In the Halls of the Hospital

hospital hall

This summer’s ordeal with Clarke’s eye injury was interesting for many reasons. Clarke’s amazing display of maturity in the face of uncertainty and discomfort was one reason. All of the waiting, shuffling and shuttling from the Urgent Care center, to the Emergency Room, to the Pediatric ward for subsequent exams, was another. When all was said and done, Clarke had endured more than any parent would want their child to experience including a CAT scan and a visit to the Ophthalmologist for a final opinion. A few thousand dollars and day-and-a-half later, Clarke was on the mend, all thanks be to God, and I began to observe and reflect.

For me, hospitals have always been interesting places. I remember accompanying my father when he would visit sick family members, parishioners, folk he knew from the neighborhood or elsewhere in the community he happened to hear were sick; fellow clergyman, political constituents and the like. There were even occasions when people who had no known church affiliation would holler out into the hallway and ask if he would come and pray with them. As an older teen, I was Dad’s chauffeur and personal assistant; his “body man”, if you will. But when I was a young tyke, I would sit in the designated waiting area and if it wasn’t a terribly busy time, I would be entertained in fits and snatches by members of the nursing staff.

To me, the hospital was the equalizer. Unlike churches, hospitals weren’t among the most segregated places in a city at that time. And, if truth be told, I would say there was more fervent prayer in the hospital, on any day, than in many a church … even on Easter Sunday. The hospital was that place where people of all colors, creeds and religions would go seeking a remedy for whatever ailed them. Some would pray to God while others, who never prayed before, would pray hoping there was one.

Whether they were sick or recuperating, in some emergent need or undergoing a battery of tests to keep tabs on those pesky symptoms, the hospital was either the first line of defense or the last stand for people of every background. The circle of life, with its perfect rhythm and syncopated beats, both began and ended here. And no matter which, families were forever changed.

As Clarke and I moved from station to station I remembered my younger years moving through hospitals with my father. While I was just as quiet and observant now as I was back then, I was also much more aware; though I was still an emotional magnet.

The discomfort of those being wheeled from room to room; the moans of those being carted in and out of the elevators … it was all so palpable. For this reason, each time I cross a hospital’s threshold I work at making it my practice to utter a silent prayer for all who find themselves in the hospital; the patients, the doctors, the caretakers and the family members of each patient. No matter the reason, every patient, every family, every life is being altered in some way in a hospital. God is working overtime in a hospital. True, God always works overtime but it is so much easier to see – should you ever take time to notice – in the halls of the hospital.

By God’s Grace, I was afforded the comfort of knowing that Clarke would be ok. Her injuries were nowhere near life threatening or even life altering beyond her time of recuperation. But I never lost sight of the fact that there were those I “met” spiritually that day – if only in the brief moment our eyes locked – whose lives would, indeed, be altered.

As I was finishing this piece I learned of an old friend, Levonne Garvin, who was the passenger in a tragic motorcycle accident. According to news reports, a crossover vehicle crossed over the double yellow lines, struck the motorcycle head on and both vehicles burst into flames. Levonne was flown by helicopter to a shock trauma hospital where she later died. She was just 50 years old. She was a mother and she was a friend to many. I thank God for our paths having crossed and her wonderfully vibrant spirit and zest for life.

So I ask that we all remember life is just as fragile as it is precious. It can be altered (for better or worse) or ended in the blink of an eye. Transitions are happening as you read this … on roads, in homes or on battlefields in foreign lands. And yes, even in hospitals. Some too soon, and yet, others not soon enough when we think of those enduring great pain and discomfort.

I am grateful to God that Clarke will be ok; I can only hope that God’s Angels snatched Levonne’s soul to Heaven before she knew any pain. I pray God continues to watch over and comfort those with sorrowed eyes – like those that locked with mine – as I moved through the halls of the hospital.

Letter to a Hurting Friend

I believe Dad wrote this letter to a church member who had recently lost an adult child. I can think of no greater pain than for a parent to outlive their child but it happens every day. Even though our day may be going along smoothly we ought to remain cognizant of the fact that someone, somewhere is suffering. I have left off the recipient’s name and you may notice the letter never mentions the issue or what happened. On the contrary, it is aimed at helping our “Hurting Friend” continue on, in spite of the pain. You or someone you know could be hurting … perhaps these words, written decades ago could speak to you right now.

Take care & be blessed,

WFP

 

 

Dear “Hurting Friend”,

I feel a need to write to you to let you know that though I have not yet been over to talk to you, I still carry you in my daily prayers and thoughts. You have been heavy on my heart and mind, for I have a grasp of understanding of what you are presently going through.

Be ever mindful of the ever present need to keep the situations which life throws at you in their proper context. There is no darkness so black that God’s light cannot and does not penetrate. The danger is that sometimes we become so accustomed to the darkness that we cease to search for the light.

The hurt and agony which I saw in your eyes when you were at church is still clearly imprinted on the screen of my mind. Remember as well, [my friend], that no matter what or how another interprets our existence, you are a child of God, first of all, and as such, you are of immense value to Him. Never let another human or situation rob you of that bit of knowledge!

