Condoleezza Rice is no stranger to turning toward hope in a time of fear.
Close to 9,000 people worldwide joined Menlo Church’s livestream kickoff March 15 to hear Rice, the former secretary of state and Menlo Church member, discuss faith and hope, including life growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala.
Rice’s appearance began with what senior pastor Rev. John Ortberg called a “bonus moment” – classical-piano-trained Rice playing the hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour,” which she referred to as one of her piano-teacher-grandmother’s favorite hymns.
“Music and faith are completely, deeply connected with me,” Rice said. “I stayed at her house while my parents worked, and there was no more devoted follower of Jesus Christ than my grandmother. … ‘I Need Thee Every Hour’ – what great words, what a special thought, that we can come to Christ every hour.”
Faith over fear
In interview style, with Ortberg and Rice sitting in chairs, a circular table between them at the front of an empty sanctuary, Ortberg raised a topic that’s on the top of people’s minds in these COVID-19 pandemic times.
“Fear has been something that has threaded its way through the circumstances of your life,” Ortberg said, “in ways that have also involved faith.”
Rice agreed, noting, “I was born in 1954, so Jim Crow was still very much in place – you couldn’t go to a movie theater, couldn’t go to a restaurant. And yet I grew up in this loving little community, where it was faith, family and education.”
She painted a picture of a loving family, with parents who were teachers, a father who was also a Presbyterian minister, a beloved grandmother who taught her piano and a family that valued the life of the mind and encouraged rigorous study of Scripture.
The community, she said, felt like a “safe cocoon.”
And then came the bombings.
In the early 1960s, “suddenly Birmingham was ‘Bombingham,’ and bombs were going off in neighborhoods all the time,” Rice recalled. “We lived with that fear. … Parents lived not knowing if they were going to put their kids to bed, were they going to wake up the next morning.”
And then, “the worst happened,” Rice said. Early one Sunday, they felt their church shake.
And word spread, by phone tree, that the 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed, and four young girls murdered. There were family connections with the victims: Her father had given Denise McNair her kindergarten certificate; her uncle taught Addie Mae Collins.
Rice said she believed her parents could protect her, “but that night I asked to sleep in their bed, because, fear.”
“All we could do in those days was to pray, and I have to say, it was sufficient,” she added. “It was sufficient to calming my parents, it was sufficient to calming me and my friends.”
Terrorizing continued, as Ku Klux Klan groups nicknamed “Night Riders” drove through African-American communities. Knowing that the police were potential KKK members, her father and friends organized their own little militia, keeping watch at the top of their cul-de-sac, occasionally firing a shot in the air.
“It kept the neighborhood safe,” Rice said.
And through ensuing years of violence that included assassinations of public figures, Rice’s parents stood firm.
“Through all of it, my parents were just secure in their faith, and they somehow communicated that to us,” she said.
Asked what she’d recommend in the face of the current crisis, Rice said try to do the right thing; reach out to the vulnerable, isolated and those in more difficult circumstances; acknowledge to kids that it’s a tough time; be grateful for those on the front lines; and for people of faith, pray that the Lord “show us what to do” and pray for the leaders.