By Erica Wright
For the Birmingham Times
The Rev. Ron Higey is certified as both a pastor and a counselor. That helped with the healing process for his Birmingham International Church 13 years ago, when it was known as Vestavia Alliance Church.
He researched the church’s history and found that, when located in downtown Birmingham, it once refused to host the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the civil rights movement: “Our church was one Dr. King wanted to visit, and he was not allowed to enter.”
Higey has set out to correct past lapses and diversify the congregation.
First, he and his wife, Judy, transformed the Vestavia Hills–based congregation from traditional southern white to one with members from 22 different countries.
Second, discussions are held that many churches normally don’t address openly. He began a “Let’s Talk” series that focuses on a broad range of issues, such as politics, the LGBTQ community, cultural prejudice, and health care. Though it just started this year, his goal is to have six a year.
On Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, at 10:30 a.m. at the Birmingham International Church, Higey will host a conversation on race relations. Seating is limited to 75 people, and the cost is $5 to cover refreshments.
“For the races to come together, you have to be in each other’s worlds,” he said. “We want to create a healthy, safe environment where people can talk.”
Some may consider Higey a “cultural activist.”
But, he said, “I don’t do things because of that. I do things because they’re right. My calling from God is to make a difference where I live. That’s why I want to be an international church and continue to grow and change people’s perceptions. If we can do it here, we can do it elsewhere.”
Cultural Melting Pot
Both the church and perceptions have changed.
When Higey first arrived at the church, he encouraged everyone to pray for people of all backgrounds to attend. After three years, a Chinese group came and stayed for five years.
“During that time, God brought other cultures into our congregation, as well, including a Kenyan congregation, Hispanics, Koreans. When you look at every country that uses the building together, 22 different countries are represented in the church,” he said.
The Birmingham International Church has lived up to its name as a cultural melting pot. Once a month, the church has a combined worship service and a meal afterward, during which all the cultures socialize. The church also has a joint committee made up of members from all cultures to help with relations and troubleshooting to guard against slights, Higey said.
‘Spirit of Fear’
Higey has taken other bold steps, too, after his research revealed some surprising details about the church’s history.
The church was founded in the late-1940s as the Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle; it was located across from the current Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Birmingham. In the 1950s, the then-pastor and congregants took strong stands against political corruption in the city and were involved in supporting various ministries, such as the Jimmie Hale Mission.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the church seemed to shift, changing from one with a spirit of healing and helping to one with of a “spirit of fear,” Higey said.
“Our church was one Dr. King wanted to visit, and he was not allowed to enter,” he said. “When we look back, we just realize the church gave into a spirit of fear because prior to that they were very socially active.”
After that period, the church began to steadily decline, losing half of its congregation in the 60s.
“I interviewed people, both black and white, and a lot of them said during that era everyone was afraid, so it wasn’t just our church,” he said.
Higey said he is used to challenging situations.
“I’ve been in ministry for 30 years, and most of my ministry has involved going into hurting situations, working toward healing, then going on to another similar situation,” he said. “This is really the longest we’ve been at one church, but it’s been good.”
Higey said he’s been pleased by what he’s seen: “My goal had always been for whites to be in the minority here, and so when we crossed that it was encouraging for me because it’s like, ‘OK, we accomplished that goal.’ As we’ve told everyone in the church, I would be hard-pressed to go back to a white church anymore. This is just too much fun.”
What: “Let’s Talk” Series on Race Relations
When: Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: Birmingham International Church, 1380 Montgomery Hwy, Vestavia Hills, AL 35216
Cost: $5 to cover refreshments