The “whys” of life cannot always be answered for they are a part of the mystery of existence. There is a certain mystique about life which can only be understood by the creator of life, and that’s where your faith comes in. It’s a matter of trusting your God enough to lay the “whys” at His feet and then go on about the business of living in the assurance He’s got everything under control and that His knowing the “whys” is sufficient!

The alternative is devastating! That is to stop living now and spend the rest of your days trying to piece together a puzzle to which you do not have all the parts, for in every puzzle there are external pieces which God keeps for Himself and places them down when He sees fit! Faith is to live knowing that God will put these pieces together when He sees fit, and knowing further that He does this when it is most advantageous for us for He loves us dearly!

Lastly, do not let other humans bring you down to a level of life which is less than God intended for you. Bitterness, revenge, hatred and the like serve no purpose other than to shrivel one’s soul until it eventually dies and in its dying chains one to a fixed position in the past and hence, all growth and forward movement ceases for one’s purpose in life becomes contradictory to that which God had initially intended for it to be! That life becomes, in the real sense, possessed with demons. It’s a dead end street.

My friend, keep the faith and remember that oft times that which we interpret as “life falling apart at the seams” is not a “breaking down” but rather an “opening up” of life with all kinds of possibilities of unlimited service to God.

May God sustain you in your moment of need – we love you. Take care of that gift which God has given you – LIFE.

Love,

Rev. Phillips

P.S. I will still get around to talk with you.

Texting Text in Times of Trouble

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”  John 14:2 (KJV)

I was awakened this morning at an early odd hour without as much sleep as I would have liked to have had yet somehow feeling rested. My cellphone was blinking as it always does when there are unread messages. Some of you may know it is not my practice to immediately respond to blinking lights during the course of a busy day. The blinking doesn’t always connote an emergency, it isn’t always indicative of something that must be responded to right away. True, the blinking could be due to an urgent text but it could also be a voicemail message from a solicitor – or worse – a bill collector. It could even be spam from one of three email accounts I have foolishly funneled through to my cellphone. I learned from years of jumping to respond at every blinking light that more often than not it’s not an emergency. How Pavlovian have we become?  But in a dark room … in the still of the night, I could no more ignore that blinking light as I could ignore the blinking “Check Engine” light of my SUV the day before a cross country family road trip. So I “awakened” my phone.

I began reading text messages from a spiritually and physically strong friend who has been struggling with what seem to be her father’s last days here on earth. She is a Christian or perhaps I should say working to become a Christian. If the truth were to be told none of us who profess to be Christian are … at least not yet. I don’t care how old or holy you think you may be we all are in the process of becoming that which we profess to be. Her father is a Deacon at his church and has been for many years. He is a large part of the foundation of her faith. He is eighty years old if he is a day and it appears he is coming around the last turn of this race.  She typed.

Text Message #1 [3:28 a.m.]:      “He’s talking about being scared to die. It’s not the same as when we used to talk about it …I guess it seems more real now, or we’re spiritually weaker.”

Text Message #2 [3:28 a.m.]:      “Maybe both.”

As I was “listening” to her I could feel her fear … that same fear we all experience whenever things we were once sure of become uncertain. Her father, who had been this staunch Deacon of the church for so many years, the same man who had explained and displayed faith for her and shown her how a righteous man walks in it, was now expressing a palpable fear of leaving this place to be with a God he had come to know over the last eighty years. The “distant shore” he had heard so much about in word and song wasn’t so “distant” anymore. His fear causing her doubt. Her doubt giving birth to her fear. Their collective strength giving way to a weakness we all recognize as innately human. Suddenly it dawned on me why I had been awakened at such an odd hour with a clear and empty mind. Without contemplation I began to type the words as they came:

My Response Pt. 1 [3:52 a.m.]:     “There is a fear of that which is unknown. We talk a good game but here’s the test: if given the choice of dying and having eternal life without the body that has defined us for as long as we have been living AND in a place we have only heard about but never actually seen?! And no one we know has ever been there and come back to tell us about it (and if they had, we would dismiss them out of hand as crazy)?! Would we want that or eternal life here … in this familiar place … this place we already know to be crazy? I would be willing to bet many (if not most) would choose to stay right here for eternity.

My Response Pt. 2 [4:04 a.m.]:    But in my moments of despair and doubt I look at us human beings and the wonders of our intricate design: Almost 30 feet of intestines folded into such a compact space, a complex brain that helps us make thousands of decisions a day, all the complicated organs and systems within the human body and think this can’t be coincidental! SOMEBODY had to make this thing on purpose and with purpose in mind!

My Response Pt. 3 [4:07 a.m.]:    Imagine, if you will, us walking along and finding a watch laying on the ground. Under the scratch resistant crystal we’d see the twelve markings on the face that correspond with the twelve hours of the a.m. and the p.m. The short hand marks the hour, the big hand marks the minutes and the second hand counts each second of every hour in the day. Beneath the face we’d find all sorts of gears moving in opposite directions; moving levers connected to mechanisms that move the hands on the watch day in and day out. Would we think all of that just happened by coincidence?

