By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
Two years ago, the world changed—and Roderick Royal, pastor of New Zion Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the Smithfield community, changed with it. In April 2020, the COVID-19 was slowly causing devastation and disruption to millions of lives around the globe.
“It was a very strange time not just for us as a church and congregation but for many people all over the world who had never really seen anything like this in their lifetime,” said Royal.
“We had to shut our doors like everyone else, so there was the big factor of staying connected and together as a small congregation whose most active members didn’t have access to internet or weren’t familiar with Zoom, [a teleconferencing tool]. I was really brainstorming what I could do to keep everyone together.”
Royal came up with a plan. “I was going to write,” he said. “I enjoyed writing anyway and wanted to encourage and uplift, so I wrote letters to the congregation. … Each letter has some type of encouraging sermon or message dedicated to serve as a vessel of hope and positivity.”
Royal, former Birmingham City Council member for District 9 and the 32nd interim mayor in Birmingham, compiled those writings and short sermons into a portable booklet titled, “On Your Way to Zion: Letters and Short Sermons During the Pandemic.”
“This booklet was created during the midst of the pandemic,” said Royal, who has been pastor of the church since 2017. “It started out as motivating and encouraging letters that I wrote to my congregation to help lift spirits during the times of not only sickness but also social justice issues and, overall, everything that was going on at the time.”
The 100-year-old New Zion Cumberland Presbyterian was organized in Smithfield in 1921 and currently has 16 members total, including its oldest member, who is 100.
Royal said the booklet is really about endurance during hard times, something the church is familiar with. In the first 10 years of its existence, the congregation met “from house to house and at various locations for worship and fellowship,” he said.
“At the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930, the elders of the church negotiated to buy an old building on the church’s present-day site, at the corner of Fifth Street North in the Smithfield community,” said Royal. “In 1952, a new structure was built.”
Royal, 57, born and raised in Birmingham, always knew he would take on a role in ministry.
“My work with the church is honestly something I’ve wanted to do since childhood,” he said. “I had a teacher named Katie T. Fox, [at Tuggle Elementary School], who really encouraged me [to get involved more in politics]. So, here I am, taking on my next role [pastor] and looking to do that the best of my ability.”
Royal got his first taste of the politics in elementary school, when he was elected student council president.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do almost everything I’ve set out to do,” he said. “But, of course, I was a kid and didn’t really know the impact I would have.”
At A.H. Parker High School, Royal’s fire for politics was further fueled when he was elected student council president and was inspired to work on former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington’s campaign in 1979.
“[Arrington] had a youth group that would meet behind Sixth Avenue Baptist Church to pass out his literature,” Royal said. “It was a big deal across the country for Birmingham to elect its first Black mayor.”
After high school, Royal “geared his education” toward a career in politics by enrolling at Tuskegee University and majoring in political science—and again he served as student council president.
“Every school I have been a part of has set me up tremendously for my path in life,” he said. “My time at Tuskegee was very life-changing and eye-opening, as well. There’s something about the energy of the school. You feel like you are destined for greatness immediately upon walking on the campus.”
Royal graduated from Tuskegee in 1987 and then enlisted in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer, where he would serve until 1991. He earned a master’s degree in public administration from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1989 while on active duty. He eventually returned to Birmingham and taught at Miles College for more than 19 years as an adjunct instructor teaching government and African American history.
The March to Zion
In 2011, Royal was invited to be a guest speaker by Gertrude Roscoe of New Zion Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which was undergoing a reorganization at the time.
“I provided remarks at the funeral for the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, [a leading U.S. Civil Rights activist who led the fight against segregation and other forms of racism as a minister in Birmingham],” Royal recalled. “[Roscoe] called City Hall and invited me to come and preach, … and the rest is history.”
One of Royal’s favorite passages in “On Your Way to Zion” highlights how one must “fight and keep going.” It is based on a photo he found in his parents’ house.
In a letter dated June 6, 2020, in the book, he writes, “I had never seen the photo before. Judging from the appearance and condition of the photo, I guessed that it had been somewhere in my folks’ house for quite some time. Prominently displayed now on top of the microwave as you enter the door from the bedroom into the kitchen, the picture is of a struggling brown tabby kitten in a mighty battle to hoist herself over a rope. Her two front paws are tightly wrapped around the rope as she appears to lift her head above it with the expectation that her body will follow. The caption below the picture reads, ‘Lord, help me to hang in there.’
“With all that can go on in our private worlds, this probably captures our true spirit’s cry at times. When we’ve leapt onto the thin ropes of risk, love, fear, or uncertainty, we find ourselves asking the Lord to help us to hang in there, or we might say, ‘Lord, give me strength.’ When we, like this ambitious kitten, have taken on challenges far greater than our strength might allow or when we find ourselves stretched — ‘Lord, help me to hang in there.’”
To purchase “On Your Way to Zion: Letters and Short Sermons During the Pandemic,” email Roderick.V.Royal@gmail.com.