Cynthia Woodfin-Kellum never gets tired of telling the story of how her youngest son got his name.
When she was pregnant, she asked her 9-year-old son Ralph what he’d like his new baby brother to be named. He immediately came up with the name Randy. “I laughed and asked if he’d be okay with him being named Randall instead. He could call him Randy, but Randall sounded better just in case he wanted to be something big someday. What if he wanted to be president,” she remembers. “My grandmother said that I spoke over him, even though I had no idea what was in store for him. But, just in case, I gave him the right name.”
Woodfin was recently re-elected as mayor of Birmingham and was inaugurated into his second term in November. When he was first elected in 2016, he was the youngest mayor of the city (36) in more than 120 years. His mother takes pride in what he’s accomplished, and fondly remembers that much of his early interest in service came from the examples he received at home and in church. The Woodfin family attended Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where the future mayor was baptized by Rev. John Thomas Porter and involved in a variety of ministries. “I made sure the kids went to Sunday school and church,” Woodfin-Kellum says. “Our pastor told us what he was going to talk about in the sermon, then gave the message on how to live it out in the world. We were taught to go out and serve, then come back again.”
Woodfin was born and raised in the north Birmingham and Crestwood areas and attended local schools–North Birmingham Elementary, Putnam Middle, and Shades Valley High School. Woodfin fondly recalls a childhood in a house with “never less than eight people, sometimes more, and four generations living together.” The family was especially tight-knit and he was taught by his mother, grandmother, and extended family the importance of faith. “My great grandmother lived with us until she was 100 and blind with diabetes,” he said. “She and my mother took care of extended family members, helped others and taught me about service. Church life and faith were all around me.” He said he remembered a central message from church in his formative years: to serve beyond the church walls. “We were told to go into the highways and byways outside those four walls,” Woodfin recalls.
Woodfin-Kellum said an experience at Sixth Avenue revealed her son’s potential in a way she’d never imagined. The church had started an In Step ministry for boys and she wondered how the son who everyone considered “nice and quiet” would do. “I took him to the first meeting and waited with other parents in the sanctuary while they practiced,” she said. “When he came out, he was leading the other boys. I was crying so hard because I couldn’t quite believe this was Randall. Whose authoritative voice was this? Who was this leading and saying, ‘Christian soldiers, attention!’” She said that was the moment she saw his leadership personality truly emerge. Woodfin graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta (Woodfin-Kellum said he’d never spent the night away from home before), where he served as SGA president despite no previous student government experience; he then came back home to attend Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. He’s worked as a criminal prosecutor and served in various positions in the City of Birmingham, including president of the Birmingham Board of Education. Woodfin-Kellum also raised teachers and nurses; she herself became a public school teacher after retiring from AT&T after thirty years. Service to the community, she said, is key.
According to the mayor, he often thinks of individuals like his mother and grandmother when envisioning changes for the community. “I like to consider a mother or grandmother who has a child or a grandchild. When she walks onto her front porch, we like to think about what she can see to the left, and to the right, or at the sidewalk in front of her,” Woodfin said. “We want to make sure the nearby park is safe, that there are healthy food options for their child or grandchild, that we continue to cut gun violence, and that when their children are older, they have job opportunities.” A key component in making those sorts of differences, he said, is a healthy relationship with faith communities throughout the city. Churches already have strong programs in place and faith leaders need to know that city leaders appreciate and support their work. “Churches have always been and always will be the center of any community. They’re safe places and gathering places that aren’t isolated to what happens on Sunday or during seasonal times,” he said. “They’re providing after-school programs and engaging the homeless community. They’re doing job fairs and providing sports activities. Churches are safe havens for their parishioners and the community, and I could go on and on about the important things they do.” Woodfin has a faith-based liaison on staff who provides quarterly updates to faith leaders throughout the community. “My job as mayor is to engage leaders and either partner or communicate with them,” he said. According to Woodfin, churches were especially pivotal during the coronavirus pandemic as faith communities supported their members who were sick, hungry, struggling with job security, and other issues.
Covid also created a challenge for day-to-day city operations, as much of the work went online and town hall meetings became “tele town halls.” The pandemic also resulted in tragedy for the Woodfin family, as his great grandmother (who was more like his grandmother) passed away on Jan. 1, 2021 from the virus. He himself tested positive at the same time and was unable to attend her funeral; he spent time in the hospital to recover and gained renewed insight into the suffering of his community. He said that hearing about the struggles from the virus–and literally hearing the moans from those near to him in the hospital–reminded him of the importance of being a supportive community in very real ways. With things slowly getting back to normal, Woodfin is focused on his second term. He’s committed to such issues as homelessness, affordable housing, conflict resolution, reduction of gun violence, and continued growth.
For Woodfin-Kellum, she continues to provide an example of godly parenting as she proudly encourages her son in a way that has given her the endearing nickname of “Mama Woodfin” to people across the city. According to Woodfin-Kellum, it’s important for parents today to “do it the God way,” adding, “I learned from my father early on that you teach honesty and you show it through example,” she said. “You don’t teach something to your child and then do something else. Whatever I told them to do then that’s what I showed them in my own life. Train them up in the way they’re supposed to go and they won’t depart from it.”
Southern Christian Writers Conference Coordinator