We watched the movie “Woodlawn” last night. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have friends who were students at Woodlawn High School (Birmingham AL) when the story took place. To them, it seemed that the movie was reasonably accurate. I was in college at the time, but my own high school years were during the opening years of mandated integration, and the closing of the black high school which forced far more integration into the two [originally] all white high schools. And this story of Birmingham high schools and football was set against some of the most violent times and places of this time in Alabama history.
But the part of the story I was totally unaware of was the back story of the “evangelist” (I think maybe a Campus Crusade for Christ “missionary” or some one inspired by a similar group). He called himself a “sports team chaplain.” He offered a simple message and challenge to a predominately “Christian” football team and things began to happen.
First off, the coach, while skeptical, allowed him access. This would never be allowed today. And, indeed, over the next 2 years, as the team began to be a single team, not a divided squad, pressure was brought, and the coaching staff pays for its choice to let this happen. And, in the story, it spreads to the rival school, Banks, and that staff pays a price as well.
There were quite a few of the opening scenes that I remembered seeing on TV first hand: George Wallace in the schoolhouse door trying to block the first black students at the University of Alabama and Bull Connor with dogs and firehoses. These are not just file footage for me — they were live.
The moment that was the real blast from the past for me, was when the chaplain talked about Explo 72 in Dallas Texas. 100,000 plus college students in the Cotton Bowl with Billy Graham. A totally dark Cotton Bowl that is finally lit up starting with a single candle who’s light is shared until all 100,000 candles are lit. Think Easter Vigil — we start in darkness and light the many small candles from the Easter Candle. I was there. I was in the Cotton Bowl. I experienced this. And, it had faded from my memory.
I listened to the message in the movie and I watched the “One Way” hand signal ( a raised hand with the index finger pointing up). And, as I listened to the message weave through the movie, I heard the simplicity of the calling of God: “You are not alone. You are loved. Come to me.” That’s the message of the Gospel that still bores it’s way through to me. I slices through church laws and practice (I’m now a practicing Roman Catholic); it overrides denominations of Christianity. And, in many ways, though not all, it moves beyond Christianity.
This movie could have been preachy, but I think it avoided that. And I’m glad of that. It showed examples of overcoming anger, fear and discrimination. It even showed Bear Bryant in a light that made me not so “anti-Bear” (I’m also of the Auburn persuasion). It was a quiet witness to the power of allowing God to work in the everyday world we find ourselves walking through.