My Response Pt. 4 [4:12 a.m.]:    And what if that watch were to break? Would we try to fix it ourselves and risk destroying the delicate mechanisms designed by someone much more capabale and intelligent than we? Or might we just be willing to concede that … somewhere … there must be a watch repair shop with a watchmaker? Someone who knows how to fix that which is broken because he made it in the first place. So tell your Dad  … the good Deacon … it’s ok to be unsure and we naturally fear that which we don’t completely understand. And let him know he was right about what he said he believed all these years. There is a Human maker – called God – who made and loves him … a God who has watched over him for these past eighty years … a God who will eventually call him home – to that divine Human Repair Shop –to fix all within him that this world has broken and then some … forever. He can rest. Assured.

Ready. Aim. Tired!

Over the weekend I heard the pundits offering their opinions with regard to the impossibility of moving some type of legislation regulating gun control. Thankfully, most didn’t seem to be of the belief that some form of gun control wasn’t warranted but held to the prevailing notion that Congress is incapable of standing up to the NRA, National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyists, arguably the most powerful lobbying group on the Hill. Before you go beating me over the head with the 2nd Amendment hear me out. The 2nd Amendment was adopted in 1791. At that time there was no Property Rights law, no police force or National Guard – at least not as we now know them to function today (some 221 years later) and there were certainly no semi-automatic weapons or assult rifles with clips that hold multiple rounds. Many will argue the 2nd Amendment’s primary concern was for individual citizens’ protection against corrupt government or tyrannical government officials. Whatever the case, it is an amendment that is birthed in fear. Whether you fear your government or your neighbor, is the answer to take up arms and shoot them?

The Washington Post reported the NRA spent $6,700,000 on the mid-term elections of 2010. Over the last twenty-plus years the NRA has spent over $75,000,000 on political campaigns. The Association’s four million members have many in their ranks who are “one issue” voters meaning they decide who they will or will not vote for based soley on where that candidate stands on one particular issue. As a former legislator, one issue voters, for me, were always maddening. These were the folk who were most likely to “cut off their nose to spite their face” and there was rarely any room for compromise.

As politically impracticable as it may appear something real must be done concerning gun control. This is not a new necessity to those of us who live or have grown up in America’s big (and sometimes not so big) cities. Growing up there were times I would lay down to sleep and hear gunfire in the distance. I would wonder what the papers would read the next morning if the media bothered to investigate at all. Unfortunately, gunfire and death in the city was not an anomaly. By the grace of God I never fell victim to gun violence though I had friends and friends of friends who either died or were irreversibly altered – mentally and/or physically by the same. I do not mean to appear “gangsta” nor as some “survivor” of a war torn inner city but I write to give voice to that reality as most “gansta’s” don’t really take time to write. But I digress. The point is gun violence has been an issue in America’s cities for decades yet the cry for “something to be done” is only heard when an “unspeakable tragedy” like what happened in Columbine and Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech University and yes, even in a neighborhood in Sanford County, Florida occurs. If George Zimmerman had no gun he would have kept his _ _ _ in the car.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2006 through 2007 there were 25, 423 murders by gunfire in America’s inner cities. If those numbers remained constant through today, guns would account for more than 100,000 deaths in America’s inner cities alone never mind movie theaters, schools and institutions of higher learning. The CDC goes on to mention that almost 70% of all firearm homicides are from people in 50 of the nation’s largest cities. I find it interesting it’s the CDC that keeps the murder stats. This could lead one to believe that murder is a disease … an illness … a symptom of systems gone awry. We should respond to it like a first time parent to an infant’s spiking fever. Every murder is an abomination and every life is just as precious as the next; whether the blood is shed in a movie theater’s aisle, a school’s cafeteria or the hard pavement of the city streets.

I would like to think we have grown as a human race beyond the savagery of our past but here we are … again. For what are you waiting Congressional representatives? More lives to be lost? Is the fact that fighting the NRA may cost you your seat worth the continued consequence of not fighting at all? For what are you waiting my fellow Americans? For the next victim to be related to you before you act? Just because we have the right to bear arms doesn’t mean we should. Do we not find it ironic that we have a “right” to bear arms but no “right” to healthcare to fix the damage wrought by our “right” to bear arms?! Prayers for the victims of gun violence anywhere. Prayers for the victims of dumb silence everywhere.

ENOUGH! (for Trayvon Martin, et al.)

Like many of you, I, too, am outraged at the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. I am sure there will be those who will speak of the tension between Blacks and Latinos or Black and whites; and those discussions will deal mainly – if not solely – with blame and victimization. In that discussion there is little talk of solution. Depending on what they believe, one picks a side and is either declared “racist” or “not racist”. If you side with those who are being blamed you will be considered “racist”; side with the victim and you are cleared. But what if I suggest that while we aren’t all racists, we are all victims? Of what, you ask?

We are all altered, if not victimized by what social psychologists refer to as identity contingencies – the things we have to go through based on our social identity (i.e., race, gender, political affiliation, age, sexual orientation). Claude Steele, in his book, Whistling Vivaldi, speaks specifically to a particular type of identity contingency that he calls “stereotype threat”. It has a negative effect on our performance, our psyche, how we view others and even how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is the latest victim of this phenomenon. My prayers are with his family and all parents ( like Christa Olgesby of CNN ) who live with this fear daily.

