|PLANT CITY, Fla. (BP) -- Maxie Miller Jr. remembers the time when the men in his neighborhood sat on their steps and prayed no bombs would hit their homes.
"I grew up in the bombing. I grew up with segregation," Miller said. "I remember when I got shot and Daddy got me to the hospital and we didn't know who was going to be my doctor."
Miller, the Florida Baptist Convention's strategist for the African American church planting team, doesn't just know about the fight for civil rights in America, he lived it in Birmingham, Ala.
Just 12 years old when his young friend, Denise McNair, was tragically killed in a church bombing during the civil rights movement, Miller went on to be one of six black students at an all-white Birmingham high school.
The smiling, gentle, Vietnam-era veteran admits what shaped him more than civil rights or even his military experience was a fear of his momma -- and his reliance on God.
Growing up in Birmingham, there were two major institutions, the school and the church, and "no young black child escaped those institutions," Miller recalled. "You are in school and you are in church."
And for Miller, both institutions involved his family.
"They were good Christian parents," Miller said of Maxie Sr. and Lillian (Lois) Miller who raised him in the historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. His father, a church steward, played the piano by ear and sang in the choir, along with his mother, who "still sings in the choir in heaven," Miller said, noting she "graduated" to heaven when she died in 2005.
"My mother was something else," Miller said fondly. "I grew up during a time where Momma would get you for what you did, anywhere at any time."
Miller said it was impossible to escape from the "long arm of the law" with his mother working in his school's lunchroom. His father was equally strict and would threaten, "'Son, I'm gonna get you, but when I get you, I'm gonna get you for old and for new.'"
"You would rather get Momma because she would get it out of the way," Miller smiled.
Hands-on parenting and grandparenting, he said, is lacking in much of today's culture.
"I'm not sure today that young people can say their father and grandfather were in the Lord and that they saw and witnessed their faith," Miller said. "I respect my dad and my granddad. My parents were not perfect people, but they did not give us something that they didn't have. They had Jesus.
"They didn't say, 'Go to church.' They went with us. They had the Lord," Miller said. "I always wish somehow that God would allow me to be just half the person my dad is in my life, to be as good as my dad. He's impacted me a lot and I try to pass it on to my children."
CHURCH IN BIRMINGHAM
Growing up in the church was expected in the 1950s and '60s. Churches cooperated so that Vacation Bible School was virtually a summer-long event with no two churches holding VBS at the same time throughout the city. Youth days, when young people in the church presided over every aspect of the worship service, allowed them opportunities to develop leadership.
"Youth days and VBS as a child were very important to me," Miller said. "I gave my life to Christ when I was about 11 years old."
It was during one of the youth days, on Sept. 15, 1963, when the church bombing took place and four girls were killed, including Miller's friend Denise. "It affected all the youth in the community," Miller said soberly. "I'll never forget that." The two families have remained close through the years.
The church buttressed the authority and discipline in young people's lives. Whatever his parents said, the preacher inevitably would back it with his words. "The role model was across the table from Mom and Dad, not on the basketball court or on the television."
Still, young men will be young men and on Labor Day when he was 15 years old Miller defied his mother's instructions and went to his cousin's home where the unsupervised boys found their uncle's gun.
"We were playing with it and it shot me in the side," Miller recounted. "It was the first time that I saw the pain and hurt in my daddy's eyes because of his child as he carried me down the steps into the ambulance."
Bleeding and in pain, Miller said he only remembers lying on a gurney in the hospital's hallway while it was determined whether the family had insurance and who would be the attending doctor. He said his dad remembers him being "bold" and grabbing onto a doctor's hand as he walked by to ask to help. "That same doctor became my doctor for the rest of my days there," Miller said.
The bullet did extensive damage, causing him to lose his gall bladder and part of his intestines -- and for a while, doctors thought he might never walk again -- but "it also brought all of our families closer together," Miller said. "It was a valuable lesson I learned about being obedient, and almost to the point of losing my life."
That same spirit of boldness, tempered with humility, after his first year at all-black parochial high school led him to be one of the first six black students at all-white Ramsay High School.
Things got rough again at the end of his junior year. An academic evaluation revealed Miller was a "square peg" in a "round hole," he said. "They said it would be best for me to drop out and take a trade because, they said, 'he's not smart enough to graduate' and not even smart enough to go to high school," Miller said.
He told his dad, however, he was going to stay in school.
"My mother said, 'I don't care what the district said' -- and people listened to her," Miller said, so he enrolled at the all-black Parker High School for the next year.
During summer school, he found a high school sweetheart, Brenda. The two went to the movies and dances, had an innocent relationship during his senior year and, by the time he graduated, were engaged.
After a few false starts away from home, in 1971 he convinced the Air Force to accept him in spite of the damage the bullet had done when he was a teen.
"I joined the Air Force because I got tired of Momma being on my case…," Miller said. Instead of his mother being upset, which is the reaction he sought, she laughed and told him, "That's great. It'll make a man out of you."
The tears came later, with healthy reminders for Miller to not forget his "training."
Miller recalled his grandfather's words: "'Boy, don't you forget where you're going; don't forget where you come from; and don't mess up the Miller name.'"
"Go to church," his momma said.
Miller, who earned the nickname "Ironhead" from his father, didn't obey.
Opting to learn food services in an on-the-job training slot in the Air Force rather than to handle guns, something he had issues with since the shooting, he landed an assignment in Loring, Maine, and prayed he would never have to join the war in Vietnam.
"I really got wild," he said.
Back in Birmingham, Brenda believed her fiance had forgotten about her, and when he finally came to visit for Christmas, she handed him back his ring. "I was so crushed. I was hurt," Miller said. But with a heavy dose of pride in the way, "I didn't say, 'Please take it back.'"
"Providentially, God had other things in my life for me to learn," Miller said. Continued...