In Memoriam: Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

If we have to die (and contrary to the belief of some, we all must) odds show that more people will do so in January than any other month of the year. While three of the most significant and life altering deaths of my existence thus far happened in January – two of them mere days apart in the same year –here lately the month of May has given January a run for its money. My dear friend and “Brother” Michael V. Dobson died in May 29, 2010. On May 9, 2012 another very close friend, campaign manager and “Brother”, Terry W. Taylor died and days later, on May 17, 2012 the Reverend Doctor (“Uncle”) Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr. made the transition and joined with six fellow Goon Squad members who crossed over years before.

After Uncle Marion’s Memorial service Saturday, May 26, 2012, I had the honor, pleasure and self-appointed duty to chauffer around two of the four remaining Goon Squad members, O. Patrick “Pat” Scott and the ever dapper Dr. “Uncle” Homer E. Favor. Lalit “Lal” Gadhia had to get back home for another engagement. Rev. (“Uncle”) Vernon Dobson had already endured a draining week of emotional extremes. The high was a celebration of his life in the ministry and the low was the overpowering fact that Uncle Marion – who certainly would have been physically present for that celebration – had left this earth just three days prior. Understandably overwhelmed, Uncle Vernon was not in attendance. After spending a considerable amount of time that morning wrestling with a bowtie dawned for the first time in my effort to pay respect to Uncle Marion’s signature style, Pat and I rode together to the church. When it was over I had hoped to connect with at least some of the others. Uncle Homer did not disappoint.

“Pooh, you goin’ to the cemetery”, asked Uncle Homer.

“If you want to go…”

“No …” Uncle Homer interrupted, “… had you planned to go to the cemetery?”

“Not unless you wanted to” I replied in a tone reassuring him I was at his disposal.

“Hell no! I saw the funeral director looking at me sideways …”, he bends and leans to demonstrate, “… sizing me up! I told him, ‘Man, stand up and look me in my eye! I’m ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere any time soon”, he jokes playfully.

With that the three of us left the Douglas Memorial Community Church where Uncle Marion had pastored from 1949-1995 and headed downtown to break bread at McCormick & Schmick’s, one of Uncle Homer’s favorite restaurants. The stories and political, socio-economic discussion began almost as soon as I shifted our “chariot” into drive. It seemed as though every block we traveled held memories of both joy and pain. We talked and laughed through our late lunch and then on to Uncle Homer’s home. The conversation never stopped.

Funerals and Memorial Services are bittersweet occasions but, for me, Uncle Marion’s service was much more sweet than bitter. I saw many old friends, heard and retold stories that will never lose their splendor and most importantly remembered the life of one of God’s servants so well lived. Some asked if I were going to write something solely about Uncle Marion as a supplement to The Goons (Take: 1) piece I authored about a year ago. While I knew Uncle Marion’s life was colorful, robust and clearly worthy of its own literary treatment I had yet to process Terry’s death and what his loss meant for my life. So once again, a member of the Goon Squad comes to our rescue. I am publishing Uncle Homer’s unedited words about his dear friend and brother, Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

(W.F. Phillips)

 

 

 

Marion Curtis Bascom, My Friend and Brother

Members of Marion’s family asked me to pen a few lines about him that might capture the essence of his being from the view point of one of his many close friends. Reflecting upon the matter proved to be challenging, if not daunting. How can the highlights of one so accomplished be treated adequately in just a few words? I was reminded of my feelings when queried about him by Tosha, our physical therapist. Among the many superlatives that I used in describing him to her, irascible provided the three of us considerable amusement.

I arrived in Baltimore in 1956 to begin a long career in teaching and administration at Morgan State College. The Reverend Gus Roman, Pastor of the First Baptist Church on the east side, took me to meet Marion, whom he held in highest regards. I found him to be imbued with concern about the abject denial of his people, at the time. For instance, there was not a single person of color serving in any capacity above the most menial category in department stores, supermarkets, banks, print/broad-cast media, or any major sphere of economic activity. In fact, there was only one black in the City Council and only a single one in the legislature. Persons of color were not accorded gainful employment in either municipal or state governing bodies. Those with the Federal government were relegated to positions below Grade 5. My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland and the other exclusively white institutions were welcomed to break bread with me and my faculty at Morgan State. The reverse situation was a no-no. Suffice it to say, this absence of fair play exasperated the economic well-being of Charm City’s black population.

Marion, like Jesus, literally wept. It was at this juncture in 1967 when eleven of us from disparate walks of life were brought together to ponder these disconnects. We become known pejoratively as the Goon Squad. Subsequently, we welcomed the designation as being meritorious. Marion moved us into roles of supporting the development of Camp Farthest Out. This is where Inner City children were enabled to escape the summer’s heat by spending a few weeks in this pristine setting. This facilitated the broadening of their appreciation of nature and improvement of their academic prowess. In another vein, Marion’s then new position as Fire Department Commissioner allowed him to press several of us into service when the city began to burn in 1968. We went into the hot spots in order to ensure the safety of the residents.