The common denominator is “Black”. “Black” seems to carry an almost universal nefariousness. Black Monday. Black October. Black Market. Black Male. I have never been any other race but I can assume that white parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children before they walk out of their homes and into the world. By, “the talk”, I don’t mean sex … I mean survival. The laundry list of “don’ts” that every Black male has heard from one or both of his parents regarding how to simply be in the world; all the things that must be done just to exist. Growing up it was just another inane rule, we didn’t know any different. As an adult and, especially in light of Trayvon’s murder, I shudder to think of the foolish things I did. Trayvon obeyed every rule.

These rules were and (sadly) still are universal. Washington Post columnists, Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy. First, Capehart stated “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it if you’re lucky”. Jonathan was raised in New Jersey and had the same rules that I had growing up in Baltimore, Maryland years earlier. His colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, being raised in South Carolina and nearly ten years my senior certainly knew the rules. “For every black man in America”, says Robinson, “from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal.” Trayvon’s demise struck a low, deep chord that united all Black males in sorrow regardless of social status. It could have been anyone of us growing up.

These statements get at the crux of Steele’s “stereotype threat”. Steele contends while some identity contingencies influence us by constraining behavior, the greater danger, a tad more subtle but exponentially more dangerous, is “putting a threat in the air.” I could recite stereotypes for every social group but since Trayvon is Black, I will summarize the “threat(s) in the air” to which much of society subscribes as it pertains to Black teenagers: they are suspicious by nature, abnormally prone to skullduggery, crime and drug dealing; untrustworthy and generally guilty until proven innocent. Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous but there are those who hold these as self-evident truths. We can place George Zimmerman’s name high atop that list.

What will it take for us to speak life in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s senseless death? What will it take for us to vote those out of office who support legislation that promotes vigilantism – like “Stand-Your-Ground”? Since the passing of that law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense are up over 200 percent. The Tampa Bay Times reported 132 cases where the “Stand-Your-Ground” law was invoked; 74 defendants (56%) were cleared. Now, almost half of the states in America have similar legislation on the books. Laws like these coupled with a growing desensitization to violence and a disenfranchised electorate work to create and embolden the George Zimmermans of the world.

Trayvon Martin was a victim of the stereotype threats that Steele defines. We have allowed these threats to pollute the air for far too long. We will never conquer what we will not confront. Let’s clear the air because all of humanity is gasping, if not choking…pleading for help in the same way Trayvon pleaded for his life. Let it not be in vain.

 

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 4 of 4)

(Continued from January 16, 2012)

By the eighth grade, I think, emotionally, I had enough and was ready to go. It had gotten to a point where my day was consumed with trying to discern the motives of others. Did that group of kids really forget that I was going to walk to gym class with them? Or did they just leave me because they didn’t want to walk with the Black kid? Was Mr. “So-and –So” pushing me to uncover and develop gifts or talents that he recognized? Or was he picking on me because I was Black and thus too dumb to be there? My grades had dropped off enough for me to believe the latter and the school to feel comfortable enough to declare me “not Gilman material” which was odd because Gilman was the only school I had ever attended and for the seven years prior, one could safely assume I had been “Gilman material”. That declaration, “not Gilman material”, cut my parents deeply but they didn’t mention it to me until years later.

I remember coming to my father on one particular occasion and expressing my concern about the racial tension I felt I had to endure. We talked but I remember not being totally satisfied with the discussion. I couldn’t put my finger on it but the conversation didn’t seem to help much. It may have stopped the pain, momentarily, closed the wound, at least temporarily, but there was still the ugly scar with which I would have to contend.

As a child I had no idea the fine line my father had to walk. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered this journal entry and as I read it, I was taken back to that moment and I wept. I wept for him knowing full well he must have wept for me in the aftermath of that moment. And the thought of the strength in his restraint is overwhelming. He was unwilling to project what had been his truth on me … all the while hoping against hope that his reality wouldn’t have to be mine. Aside from the loss of a child, God forbid, there is no greater pain for a parent than the inability to “fix it” for their child. While he had some idea of what I was dealing with I had no idea the bind I was placing him in until I read the following journal entry and prayer:

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my son’s education and motivation or perhaps I should say lack of motivation. I’m torn between him leaving Gilman and not leaving Gilman.

Pooh has bad study habits and lacks discipline. Gilman does not help that situation. I cannot help but think that were he White and I a big contributor, things would be different and they would help us help him develop good study habits.

The racism leaks through in every conference I’ve had at Gilman! It’s not blatant – which makes it even more damaging! The phrase is “Gilman material” – that means preferably WASP!

How does one teach his son pride in being Black and the dangers of White racism without it taking effect in his whole educational process? I want so much for Pooh to be the best possible Christian warrior he can be. It’s an uphill pull! They’ve led him to believe he doesn’t have the brain energy to do the work – when I think of that I get hostile!

I pray God that we correct that and that Pooh will get turned on academically. He’s a fantastic son, bad grades and all – lazy study habits or not. I just pray he clicks on before something happens to me. I’ll die much easier knowing that’s happened.

Hear my prayer O Lord –

Turn not away from me or my son –

Though he seeks not thy help –

Turn to him – make known to him his worth to you – his sonship –

Take him and keep him forever in your presence. Amen.”

