appeared on television and radio programs around the world and was featured in Spike Lee’s documentary Four Little Girls and movie Sins of the Father.