I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ favorite passage in Proverbs, “Seeth thou a man diligent in business. He shall stand with Kings.”  With this fervor we further integrated the Congress by seating Parren J. Mitchell, one of us, as the holder of the 7th Congressional district seat. Additionally, another one of us, Joseph C. Howard, broke the longstanding “Sitting Judge Principle” by winning a seat on the lofty Supreme Bench of Baltimore. Ironically, this is the same body that suspended him for daring to air the racist practices and procedures utilized in the administration of rape cases by Maryland’s judicial system. Subsequently, he was appointed to the Federal judiciary with the endorsement of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Another accomplishment of Marion’s was the opening up of television and radio in keeping with the laws that should have been avoided, assiduously. Two of our members, Vernon N. Dobson and myself, along with Samuel T. Daniels of the Masonic family, served nearly 20 years on a weekly television program, “Look at It This Way.”

There was a lasting bond of brotherhood developed between Marion and me which embraced the highest values of human endeavor. We grew to be such friends and brothers that we were often facetiously referred to as the odd couple. To me he became “Macuba” and to him, I became “Hoelfa.” The endless hours we spent fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, along with bowling well after midnight in our younger days, provided us with fond memories. Initially, there were eleven of us but with Marion’s passing, only four remain. The spirits of the departed, fortunately, transcend the distance between earth and bright glory.

In ending the discourse I must acknowledge the ecumenical reach insisted upon by Marion and the rest of us. We interacted constantly with others. Persons typifying them would be Sam Daniels, James Rouse, Henry Parks, Chester Wickwire, Peter Angelos, Robert Embery, Martin Jenkins and a host of others too numerous to mention. Curtis, as his grandmother called him, had multifaceted interests and capabilities in many genres. For example, he loved gardening, raising beautiful roses, other flowers, and some vegetables. In another vein, he established a competitive office supply business to demonstrate further that people of color harbored such talents. On many occasions, Marion had me join him in visiting those hospitalized or recovering from illness at home. Parren was not always hospitable, at times, wishing to be left alone. The minister’s persuasive power, however, always prevailed. It was a joy to share the podium each year during Black History Month by addressing the residents at Broadmeade Retirement Community. Spencer Hammond always accompanied us with a musical ensemble. The evening, conceptualized by Chester Wickwire was highly regarded by all and sundry. John Dunn was right, … “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Marion takes a portion of me with him but leaves an even greater share of himself with me.

Thanks for the journey, dear Friend.

Homer E. Favor

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)

The Black Community & Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns

January of 2012 will mark 25 years since The Honorable Clarence “Du” Burns held office as the first Black mayor of Baltimore City, Maryland. The “Du” in his name was fabled and symbolized the fact that Clarence Burns was a person who could “get things done”.

In the late 1940’s Mr. Burns helped to deliver the Black vote for then Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Dad) which helped get Burns the job as a shower attendant at East Baltimore’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. Word of his ability to get things done began to spread … so much so that his middle name may just as well have been “Do”.  

And so the “Do” was adopted as his trademark. I suppose spelling it with the “Du” gave more of a surname prefix feel. I would wager there are still a good number of folk would be amazed to know that his last name – as far as Uncle Sam was concerned – was “Burns”. Nevertheless, I am anxious to see how loudly and how clearly the name Clarence “Du” Burns will ring when January 2012 rolls around … or if there will be any real mention of his legacy at all.

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer headed to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987, “Du”Burns, who was the sitting President of the Baltimore City Council, moved into the Mayor’s office to finish out the remainder of Schaefer’s term. “Du” Burns and Schaefer knew each other and worked well together. With Schaefer moving to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis and “Du”Burns in the Mayor’s slot, Baltimore was well positioned to benefit from both a Mayor and a Governor who knew Baltimore intimately. The fact that Schaefer and “Du”Burns got along well together could only be viewed as a plus … but there were those who felt differently.

Baltimore had been an industrial, blue collar town for many decades but times were changing and the industrial age was coming quickly to an end. Bethlehem Steel and the General Motors plants were closing. Good paying jobs were being lost and undereducated workers were going to be at a tremendous loss if they could not get back to work. Schaefer, ½ Vaudeville showman and ½ mayor but all politician, sprang into action! He began to focus, almost totally, on the revival, reconstruction and repurposing of Baltimore’s inner harbor. One minute he was playing “Trashball” in an effort to promote keeping the city clean and the next minute he donned (no pun intended) an old fashioned bathing suit – replete with sun hat, water toy  and mermaid – in an effort to lure the National Aquarium to Baltimore. He was successful.

William Donald Schaefer became known for what some would call a home grown charm and appeal but he was just as well known for his temper with those who disagreed with or criticized him and could be quite snarky. Billowing in the wings of Baltimore’s cirque de politique was an intelligent group of young, ambitious Blacks who had grown tired of Schaefer, his antics and their belief that he lacked the urgency necessary to remedy the tragedy that had become the socio-economic condition of many of the city’s poor folk. They saw the harbor thriving while the entire public school system and neighborhoods, less than one mile in any direction from the harbor, languished.

Famed attorney, fellow native son and former Circuit Court Judge Billy Murphy, Jr. rolled the angst and impatience of many Baltimoreans into a fiery campaign against Schaefer in 1983. Murphy believed that Schaefer’s neglect of neighborhoods was apodictic rendering his challenge (Schaefer’s camp would probably chose “attack”) both necessary and inevitable.

