It's not every day you get to spend time with a living link to one of the most significant movements of the 20th century, but that was my experience this week, as I was able to spend time with a man called James Perkins.
You may not have heard of him, and I wouldn't blame you if you hadn't. You may, however, have heard of the town he grew up in and where he now serves as the pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. That town is Selma in Alabama.
What happened there was the launching pad for the voting rights marches of 1965 between Selma and the Alabama state capital Montgomery, which prompted President Lyndon Johnson to introduce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This act secured the right for every citizen of the United States, regardless of the colour of his or her skin, to register to vote.
James was 12-years-old in 1965 when he, along with other young people of his age, took part in the demonstrations for civil and voting rights in Selma. He was there when Martin Luther King Jnr led the successful march from the town to Montgomery in March of that year. In 2000, James became the first African-American mayor of Selma.
This last week, along with a group of students from his church and from Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, James was in Bangor to share with our congregation in Ballygrainey - as well as students in Bangor Grammar and Glenlola Collegiate schools - about the civil rights struggle and the story of Selma. Most importantly they were here to demonstrate how the gospel can reach across even the most divided societies.
I first met James in Selma when I was there on sabbatical last summer, staying with my good friend Steve Burton, the pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian. During that summer, there was a rise in inter-racial tension across America, but in Selma I discovered church leaders who were not content to let events slide out of control.
They wanted to build bridges. They wanted to be involved in reconciliation to grow a new society. Bringing together a group of young people from a black Baptist church and a white Presbyterian church is part of that process.
Together they shared with students in the schools and members of our congregation the crucial importance of love and forgiveness in healing divided societies. Together they learned about the nature of our conflict here and spoke of the extraordinary strength of love. They spoke of the immense power of forgiveness. They spoke of their hopes for reconciliation. They spoke of themes that were, at times, alarmingly close to home for those of us from Northern Ireland.
In the week that Martin McGuinness died, we found ourselves spending time together discussing the gospel imperatives of grace, forgiveness and love and how we exercise those things in our community. It was a deeply moving experience.
I have learned much in this last week. Above all, I have learned that when Jesus calls me to love my enemies, He doesn't leave me any wriggle room. I am to do as He did. I am to forgive as He has forgiven me. That is the key to reconciliation in Selma, in our community and around the world. In the gospel we have the key to genuine reconciliation and peace. Do we believe it?
Visiting Greyabbey with Rev. Graeme Kennedy (centre) on their recent trip to Northern Ireland are (left to right) James Perkins, pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and Rev. Steve Burton of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Selma, Alabama.
Graeme Kennedy is minister of Ballygrainey Presbyterian Church in Bangor, County Down. After meeting church leaders in Selma over the summer he, Steven Burton and James Perkins planned a trip to Northern Ireland. It is hoped that a trip from Ballygrainey to Selma might happen soon.