The Rev. R.G. Lyons, pastor of Community Church Without Walls, who is a Cherokee county native, shared the church’s vision and mission as he addressed the recent 29th Annual Cherokee County Branch of N.A.A.C.P. Freedom Banquet held in the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce meeting room on the campus of Gadsden State Community College-Cherokee. Wallace is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Lyons of Centre.
“It is an honor to be with you because of what you stand for,” said Rev. Lyons. “The N.A.A.C.P. is the oldest Civil Rights organization in our country. It works for equal rights for everyone, regardless of race. If anyone is mistreated, or discriminated against, N.A.A.C.P. is always there, always advocating, giving them a forum.”
One recent example, Rev. Lyons said, is Alabama House Bill 56 regarding immigration. Rev. Lyons said he wasn’t going to get into it, but since someone had already “opened the door” earlier in the evening, he decided to walk on through!
“I think Alabama’s immigration law goes against everything something like this organization is about,” said Rev. Lyons. “It singles out a particular group of people. We actually have a new Immigration law. Under the old law, anyone who is stopped for any traffic violation could be legally detained if there is reasonable suspicion they are not documented immigrants. And the law never defined what reasonable suspicion was. It could lead to profiling. The new law actually expands that to passengers in the vehicle. I don’t know about you, but when I am a passenger, I don’t always carry my ID with me. Well, you and I both know if we were pulled over and I was a passenger, nobody would detain me. But what if my name was Patrick Gonzales?”
“The things that break my heart the most about this law is the effect is has on children,” said Rev. Lyons. “When the law was put into effect, it said that if your child was enrolled in public school you had to prove citizenship. Over 2,000 Hispanics stayed home from school. Any law that makes children afraid to go to school is a bad law. The National N.A.A.C.P. has joined with us in opposing that law.”
Rev. Lyons shared some of the history of West Birmingham where he currently serves in the ministry.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Rev. Lyons said, the neighborhood was mostly a middle class, white neighborhood. It was also one of the “hotbeds” of White supremacy in Birmingham.
After the Civil Rights movement, things began to change and today, West End is 97 percent African American and is now the poorest neighborhood in Alabama, with the lowest median income of any zip code in Alabama, Rev. Lyons said.
“And part of the reason for that transition is not just white folks leaving and black folks moving in,” said Rev. Lyons. “In the 1970s, Birmingham’s economy collapsed because of the steel industry. One of the things that saved Birmingham’s economy was UAB Hospital. It was a low-income black community. Many people were displaced from their homes and ended up moving west into West End. People we often think are expendable are those who are the poorest.”
“I think that is one reason the N.A.A.C.P. is needed more in 2012 than it has ever been because there are still people out there that we think are expendable,” said Rev. Lyons. “City and state leaders make decisions for them. N.A.A.C.P. makes sure they have a voice at the table, that somebody is speaking up for them.”
When the Church without Walls started six years ago, Rev. Lyons said, members felt there were more pressing needs than bricks and mortar.
“One thing we learned rally quickly is that in a neighborhood of that much need, it didn’t make much sense for us to spend a lot of money on buildings so we started out worshipping in houses,” said Rev. Lyons. “We used a ministry center that was already there.”
Community Church Without Walls, Rev. Lyons said, invests a great deal of time and resources in youth. He compared it to the slogan, “making a difference in education one student at a time.”
A few years ago, Rev. Lyons had the opportunity to visit with the uncle of one of his young church members. Like most teenagers, there were times when they got into trouble because of unwise choices.
This man told Rev. Lyons his answer for making sure that kids tow the line.
“He said, ‘when I was a kid, if I did what they were doing she would have beat the ----- out of me,’” said Rev. Lyons. ‘“They just need to be beat. Grandma needs to quit being so soft.’ I was thinking ‘So she beat you. You are in prison! Surely there has to be more to raising kids than just beating them.’ Yet so often, I hear the only solution is to beat them.”
“One of the most quoted Bible verses in our neighborhood is Spare the rod and spoil the child,” said Rev. Lyons. “And it is important to pay attention to know exactly what we are reading in the Bible.
“To reach children the scripture they also had a pointer, or rod, to point to the scripture and teach them the Word of God,” said Rev. Lyons. “It has nothing to do with beating your kid, it is about teaching them from the time they are born, the Word of God.”
All too often, Rev. Lyons said, parents come down on their children for doing wrong. But what about praising them when they do right?
“It really does take a village to raise our kids,” said Rev. Lyons. “And part of that village is not just our responsibility to correct them when they are wrong. That is important, but it is also our responsibility to be there for them no matter what they are going through. Be at their ball games, find out what their report card grades are, when they make the honor roll, tell them you are proud of them. We are all in this together.”
And that is where groups like N.A.A.C.P. can have a huge advocacy role, Rev. Lyons said.
“There are a lot of things out there that make it hard for our kids to succeed these days,” said Rev. Lyons. “There’s a lot of policies to be changed, there’s a lot of roadblocks in their way. And it is our responsibility to remove those obstacles.”
“I feel incredibly blessed to have gone to Cherokee County High School,” said Lyons. “I felt like I got a great education. But in Birmingham, there are some of the finest schools in the country (including Homewood, Mountain Brook and Oak Mountain) you also have some of the worst performing schools in that area. The state has had to take them over.”
Rev. Lyons said they have worked diligently to implement after school tutoring programs, and other measures which are making a difference. But like the rest of this country, they still have a long way to go.
The Ronald Reagan Administration, in the 1980s, started the War on Drugs, Rev. Lyons said, which in many cases over the years, has resulted in some of the highly populated, urban and African American and Hispanic neighborhoods being targeted for arrest. The U.S. prison population, as a result of the War on Drugs, has skyrocketed, he said.
“Change doesn’t happen over night, it takes a long time,” said Rev. Lyons. “There were many people who refused to give up that seat on the bus before Rosa Parks. But they kept on and kept on until it happened.”
“We can live in a place where every citizen has every opportunity,” said Rev. Lyons. “And where they know they have a community behind them.”’
Carol Oliphant, one of Rev. Lyons’ former teachers at Cherokee County High School introduced Rev. Lyons as the evening’s speaker.
“I will forever remember him as hardworking, dedicated, kind-hearted, loving,” said Oliphant.
“We all knew even then, God had big plans for R.G. and we are so proud to see it come to fruition. We knew you would be in this place, we knew you would be working to help others and we are so thankful.”