The 1983 Murphy vs. Schaefer campaign caused further division in the Black community. There were a large number of Blacks, particularly in Edmondson Village, the area in Baltimore’s western region that was Schaefer’s birthplace, who loved William Donald Schaefer. They felt a victory for Schaefer was a victory for Edmondson Village. In like fashion, an attack on Schaefer was an attack on Edmondson Village. But Murphy could not be easily dismissed. He had an electrical engineering degree from MIT and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. Billy Murphy possessed the rare coupling of intellect and pedigree but his unbridled passion made some uneasy and was viewed as reckless by many of the “old guard” Black politicos. The campaign devolved and become less about issues and more about personalities. In the end, the race wasn’t even close. Schaefer won handily but his Achilles’ heel was exposed in the process; “Schaefer didn’t like criticism and (Murphy) was full of it during the campaign.”

As time moved on more of these “young guns” became prominant. None were as quick on the draw as Murphy, but they were all just as ambitious. They believed that if “Du” Burns were to be elected mayor he would be nothing more than Schaefer’s puppet, paving the way for at least four more years of “Schaefer-esk” policies, neglect and further despair for neighborhoods and the public school system.

One of these young, ambitious Blacks was Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke. Here was yet another young, native son who was intelligent and had been to the “best” schools in the land. In 1967 he entered Yale and after graduating in 1971 he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University then went on to get his J.D. from Harvard. Twenty years after entering Yale, Kurt Schmoke was running to be the first elected Black mayor of Baltimore City … against the first Black Mayor, one Clarence “Du” Burns.

“Du” Burns was no longer a “shoe-in” for the post. Quite to the contrary, many people jumped aboard the Kurt Schmoke bandwagon primarily based upon his education, though I doubt many (if any) will be honest enough to admit that fact. The irony was that a great number of those folk had less education than “Du” Burns and much more in common with him than with Schmoke. And if we didn’t know then we need only to look to President Obama to learn political prowess and expediancy have more to do with relationship building and trust than intellect.

When the Sunpaper and other polls showed that “Du” Burns was trailing Schmoke badly (some had Burns as many as 30 points behind ) all the “smart” (pun intended) money got behind Schmoke making it extremely difficult for the “Du” Burns campaign to raise money. As one might be able to discern – lack of education, age and inability to raise money (based on what the polls were showing) – all of these factors hurt “Du” Burns’ chances tremendously. The Schaefer connection cut both ways … in some areas of the city it was a help, while in others, it was a hindrance.

Many were expecting a landslide victory for Schmoke, but he only won by about 5,000 votes. It was one of the most competitive elections in Baltimore City Mayoral history. With all that “Du” Burns had to contend with you could almost call that a victory for someone many thought would never amount to much more than a high school shower attendant.

You may ask how I came to know so much about this particular race and if you did I would reply, “Because my father was ‘Du’ Burn’s campaign manager”. Below you will find what Dad wrote in his journal regarding timing, respect, the oneness of the Black community and why he supported, believed and worked for and with Clarence H. “Du” Burns for Mayor of Baltimore City.

Wendell F. Phillips (August 2011)

“Power and growth within the Black Community is dependent upon, at the very least, the following:

  1. The integrity of each individual’s commitment to the overall agenda of the Community.
  2.  The subjugation of personal agendas for the agenda of the Community.
  3.  Each individual’s commitment to heal.
  4.  The commitment to true community (not to be confused with uniformity) must transcend all other commitments and drives, be   they religious, political, social, educational or financial.
  5.  Singleness of purpose and vision: the liberation of all, yea, even the least of these!
  6. Willingness to risk by reaching out and down for a brother or sister who has lost all hope.
  7. A thorough understanding and appreciation of our unique history and struggle that we might better understand from whence we’ve come and that we are where we are in life only through the grace of God and because others who have lived before us were willing to make the supreme sacrifice! There is an interconnectedness which must be passed on from generation to generation.
  8.  A trusting of each other for our destinies are intertwined!
  9. A commitment to look for God in each other rather than searching for that which divides us and causes us to dehumanize one another by labeling each other. (There is a part of each of the disciples within each of us, yea even Judas!)
  10. We must realize that when we encounter those who think differently than we do, the moment of encounter calls for celebration of their uniqueness not denunciation. As they may be difficult to endure for the moment, each one of us has his/her moments of being difficult with others!

I say all this to say that an enormous amount of blood, sweat & tears has been shed in the struggle to achieve one of the high priorities of our total community … a Black mayor of Baltimore City! Finally, through the grace of God and perseverance, we have one, the Honorable Mayor Clarence ‘Du’ Burns!

But now, even before he begins to take the reins, there are those who wish to unseat him and risk losing mayoralty altogether, sending the total community back to square one! Why? Because some ‘don’t like the way he talks’ or ‘he hasn’t been to college’ or ‘he’s just a shower attendant’! But does it not make a significant statement on his behalf that he has been able to move up from a shower clerk to city councilman to President of City Council and finally to Mayor?

The real mark of a man and his character is NOT determined by the heights he may achieve but rather the depths out which he has climbed! Certainly, God has had a hand in the Mayor’s journey! One would also have to admit that the Mayor must have accumulated a tremendous wealth of knowledge about City government and the politics of getting things done. And now, after all the struggle and grief that the Mayor and his family have endured, as he comes to the sunset of his career and life, there are those who not only would oust him but risk our –Blacks – losing the mayoralty for good!