EPILOGUE

Though this is just one story, of one student at one school, my purpose here was not to shine a light on the school but rather to lift these young trailblazers. I wanted to create a forum where more stories like these could be told and different experiences shared. Yes, I believe we were trailblazers. No, we didn’t lead marches; we didn’t organize protests or stage sit-ins but we were the children of those who did and we carried their spirit through halls they were never allowed to tread. The sacrifices of our parents’ generation afforded us opportunities they all but demanded we take. We were tramping in an environment they had never experienced and that’s what made us trailblazers. These experiences are the types of things that get swept under the rug or dismissed as part of the coming of age experience we all go through. But I submit this experience, for me, was much more than merely another coming of age story. The fact that it’s been more than forty years since the first day of my private school experience and I am still writing about its effects should prove how large this period loomed in my life; yet I rest assured that things have changed for the better and great strides have been made as now concrete has been laid on the raw trail we blazed.

I have no axe to grind nor any score to settle but issues like these are rarely talked about. You need to know that I have some great friendships that still endure. Some of my closest friends in school (and to this day) were Jewish, Greek and yes, even some folks who would be considered by folks other than themselves, WASPs. They are all over the globe doing great things and if I were to call on them they would remember me and be willing to help. I did sleepovers and parties at their homes, learned about their culture and quirks and my family reciprocated. Though I attended high school and graduated from the New Baltimore City College High School and absolutely loved everybody from my graduating class, I still receive information and invitations to class reunions at Gilman and when I can, I attend. In fact, I plan to attend the thirty year reunion this May.

My parents wanted to give me the best of everything they could afford and often reached beyond what they could afford just for me. I can find no other way to thank them than to continue to grow, learn, teach and love my children enough to afford them every opportunity. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me how to love that much. Education was then and still is such a lifestyle determinant. A private school education has always been a hugely expensive endeavor and an academic leg up. That said, I have grown to count all of my years in private school as extremely valuable though not all of my lessons were academic and while I have no regrets, I cannot tell you how many times I have thought back on those years and the two educations that I received; the academic, paid for my parents and the social, offered freely by immersion and without solicitation.

I am hopeful that this story and others like it will help parents and their children better understand the unintended consequences of their choices regarding education. That is not to say the choice to send your child to a private school is a bad choice. In fact, I could argue, without much real opposition, you will not find greater academic resources or intellectual agility than in private schools. But, parents of minority students, please know there will be “home” work that must be done to reinforce self – esteem and define self-identity. I am sure there are those who will argue that – no matter the school or the child – everyone’s self-esteem and self-identity take hits during the coming of age years. However, I believe these normal struggles are only compounded by issues of race and class; the ever-present, rarely confronted elephants in the room.

Gilman has made great strides and continues to do so. It is only fitting that for all his compassion and hard work that Gilman recognizes Finney’s contributions and legacy by naming an award after him that celebrates the student who distinguishes himself “through his dedication to and practice of those human values necessary to eliminate racism, prejudice, and intolerance”.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention with some level of pride, Gilman’s current Headmaster, John E. Schmick who was my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Schmick was also a product of Gilman graduating twenty years after Finney. Like my father knew that Finney “got” it, I know that Schmick “gets” it. He was not only my homeroom teacher but also my Language Arts teacher. It was in his class where I first remember having good feelings associated with my writing. He would invite us to let our imagination run wild on paper. I remember writing a piece that mentioned most everyone in the class and when I read it aloud. They loved it! Mr. Schmick made it a “treat” and if we finished all of our work early he would allow me to read the story to the class again. He would say, “Wendini, come on up and read that story”. I know Gilman is in good hands and there are probably many schools across the country that are to be commended … but so too are the young trailblazers from all private schools from 1965-1985.

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 3 of 4)

(Continued from January 9, 2012)

I have no idea if the same ideology is still employed but back then the teachers in grades one through three were all white females. They taught the basics; reading, handwriting, composition, social studies and the like. Industrial Arts (commonly referred to as “shop”) was the only exception with one of two white male instructors. Shop was taught in the basement of another building with an enclosed drawing room and a work area that would have made any “do-it-yourselfer” proud. I don’t remember even seeing a woman so much as walk through the “shop” and my first and third grade homeroom teachers were married to the shop instructors! But once we got to the fourth grade all of my teachers were white and male. I got along and played well with everybody for the most part. I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers and my family followed suit and did the same. I had no “behavioral problems” to speak of and managed to stay on the honor roll with consistency through the third grade and into the fourth before things started feeling different. While rummaging through old pictures and papers in preparation for this essay, I ran across one of my fourth grade report cards. I noticed that the teacher made reference to my being “scrappy”. This was a sudden and definite change in the character that had been exhibited in grades one through three. It seemed as if this new character trait was beginning to stick without anyone questioning what might be causing this previously likeable, friendly “young man” to become so “scrappy” all of the sudden.

