Oliver Clark

Oliver Clark leads a prayer at the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Nov. 1 was All Saints Day, a Christian commemoration of those individuals whose lives glorified God in such a way that they set an example for the rest of us. My favorite saint is Monica, mother to Augustine, who himself became a saint, mainly because Monica never gave up on him.

Even from a young age, Augustine was a wild child or, at the very least, a wild child wannabe. He socialized with all those boys his mother cautioned him against. Boys who boasted of their exploits with women.

Despite his spiritual upbringing, Augustine wanted to fit in. According to his memoir, “Augustine of Hippo, Confessions,” written in 397, it was during those young years when he prayed: “Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo” (“Give me chastity and continence, but not just yet”).

As a young man, he was seduced by the big city (Carthage) and all its wiles, but Monica maintained a constant state of prayer for her son. Today he is respected as a Doctor of the Church, something for which his mother must be awfully proud and why she’s my favorite non-living saint.

Now let me tell you about my favorite living saint: Oliver Clark or, more formally, Dr. Oliver W. Clark Jr. He served at Anniston First United Methodist church as senior pastor for seven years and is one of the most influential spiritual mentors I’ve ever had. Today, at age 82, he is officially retired, living in Birmingham and still active within the church community.

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It was Sept. 15, 1963, when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, ending the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

Back then, Oliver was a young associate pastor at a Methodist church in Birmingham with an all-white congregation. On that Sunday evening, he ditched his pre-written sermon and addressed the bombing instead.

“None of us would have planted that bomb,” he told his congregation, “but our silence created the environment where Ku Klux Klan members thought it was OK to do so.”

Back in those days, few white ministers in Alabama addressed racism from the pulpit, and Oliver’s message was not well received. After that Sunday, he continued to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities, but his time in the pulpit was limited and came with restrictions.

He began attending interracial clergy meetings in downtown Birmingham. Bull Conner, the infamous commissioner from back then, got wind of the meetings and took down license plates. When he discovered Oliver was among the mix, he passed it along to the city’s mayor, Art Hanes, who was also a Methodist. Hanes publicly accused Oliver of being, of all things, a Communist.

The head of Oliver’s church employee relations committee took him to lunch and gave him a book explaining why segregation was God’s will. Oliver, in turn, gave that man a book saying just the opposite. As a participant in a civil rights panel in 2014, Oliver told the crowd: “I was never able to convince him and he was never able to convince me.”

When Spike Lee’s documentary “Four Little Girls” was screened in Birmingham in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Oliver spoke to the audience afterwards. “I hope you’ve gained something by remembering, because we don’t ever want to forget.”

When I first met Oliver some 30 years ago, I didn’t have much confidence in myself, and I give him credit for encouraging me to get involved in social ministries, to shed any shyness I may have felt and to not be afraid to step out of my comfort zone.

Take the local AIDS clinic, for example. I knew they needed volunteers back then, but I didn’t think I could be of any help because I didn’t know anything about HIV. I ended up serving three terms on their board of directors because Oliver challenged me to get involved.

It launched me on a journey of community outreach, where the rewarding experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met have been life-changing. For that, I will always be grateful to Oliver Clark, a true spiritual mentor.

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at donnabarton@cableone.net.

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