Certainly Mayor ‘Du’ Burns has weak points – so do we all! But why not, where ‘Du’ is weak, shore him up? That’s the history of our whole struggle from Day 1! Can you imagine a more positive statement or a brighter ray of hope for all young Blacks than ‘Du’ being ‘Mr. Mayor’? It says no matter how humble your beginnings, if you have the faith, determination, singleness of purpose and commitment, there is no height to which you cannot ascend!

We now have a city with the major pieces in place; a Black mayor, a Black state’s attorney, a Black city solicitor, a Black superintendent of education and a Black police commissioner … the question is, WHY RISK IT ALL BY PITTING ONE AGAINST THE OTHER, THUS SPLITTING OUR COMMUNITY, ONCE AGAIN, RATHER THAN WORKING AND STRATEGIZING TOGETHER ON BEHALF OF ALL THOSE BEHIND THE “GLITTER” CAUGHT UP IN SEEMINGLY HOPELESS DESPAIR?!  I strongly believe that wisdom and compassion would advise a better alternative: Mayor ‘Du’, the elder and his family deserves an opportunity to be Mayor for four years and then a smooth transition to the “younger” (who would be learning much about the politics of city government and getting things done). We, as a community, cannot continuously fracture and segment ourselves each and every election and then ask afterward, ‘Why can’t we get together?’

The piece we ought be fighting for, which is NOT in place, is ten seats in the City Council! That would be a much more productive and beneficial endeavor for all of us; for if we insist on spilling blood on the mayoralty, the fall-out will negatively impact every other political race in the city and we will lose!

Isn’t it strange that Jesus wasn’t embarrassed by His disciples even though they left much to be desired?! They were just twelve ordinary men … some of whom were crude, rough fishermen! No orators, certainly not scholars but men who had a desire to serve their fellow man! But their experience enabled them to deal with the most powerful of all principalities. ‘Du’ may not be the most learned of all men … he may not have the eloquence of a King but he does have the ‘toughness’ and know-how bestowed upon him by years and years of struggling just to survive and lift himself up. That is what’s needed in these difficult days in which we are presently living. Degrees, has ‘Du’ none but scars from the struggle, many!

Do we let our own struggle to the top just so we can topple them once there or do we enable them to remain there a few years by strengthening them where they are weak and working along with them to make sure they have the best administration ever? Do we not realize that what happens to the first Black mayor, especially, makes a statement about all of us?! Do we honor him and thank him for persevering to this point or do we just toss him aside?

In short, though Du’s politics may differ from some, his struggle has been just as real as many and, in some cases, more severe than most of our own. In spite of all he’s been through, Du has achieved and made history for us all. Let us thank the man, respect his achievements gained against all odds and honor Du as MAYOR CLARENCE ‘DU’ BURNS, THE FIRST BLACK (ELECTED) MAYOR OF BALTIMORE CITY, who has worked the system well to our advantage. His being mayor makes a powerful statement, chocked full of hope, to all those young Blacks caught in that quagmire of hopelessness and despair which says,  ‘It is possible, if only you would dare to dream!’ ”

Rev. Wendell H. Phillips (1987)

A Call For Leadership


As a Political Science major and recovering state legislator I have been constantly reminded of the separation of church and state. Whether it was the subject of study at Morgan State University or couched in a heated debate over prayer-in-public-schools during my time in the Maryland General Assembly, the merit of the separation of church and state reared its head over and over again. Yet as the son of an activist preacher that separation always seemed to be a direct contradiction to what was my everyday experience. While I thought I knew the intent of the phrase it hadn’t been my reality. In fact, I would go as far to say that it wasn’t the reality for most Black folks who either lived or were students of post slavery Civil Rights movements. For Black folk in America – whether they acknowledge it or not – there has never been a separation of church and state.

With that in mind it should come as no surprise that my father, the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland and the first Black chairman of Baltimore City’s state legislative delegation, certainly believed that God was God of all or He wasn’t God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not always welcome. As a matter of fact, Dad often remarked that he learned all of his politics from dealing with church folk in the first place. He needed only to model his older brother, Channing E. Phillips, who was the pastor of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. For as long as I can remember Black Clergy has helped lead and advocate for “the least of these”.

Members of the faith community used to have a lock on leadership. They came with their own army of workers and if the choir was good, they even had their own soundtrack! The soldiers in this army suffered similar if not identical inequities and the inhibitors of their progress were easily identifiable. None of that is the case today. “Faith leaders” are likely to be as trifling as the proverbial Snake Oil salesman of yesteryear. This is not a new phenomenon. Without getting too preachy, the Bible is rife with references to false prophets and those who are called to comfort His people but do not. That’s right, I said it! Shysters were abundant even in biblical times. Nevertheless, the fact remains that problems persist regardless of the era. And on some level there will always be need for leaders. And on some level they will need to be selfless. And that is hard to do for long. Human nature and history have taught this lesson well; America’s political history especially!

During the 1950s & 1960s our political gains were social imperatives. Whether or not Black folk deserved to be treated as equals and other “quality of life” issues should not have been matters for the Supreme Court of the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the land to settle. But they were. And those causes … those “campaigns for justice” were waged by men and women of God. His Word was carried from the church house, through the streets to the White House. There was no separation.