 

 

Most of the “scraps”, of any kind, happened at recess or on the way to the gymnasium. For me, they were usually the result of being called some name or having to somehow prove my right to be there. One student used to constantly call me “motor oil boy” but because my last name was Phillips I didn’t initially hear this as an insult. Phillips 66 service stations were all across the country back then and they sold motor oil.  Being in school with the children of rich business owners, chief surgeons and law firm partners, I imagined being part of the Phillips petroleum dynasty would afford me membership to the rich kids club. Little did I know that even if my father had owned the entire city, I could never have been a member of that club. With the naiveté of a child, I would smile when he would say it … the first 100 times … then I began to look at him with a tilted head … as the fact that motor oil was black kicked in. I rushed him with fists blazing wildly. Of course, I was viewed as the aggressor because no one heard any profanity. Motor oil ain’t a bad word. And the troublemaking, “Eddie Haskell” types are always keen on where figures of authority are and when they are not nearby. But in those days, calling me or any other Black kid, “boy”, was enough to warrant a beat down. You may as well have called me “nigger”. And some did.

 

 

In January of 1977, Roots, aired on network television.  The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s semiautobiographical book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family that follows Kunta Kinte from Gambia, West Africa to America spanning from 1750 – 1867, five years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and two years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. I remember the air being thick with nervous anticipation in the Black community. On the one hand, we felt like the story of slavery in America was finally going to be told on a large scale from our point of view; the same story told to everyone at the same time. On the other hand, with the cynicism that accompanies centuries of murder and abuse, decades of desegregation and years filled with countless broken promises and deferred dreams; some quietly feared the Black man’s story would be whitewashed. Nevertheless, it was reported that 130-140 million viewers, as many as eighty-five percent of American households with televisions, watched all or some of Roots on ABC. Clearly, it wasn’t just Black folk who were watching. The miniseries began airing on a Sunday evening, January 23, and ran through January 30, 1977. I was in the seventh grade, a little less than a month away from my thirteenth birthday.

 

 

As that week progressed so did the depictions of mistreatment and struggle for Kunta Kinte and his descendants. I remember hoping none of my white classmates would mention anything about the miniseries. I felt, either intentionally or unintentionally, it would just come out of their mouths wrong so it was better left alone. If it had to be mentioned at all, I would rather have had it come from a teacher. Acknowledgement on that level could serve as an endorsement and would have given it even more validity. As fate would have it, the opposite happened; I don’t recall any official class time being devoted to Roots. However, I do remember it being mentioned by some of my classmates.  One encounter is to this day as vivid in my mind as if it happened only just yesterday. As you may have guessed, it was outside at recess. Now in middle school, we were much closer to the gymnasium and relegated to playing between it and the middle school building, on or around the curve of the track that served as the “home stretch” or the last leg of the relay races we used to run in gym class during the spring. There was blacktop just inside the curve that held four basketball hoops and ample field space to kick a soccer ball or toss a football around.

It was late one sunny, crisp, Baltimore morning. It was a normal, uneventful recess and then I heard it. The poor imitation of a supposed African chant rose above the snickering and laughter of a small group of troublemakers convened at the end of the track. As far as I can remember, the other Black kids were otherwise engaged with the rest of the kids or too far away to hear. I then began to make out certain words amidst the cowardly incoherent mumblings of my WASP “friends”. “Blah, blah, blah … Roots”. Giggles. I stopped. “Yada, yada, yada … slaves … back to Africa”. More giggles and snickering. I turned. “Blah, blah, blah … niggers”. I began walking toward the crowd that was now dispersing. Leaving this incident’s ring leader to fend for himself.  “What did you say?” I asked, now standing right in front of his face with fists balled at my side. It felt as if everything stopped moving. All the other games stopped and a crowd of kids began to close in around the two of us.

“Nigger!” he said. And as he swung, I blocked then countered with a shot to the gut that robbed him of the wind to produce any words much less derogatory racial epithets, as if there were any other kind. I drew back ready to deliver a hellacious left hook but by the time it reached his face my hand was wide open with fingers fully extended. When my palm made contact with his face it rang out with the loudest slap I had ever heard. As he fell back to the ground I could see his face had reddened almost instantly and his glasses were knocked off his face. The crowd moved in closer as I followed him to the ground straddling his chest with my knees pinning the great wrestler’s arms down. I drew back once again amid the cheers and jeers to “Kill’em Phillips!” Ironically, some of the cheers came from members of the original group of troublemakers that were moments ago part of the problem. He was clearly the underdog and at a definite disadvantage.  Just when I was about to unleash the blow he, while bawling, looked at me and said, “So what?! Hit me! You’re still a nigger!” With that my arm, already cocked, began to tremble and my fist shook with rage. I burst into tears and got up having never thrown the punch. I didn’t understand what had happened but I was momentarily inconsolable.

I was too young to know what I was experiencing but I remember being awestruck at the level of what I then could only describe as hate. How does a preteen child build up enough hate for another anything much less another human being?! Most people in a position of such disadvantage find some way to compromise or plead for mercy even if they are right … but to find someone to be so wrong and so defiant … someone who seemed to dislike me that much solely because of the color of my skin was heartbreaking. If I had to offer some explanation of my tears, I would have to say they were, in part, from the shame of allowing this fool to cause me to lose control and come outside of myself but my tears were also representative of the hopelessness I felt about the possibility of this ever changing. The realization that no matter how many classes or experiences we shared, some would never consider me or anyone who looked like me their equal, was disheartening at best.

