MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Wanda Battle stands as tall as a giant before the visitors seated in the sanctuary of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

She’s just explained that the ceiling above the pulpit where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached fiery sermons that would ignite Montgomery’s black gentry and fuel the Civil Rights Movement is made of tin embossed tiles. The detail seems slight, until Battle bursts into operatic song, her voice doing somersaults through the aisles.

“Great for acoustics,” she said through cherry-red painted lips, wearing cat-eyeglasses and a smile so disarming, even the steeliest tourists don’t stand a chance.

What an experience it must have been to hear 25-year-old King’s voice bouncing off the walls on a Sunday morning. Now in her 60s and the official tour director for the historic church, Battle is too young to remember.

But there are things she does recollect; like giving her bed to the Harvard students that stayed with her family when they came South to cover the movement for the Southern Courier. And the tacky mud that covered her feet at St. Jude Catholic Parish’s field where thousands gathered to hear Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez and Pete Seeger sing, before marching on to the Capitol the next day.

Casual memories, perhaps lost on a 9-year-old girl, but momentous to the world that was watching.

The field remains, but Battle’s childhood home is long gone. Dorsey Street, where the Howards lived, is now part of Interstate 65. And the Montgomery Improvement Association office where her mother and sisters worked, and Dr. King once held meetings, has been demolished.

“I didn’t realize it until I came to work here, how much that training and upbringing impacted the journey of my life,” Battle said. “I’ve found my purpose.”

It’s only when she steps off the platform and calls the 30-odd people at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to form a circle and join hands, that it’s clear Battle is no giant. Standing between two strangers, her hands gripping theirs, she barely reaches 5 feet 6 inches in height.

She is big on affirmations. Thank you, I love you, I appreciate you. It’s hard to walk away from an interaction with Battle without feeling brighter about the world. You get the feeling that when she looks into your eyes, she truly sees you.

Then, there’s the singing — a relic of her voice training at Spelman College. Tours aren’t simply an opportunity for sight-seeing. To her, they’re about connection. With each group, she reserves a portion of the time spent in the sanctuary for dialogue.

Some ask questions about the church. One visitor shares his fear of death, and another her appreciation for life. Battle reaches out to hug each person one-by-one. Hearty hugs. The kind that remind you of your favorite aunt’s squeeze. The type that makes you feel as if there’s no other place you’d rather be.

“I had a tour and one man said to me ‘I’m not a hugger,’ so I told him, ‘I’m blowing you a kiss,’ ” Battle said, as the room erupted in laughter. Her spirit is infectious, as one visitor noted with wry sarcasm when he suggested Battle might consider ramping up her energy.

Her tour is part history lesson, therapy session and popular trivia. She leads visitors down into the church’s basement where Dr. King’s office can be found. The broad wooden desk where he wrote his evocative speeches is still there. As well as the leather tufted chair he sat in on Sundays, and faded family photos, one showing a rare glimpse of the famed preacher as a child.

It’s hard to imagine Battle as anyone other than the confident woman standing before this crowd of travelers, moored by her power and presence. It’s shocking when she shares that she was once depressed and suicidal.

“I was comparing myself to other people and feeling like I never measured up.”

Fifteen years ago, things changed. Battle said she had a talk with God and asked him to remove the fear that defined her life. She moved from Chicago where she had been living with her soon-to-be divorced husband, to Atlanta where her mother and siblings lived. Then from Atlanta back to Montgomery.

It took her some time to come to terms with the fact that most of the people she had known growing up were dead or gone. She was in the process of picking up the pieces when a chance encounter at a dinner party led to an unexpected job offer.

“This work has given me a certain honor that I would have never known,” she said.

Perhaps Battle’s adopted surname is far more fitting than she could have ever imagined. Rocked in the cradle of the civil rights movement, fighting an internal and external struggle for survival in one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history.

Today, Battle conducts roughly five tours a week — light work in comparison to the marathon training she did for almost two years, when she was the church’s sole tour guide in 2014. Back then, she led 24 tours a week.

Since the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice were opened last year, the church has seen its share of visitors increase. What was once a quiet season from September to December isn’t so quiet anymore.

And neither is she. Battle has chosen love over fear, and light over darkness. With each tour, she offers visitors a prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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