Concerning the state of Black/White race relations in 1966, the late Dr. Nathan Wright, Jr., an Episcopalian minister, scholar, and a member of the Republican Party, in his book Black Power, pointed out that “we are now faced with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundation of our nation”. Some 44 years later it can be argued that a portion of those who now hold conscienceless power are Black. Following that same logic, it stands to reason that those now with powerless conscience not only include Blacks, but poor Whites and Latinos can be added to the ranks.

This seemingly cyclical dynamic paves the way for a Superhero; a vibrant leader or chain of leaders who will champion all causes for those who experience grave injustice.

Yet, today a “Black Agenda” is not only impossible to define but there are Black folk who have reached a certain degree of comfort who would opt out even if such an agenda existed for fear of losing their seat at the table of sameness and validation.

“We live in a system”, says Derrick Bell in Ethical Ambition, “that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained”. Bell further asserts that though there are huge disparities in opportunity and income between the “haves” and the “have nots” those who should challenge the system do not. In fact, those disadvantaged by the system are “culturally programmed” to accept things as they are. Yet, with the advent of technology and easily accessible public information the “have-nots” now know what the “haves” have and they aren’t happy about the disparities. Undoubtedly there will be those who step in to fill that huge gap between anger and action with the hope of making a difference and perhaps even [insert suspense music] becoming “leaders”.

We have all heard stories of leaders with “modest” or “humble” beginnings … those Horatio Alger, quixotic stories of victory being snatched from defeat, “rags to riches”, “poor-kid-from-the-hood-makes-good” type of stories. But sadly those stories, while inspiring, are still the exception. The truth is, at the risk of sounding like a new-age Black Panther, “all power” truly belongs “to the people”. The sad fact is that “we, the people” have relinquished ours far too often. Election after election we hear of abysmal voter turnout and lament over the pending doom of this country. It should be noted that favor will never find those who employ apathy. And it should come as no surprise that apathy’s employers are all too often the same who can least afford the consequence of inaction.

I can tell you from personal experience that choosing to serve the public is a difficult choice and should not be made on a whim. Parenting aside, there is no occupation that brings with it more heartache and opportunities for misunderstanding then serving the public yet there is nothing nobler or more rewarding. That being said one may feel a fair measure of reluctance but should not be paralyzed by the same for true leaders – those who seek to educate and empower – are called by something much greater than any reason for trepidation. I would say that a leader has no more (and usually markedly less) than a 15 year run from the time most people begin to refer to him or her as such. After that time either “things” begin to “happen” or conversely, nothing happens anymore.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look … how far back would you like to go? Jesus? Okay, let’s take a look. Theologians will agree that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine. Most followers of Christ will concede that event marks the beginning of His ministry … His leadership. Three years later? He was crucified. Now if you are a believer then you know the story did not end there. But even if you don’t believe but follow History, you must concede that Jesus was killed less than five years after He gained some notoriety as a leader … as He began to help change the way people thought which ultimately challenged those who thought they were in power. Too far back? Okay, how about President Kennedy, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (post Mecca Malcom X), Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy, Sr.? All killed within 15 years of being leaders whose words helped galvanize people and began to challenge the powers that be.

Now, here lately, it hasn’t been so drastic or final, thank God, but severe damage has been done. I fear there aren’t enough people who actually see beyond their own lives to help anyone else much less speak with an authority that only truth affords; because history has taught us that telling the truth can get you killed. Leaders are neutralized or somehow rendered inconsequential at a much quicker rate than we create them. Political leaders can quickly render themselves insignificant with just one scandal. No one goes into office looking to part of a scandal but the longer one stays in office, the greater the opportunity for them to be caught up in one. While said politicos are physically alive they are, for all intent and purposes, politically dead. Other politicians may languish and wither away in seats (held sometimes across generations) with but a mere fraction of the power they once wielded. So we are left with a void that widens as years go where the hour went.

The challenge is obvious … step into the void … with our imperfect selves and help lead this world. As Arthur Ashe so poignantly stated, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Our focus must include more than ourselves or our children but generations yet unborn. However, our children are a good place to start. The older I get the more confident I become that the void is created for those who recognize it to fill it or at the very least help point it out to those who not only miss the forest for the proverbial trees but also those who can’t see the trees for the bark.

Those who are called to lead will never be perfect but the cause will be. Those who try and perhaps do not reach their goal can revel in the fact that their efforts have elevated the cause for the next wave of leaders to move the needle a little closer toward the goal. Perhaps I am guilty of oversimplifying at times but I liken leaders to cars; they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There will be some with more features than others and some with a little more polish but the fact remains that if it’s made with the right stuff at its core, even a raggedy one can move us forward.

I happen to still be foolish enough to believe that we are all placed here to fill some specific, unique function that only we can do the way we would do it. I also believe that many of us stagger through life without ever putting our unique quality to work. So as we move through our lives let us be mindful of the voids that we see and let us then begin to fill them.

Witness. Testify. Act!