By this time one of the teachers monitoring recess was rushing over to break up what I had already stopped. The bell signaling the end of recess was sounding simultaneously. While everyone else went to class my “friend” and I were marched to Head of School’s office. I am sure we must have been a sight for the Head of School.  There my “friend” was with broken glasses resting askew and half of his face reddened and swollen in a spot that, oddly enough, was shaped an awful lot like my hand and me sniffing and drying tears but untouched.

 

 

We sat together but were asked for our account of what happened independently. My “friend” spoke first and said that I “hit him in the face and broke his glasses”. Hearing no denial from me the Head of School looked to me as if to ask, “and what do you have to say, Wendell?” to which I quickly retorted, “He called me a nigger!” With that, I was sent back to class with a note explaining my delay. My “friend” stayed in the office for an extended period of time and while I have no idea what was said I do know that he had to report to detention for the better part of that week.

For those who think my punishment was really no punishment at all I suppose we could argue that point, after all, I was the aggressor but what would a fair punishment for me have looked like? If I were the Head of School what would I have done … especially if I never had to deal with a race issue like that before? This was more evidence of the murky water that Dad and Finney muddled through years before.

The unchartered waters of race relations and other culture clashes made visible an Achilles’ heel not only for private schools but society in general. There were rules on the books that seemed to unintentionally expose the cultural exclusivity of some schools. For example, here’s one rule that actually worked in favor of Black kids; there was a rule that stated your hair could not grow past your shirt collar. Well, we all wore afros and our hair grew straight up and out instead of down our neck toward the collar. We got to let our hair grow as long as we wanted. While that sounded cool to us as kids, as an adult I realized that was proof of the fact that we were never expected to be there in the first place.

My worst experiences regarding race were perpetuated by a small group of “blue-blooded”, “WASP” kids who had an elitist, untouchable air about them and their parents were loaded. They seemed to get some joy from giving me hell for being Black in much the same way they may have gotten joy from teasing a poor white kid from Arbutus or Dundalk. Whatever the reason … whatever the case … this was getting old.

(Continued January 23, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

I was introduced to private school without ever having to concern myself with the differences between public and private. My father was bought on to teach a Black History class in the upper school. If he wasn’t the first Black teacher he was among the first. Dad really had a love for young folk and their energy. He had started and maintained a viable and noteworthy Youth ministry at the Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland where he was the founding pastor, so working with or teaching teenagers was not foreign to him, especially not on that subject, and he loved it. What was new to Dad was working with upper middle to upper class white teenagers. The trouble was rarely with the youngster though navigating through the garbage they had been fed at home proved to be more than a slight impediment to the academic learning process.

I remember Dad telling the story of the young white student who stepped reluctantly into his classroom, head down and clearly bothered he slumped in his seat and was silent for the entire Black History class. Sensing something was obviously wrong Dad approached the boy and asked what was wrong. The youngster said that he liked learning about Black history and loved having Dad as a teacher but he would no longer be able to continue with the class. When Dad asked why, the boy replied, “I can’t … well I don’t want to say it”. After Dad reassured him that he was free to say whatever he needed to say, the boy said, “My dad says a nigger can’t teach me anything”. By this time the boy’s eyes were filled with tears. In full pastoral mode, Dad consoled him and told him not to worry. Headmaster Finney’s office was the next stop for Dad.

Redmond C.S. Finney was a warm, likeable and fair minded guy. He was visible, accessible and genuinely concerned about the well-being of each boy on that campus. It was not uncommon for Mr. Finney to show up on the playground at recess and toss a ball, or borrow some kid’s lacrosse stick to play catch with another. He may even pop up in your classroom and perform his legendary headstand. I remember being less impressed that he could do it and more impressed that he, as Headmaster of the entire school, would do it!

Finney was comfortable with a lacrosse stick or football in his hand. After all, he was an athlete’s athlete with a bowlegged, heel-to-toe gait that allowed him to be identified a mile away. His head rolled from side to side when he spoke in much the same way as any John Wayne impersonator. Putting all that together made it look as if he moved on wobbly wheels rather than feet. But none of that seemed to get in the way of his academic or athletic prowess. In fact, to this day there are only two people in the history of the NCAA to be first team All – American in two sports in the same academic year – Redmond C.S. Finney and James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown – yeah, that Jim Brown.

Mr. Finney and my father had a great relationship replete with a tremendous mutual respect. Finney was a change agent for Gilman. He and Dad had many conversations and Dad recognized that “Reddy” Finney “got” it. If that were not the case … if Dad did not believe in Finney’s willingness to do the heavy lifting that all institutionalized culture change requires, he would never have agreed to teach there and I, with absolute certainty, would not have been enrolled in the school.

Finney cared about all of the boys in that school and his concern was both genuine and palpable. He was a great internal and external ambassador for the school. Having graduated in 1947, Finney was a product of the school and had been raised with the exclusionary traditions he was now seeking to broaden to include those who were never meant to be there at the school’s inception. Yet, there was no question that Reddy bled “Blue & Gray”. Stalwart alumni and supporters knew this and where they may have hurled pejoratives at someone else in the face of perceived threats to tradition, they believed in Finney even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the change he was championing.

In spite of the mutual respect, Dad knew his primary responsibility was to the God he was called to serve and the congregation of the young church he pastored. He viewed the instance with the young student as more of a preview of coming attractions and, in all honesty, didn’t have the patience to wage these small battles when he was already engaged in the war for equality and justice on a much larger scale that impacted many more people. Both men knew and expected to muddle through uncomfortable moments, for all parties involved were in unchartered waters: administration, faculty, student and parent.

Dad knew that fighting the proverbial good fight , while important, was no more important than knowing when the fight isn’t yours – doesn’t mean the fight is not worthy … it’s just not yours. Fighting with those who would fight against Gilman’s culture change was both a good and worthy fight but it wasn’t Dad’s fight. More poignantly, it was Finney’s fight and with the tenacity of an All-American football center, he was up to the challenge. He was passionate about the changes he was ushering in but that doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks and hiccups – like the situation Dad endured – along the way.

Dad left Gilman’s faculty around ’71 or ’72, when I was in the second grade. Because he taught in the upper school and the schedules were so different from the lower school schedules, our paths never crossed so I never missed the fact that Dad wasn’t there. I continued through lower and middle school without ever knowing that incident with the young white student ever occurred. It was never brought up or discussed around me. While I was one of only two Blacks through the first, second and third grades (with no more than five or six in the entire lower school at that time) life in the lower school, for the most part, was pretty cool. Things didn’t begin to become “different” until the fourth grade.

(Continued January 16, 2012)

“I’m at a ‘Cross-Roads’, God!”

This letter to God is an example of Dad’s unceasing prayer. He would constantly speak with God, question Him and even get angry with Him but he always loved Him. While deeply personal, I share this letter not as a betrayal of his privacy but rather a blessing to those of us who may find ourselves stumbling in a similar “cross-roads” experience and to offer a Pastor’s point of view. We seldom wonder or care what they may be thinking or feeling. What do you do when all that you are faced with … when all that God is directing you to goes against all of your personal history, experience and knowledge?

Because I happen to know how this particular story ends I will tell you that the church did buy the property and it did start many ministries that enhanced many and even saved some lives. It was called The Park Community Center (commonly referred to as “Park”).  It was an outreach ministry of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland. After about a 15 year run, the building was sold to what became Parklane Baptist Church.

During the time it was part of Heritage, it was many things to many people. First and foremost, it put life in a building that would have otherwise been abandoned. It was primarily a recreation center located at 3606 Mohawk Avenue in northwest Baltimore City but it was also 1) a safe haven that kept teenagers off the streets and out of trouble 2) A Summer Camp 3) A Saturday Afternoon “theater” for Movies [shown by the Pastor – complete with candy and popcorn] 4) Campaign Headquarters for various campaigns 5) The Way Inn [Coffee House Ministry] and 6) A location for church picnics, parties and family fun nights

I have great memories of Park Community Center and the lives touched and changed therein. I thank Dad for hanging in there! I thank him for his faith amidst the naysayers and the gnashing of teeth … the fighting with himself and the wrestling with his God. Dad was a visionary but, as you will find in the letter, being a visionary ain’t always easy because you are seeing what others can’t or won’t see. Enjoy and be blessed.

 

 

The wisdom of my giving the totality of my life to pastoring has been called into question, God!

I seem to be at a cross-roads in my ministry. On the one hand God, I’m pastoring a congregation of good, affluent people – nice folk who are relatively warm, biblically illiterate, cautious in the faith and skeptical about even Your leadership, let alone mine. I can sympathize in part God, for they are also insecure in so many ways due to attempts to overcompensate for their insecurities. But God, I love them. Intimacy frightens them as it does most people.  On the other hand, I am also pastoring a community of alienated, oft times hostile teenagers, whom I also love dearly – this is my Park (Community Center) ministry.

Now, You’ve given me an opportunity to marry the “haves” with the “have-nots”. God, this seems worse than a shotgun wedding! Mission is secondary to the age old bastion of selfishness  and the “what about me/us?” mindset. “If we purchase ‘that property’ (instrument of mission) what will happen to our ‘home’ (Heritage) … we can’t pay for that!”

The recklessness and excitement and challenge to their faith gets no hearing at all. The prayerful deliberation with You seems to not be needed in financial matters – God, they attempt to weigh finances with human lives – and of course You know which wins –

God, open our eyes that we may see the need … to launch out in the depths where the hurt is the greatest – the risk, the costliest … that our dependence upon You might grow to the point where we recognize that it is a necessity – not an appendage.  Are you putting me to a test God? Is this another Baptism by fire?

My patience oft times runs short and I sometimes feel the church is a stumbling block for me. So much energy is wasted fighting dumb battles which have no bearing on ministry and mission at all! Is that the way I’m to spend the rest of my life, God? It hurts. I’m tired – I know You must be tired of us God.

God help me to be still

And listen –

To seek Your counsel –

The wisdom to know the difference

Between my wants and Your demands –

The difference between my people’s fears

And Your warnings.

 

Grant us all openness of mind

A quickening of the spirit-

A sensitivity of the heart

And a restlessness of the soul

That we might become better discerners of Thy Will.

Amen!

 

-Rev. Wendell H. Phillips-