A Call For Leadership © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips

Faith in the Face of Reality

Bishop Eddie Long is in trouble and I’m not sure why people are shocked and amazed. In fact, through time immemorial men (and women) have never proven to be anything more than human when all is said and done. In all fairness to brother Long this really isn’t about him, his situation or whether I feel he is guilty or innocent. This isn’t solely about the Black Church; it’s not about sexual misconduct. There is far too much happening (or not happening) in the world to let the actions of one individual devour this small bit of time that we share. Much more poignantly, this is about the rest of us … all of us, how we feed these insatiable beasts – cynicism, envy, guilt, shame and judgment – and how our individual hang-ups and insecurities collectively manifest in some of our spiritual and political leaders.

Eddie Long, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Winnie Mandela, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim Jones, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Sr. (and now Jr.), Ted Haggard, Bill McCartney, Norbert Maday and Eugene Lewis – are just some of the people that have run across the headlines over the years. They represent a few well known and some not so well known folk who large numbers of people love/d, trust/ed, had/have faith in and depend/ed upon. I suppose you could spend the better part of a work week googling stories about each name listed – some founded, some unfounded. Some proven, some proven to be false but all have helped to erode our belief in altruism and basic morality while simultaneously giving birth to some of the greatest hurt and cynicism this world has ever known.

In his book, Seeing Through Cynicism, Dick Keyes states that some of us “embrace cynicism with pride and defiance. Others suffer from a cynicism they do not want to feel but are forced to adopt by honesty” and still some fight against it but drift into it without knowing how they got there. I stand firmly in the second category by way of the third: I feel forced to adopt cynicism by honesty but I don’t remember when or how I got there. Keyes goes on to state:

“The church … is an institution that stands solidly astride the paradox of the human condition – simultaneously glory and ruin. It is made up of people who have acknowledged their ruin but who have found forgiveness, purpose and hope of glory in the mercy of God. This means that by its very identity and definition the church is people who come together in a common acknowledgement of failure but also a common hope for something better.”

One of our greatest public servants, Shirley Chisholm, summed it up best when she said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”. Is the ego involved? Certainly. But is it the primary motivation? Not necessarily. Sure, it takes a certain amount of ego for anyone to believe that he or she can “fix” it. But it takes an equal measure of humility to even want to. The choice to be a Pastor, Priest, Nun, Imam or Rabbi – to choose to surrender one’s life to God and thus serve His people – albeit weightier to those of us who believe – is similar. Staunch believers in the separation of church and state will no doubt take offense to my commingling pastors and politicians but I contend their roles are much more alike than different.

The pastor has a congregation and the politician has a constituency. The pastor has a diaconate board to advise and carry out tasks and politicians have campaign committees to do the same. The pastor follows the rules and laws of God in the Bible and the politician follows the rules and laws of man in the Constitution (which is, to a large degree, based on biblical principles). The pastor needs money to keep the missions of the church running so God’s message can be manifest in the larger community while the politician asks for money to enable him/her to get their message out to the electorate in an effort to carry “your” voice to the nation’s capitol. Pastors are trying to prepare us for the next life and politicians are trying to prepare us for the next election. But in all seriousness, public service and pastoring are difficult occupations. Why? Because the general public is, at best, fickle. And guess who lives in the general public? The electorate, church folk, our political and spiritual leaders! (see how that cynicism just crept in there on me?)

Gone should be the day of just giving money to the church without understanding its mission and our place in it; your time and talent are as valuable as your treasure. Get and stay involved. To echo the sentiment of my good sister, Candice Benbow, in her blog, Selah and Amen, there will be hard conversations that need to be had – have them! Hard questions that need to be asked – ask them! When you know better you can do better. You could be the next public office holder or church leader. In all the stories of the Bible you will note that God didn’t make any extraordinary people. He made ordinary people – like you and I – and equipped them to do extraordinary things.

So while the actions of men and women can help dismantle “a” church, no human act or actor, no one’s past or pastor can dismantle “the” church. Though all the names I mentioned consider themselves Christians, Christianity is not on trial here. Though many of those named are political, politics is not on trial here. Men and women are. And that includes you and me. If when you heard the allegations levied against Bishop Long or any of the others mentioned, you were hurt and saddened, I would commiserate with you. If, on the other hand, you tell me your faith was rocked then I would argue that your faith was misplaced.

Faith in the Face of Reality © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips

Standing In The Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography)

1.
Not My Mother …

My mother first met the idea of her spirituality in Rochester, New York at an Episcopalian church and she is a woman of strong faith. While there may be those who consider that statement oxymoronic I would dare you to meet my mother. Her mother, Cecile, worked as a domestic and was a faithful member of a Baptist church in Rochester. My mother’s father, John, worked during the week as a lumberjack in Canada and came home to Rochester at the week’s end. From what I can gather, he did not have much time for church or the spiritual life. That is not to say that he did not believe in “spirits.” In fact, he devoted much of his life to spirits – distilled – but spirits nonetheless. It soon became apparent that a spirit-filled life and a spiritual life do not always equal a match made in heaven and so in the early 1940’s my grandparents parted ways. John went his way and Cecile, with her two daughters, June and my mother, Dorothy, went another.

Some time later Cecile met and married Earl, a God-fearing, fun-loving, hard-working Red Cap (the railroad’s equivalent of an airport’s Sky Cap) who came to Rochester, New York from Atlanta, Georgia. It was Earl who was the member of the Episcopalian church. It was Earl who attended church with his stepdaughter, Dorothy, and as fate would have it my mother became responsible for taking her little sister, Yolanda, the child from Cecile and Earl’s union, to church with her. It was in this church that my mother began to tone her spiritual muscle.

Married life became rocky. Children are seldom concerned with the “whys” for they are not as important as trying to cope with everyday life and getting through each day. John, June and Dorothy’s biological father, was not around and had not been in the picture for quite some time. June, the older sister, began to act out. There was constant tension between June and their mother Cecile. Once again the “whys” held no import. Yolanda, the youngest of the trio, seemed to fair a little better. Unlike June and Dorothy, her father was in the home and while she and Cecile had their difficulties there was only so much that could be done to her for “Daddy” was ever present. Cecile and June however, was another story entirely.

Dorothy was the classic “middle child;” quiet, introverted and with the exception of her height and pleasant look, easy to miss. If life was a movie, then she would more likely be cast as an extra as opposed to the star. She loved both her sisters equally but lived life as a spectator observing the different ways similar outbursts between here two sisters were handled. More often than not it was Dorothy who cared for Yolanda as she was more than a decade older. She held Yolanda’s hand as they crossed the streets to go the church.

The sanctuary never held truer meaning than for Dorothy. It was in this safe place that Dorothy began to beseech God. It was in this place where her personal “whys” were pondered but refuge for all was requested. While in her home, Dorothy’s faith was constantly tested but in her church with her God she found a mighty sustenance that made the daily discomforts of life seem almost bearable.

Dorothy seemed to go through life without a great amount of risk or chance taking. To her, God was, is and forever will be a sure thing. There was no sense in seeking something or someone greater because there was no such thing or being. Pressing one’s luck did not make much sense to her. If I am painting the picture that my mother was boring, then I have done her a huge injustice. She was then and remains resolute, resilient and consistent – qualities not found in great abundance today. Mom has a self determination that to me, as her son, is at times maddening and refreshing at once. I have come to believe that those qualities are not only gifts from God. Each time she relies on those gifts she feels that she is honoring a God who loved her enough to give those gifts; she knows God is watching and it is her desire to please her God.

To this day Dorothy does not wear her faith on her sleeve. Her faith is not something that she has to show you or me anyway. Her faith is reserved for her God. It is not a faith that you see with your eye but rather a faith that you feel when you are in her presence. I can remember hearing her faith in an answer to a question that some theologian may have expounded upon for hours. I asked her, “How and/or why do people who seem to never get a break in life keep coming to church and why is their faith so strong?” In what appeared to be no time at all, she exposed my lack of faith and demonstrated the strength of the convictions she had learned as a child. Her reply was unassuming, simple and quick, “God said our reward is in Heaven. So we really shouldn’t be expecting too much here on earth. That is why anything that we do get while here is considered a blessing and we should be thankful for it.”

As a child, Dorothy learned there was a loving, forgiving, providing God. She believed it wholeheartedly and would come to lean on the strength that the phrase held repeatedly throughout her life.

2.
…Not My Father…

My father’s introduction to spirituality was more of an immersion. He was the next to the last child of Porter, Sr. and Dorothy’s (coincidently the same name as my mother) six (6) children. Porter, Sr. was the pastor of a Baptist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dorothy kept the household going and also printed the bulletins for Sunday service, typed Porter Sr.’s sermons, taught Sunday school and as if all that was not enough, she was the organist for Sunday service. Of the six (6) children, there were five (5) boys, four (4) of whom were ordained Baptist ministers. The only girl married an ordained minister.

My father, Wendell, grew up under the teachings of Porter, Sr., a devout Christian and probably the holiest man I will ever have the pleasure of meeting. He was a preacher whose trajectory suggested that he was on his way to becoming a member of the Academy. He was an educated man who, in 1941, was already in possession of two graduate degrees, was working on his doctorate and had published a book entitled, W.W. Brown, Host. From the time I met him, Grandpa’s life was completely given over to “his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He had never been to a movie theater, believed in hard work and providing for his family, and above all, serving God always in all ways. He was not overly involved with the day to day workings of maintaining the family, which was my grandmother, Dorothy’s job and she handled it quite well seemly loving every minute of it. Porter, Sr. seemed to always be focused on the next sermon. As soon as Grandpa came home from church he immediately retreated upstairs to his study to begin researching and writing his sermon for the next Sunday. He did that for close to fifty (50) years.

There was never any question of whether or not you were going to church. It was understood and expected. If there was the infrequent occasion where one of the children found themselves too sick to go to church (or school for that matter), then the remedy was always Castor Oil. To listen to my father tell the story, it would appear that Castor Oil was quite a drug. The mere mention of its prescription seemed to miraculously cure all who even thought they were ailing.

Young Wendell grew up witnessing the works of his father firsthand. Dad would often remark that his father was “the best sermon he had ever seen”. To Porter, Sr. the way to “God’s Kingdom” was through service and sacrifice. On those terms there was no wiggle room.

Though my father was ordained a Baptist minister, he was called by the newly formed Northwest Congregational Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 – I was seven months old. That church later became Heritage United Church of Christ. The UCC appealed to my father because it gave the congregation a voice. Directives were not merely handed down from a larger, governing body or dictated by some demagoging pastor. The UCC invited people from all denominations to participate. It allowed a pastor’s creativity to flourish. The pastor could work with the congregation and vice versa. The people had a say in what they would do as a “body of Christ.” My father believed in God and religion, but he had grown weary of denominations and their doctrines. He was felt that the denominations did more to divide churches as opposed to providing cohesion.

My father strongly believed that God was either God of all or he was not God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not welcomed, including the political arena. He learned this lesson from watching his older brother, Channing, who was the pastor of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Dad consistently put his faith into action. As an entrepreneur, he opened a religious bookstore and card shop in the neighborhood. When I questioned the logic, he would just reply with, “The community needs this.” I did not understand. I thought the purpose of going into business was to make money and “the community” could certainly use a record shop. He ran for public office and was the first minister to be elected twice to terms in the Maryland General Assembly amid cries from some that the political arena was “no place for a pastor.” He went on to become the first Black to chair Baltimore City’s Legislative Delegation and in the mid 1980’s helped to deliver more money to Baltimore City than had ever been delivered before. He did these things and many more based solely on the beliefs imparted to him by his father and mother. Without question, my father was the greatest sermon that I ever saw.

3.
…But It’s Me, Oh Lord …

As you have probably been able to discern, my story is not the story of someone who has constantly toiled through life. It is not the story of one who did without the “finer things”. It is not the story of one whose parents were scattered about by lofty ideals or haunted by the lack thereof. Not to in any way belittle the situation or the powerful witness that these stories contain but mine is not the story of a “black boy from the tough, inner city, raised by a single-mother” or grandmother because his father was not there or both parents were strung out on drugs, incarcerated or some seemingly insurmountable combination of the two. And though “some of my best friends” have come from those realities, I thank the Lord that I did not. My parents provided everything I needed. I did not have to “do without.” Nevertheless, my life has not been without struggle… beautiful struggle.

It may come as a surprise that though I grew up around so many ministers I really do not know much about the Bible. My lessons usually came from watching great people who I have encountered attempt to live out lessons from the Bible. From those observations I have tried – for the most part – to live my life adhering to what I feel are the two most important lessons in the Bible: 1) place no one and no thing above God; for there is no one greater and, 2) “Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do so unto me.”

While my parents grew up in different types of homes I benefited from the main thing they held in common – their sense of spirituality. My parents seemed to recognize that it takes a certain amount of introspection to unravel the questions related to one’s spirituality. No matter how one grows up there must be something on the inside that helps determine one’s path. Unlike me, my parents both had siblings. In my mother’s instance, she chose a different path then her sisters. In my father’s situation he chose the same (or very similar) paths of his siblings. My mother and father found each other and I was able to benefit from both of their strengths regarding spirituality. My mother’s quiet, reserved dutiful but unshakable faith coupled with my father’s “faith in action” afforded me the best of both worlds with regards to spiritual teachings.

4.
… Standing In The Need Of Prayer.

On January 29, 1993 my father died suddenly. Needless to say my world was rocked; shaken to the core. My mother and I were devastated. Dad was everything to both of us and a whole church and surrounding community grieved with us. Had you asked me prior to his death how I would live without him, I would have told you that I could not. Almost seventeen (17) years later I am still here. I have two daughters to whom I am teaching the spiritual lessons taught to me by my parents and in that way he lives on through me and now to them. Though I did not think that I was ready for him to be gone it seems that Dad had helped fortify me with most of the tools needed to survive. My mother has lent to me some of her remarkable strength to help balance out the equation.

I struggle sometimes with the inevitability of death and, at times, when my faith is low, the finality of death. But then I am reminded that when a caterpillar “dies” a butterfly is born. Through my spirituality I have come to accept that once a person has learned all they need to learn or taught all they need to teach their work on this earth is done and whether we know it or not we will be ready.

As I stated earlier, my journey to this point has not been without struggle. When you are born with the same name as your father society immediately relegates you to forever stand cold in his shadow and I am sure the same holds true for women and their mothers. It matters not if people speak well or ill of him your place remains unchanged. You inherit all of his enemies and half of his friends and the struggle to define yourself – at times for the sake of others and at other times in spite of others – begins.

I never felt that my parents forced religion or spirituality on me. Yes I had to go to church but I never felt that I “had to” attend church. I went along with what people expected the PK (Preacher’s Kid) to do with regard to griping about “having to” go to church but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoyed “living” in church. I learned some of the best lessons that could have ever been taught, met some of the greatest people God’s ever created, laid down some of the heaviest burdens, cried some of the most cleansing tears and experienced some of the most outrageous joy. I remain in the process of becoming. My spiritual growth is a work in progress and I may never get it right, but I thank God for each opportunity that I have to do so, for without God, I am nothing.

Standing in the Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography) © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips

Hello World

No one has ever told me to write a disclaimer but being a student of the world I am sure that there may be something I “say” that will offend some and whether it be intentional or unintentional I ask that you wait a second before judging. If you can’t say “Amen!” then just say “ouch” but by all means … say something!   My reference to the word “world” means everybody who inhabits this planet. So while I may not be included in your world, you are all included … in fact, welcome, in mine.

I am the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of pastors so you will pardon my religious references … or not.  I also find some degree of humor where there should be none. I can find some humor in almost anything. I have come to find that to be a blessing as well as a curse but most often a blessing.

I know the audience is broad – I hope it remains that way. That being said, I know not everyone believes the same thing and there will even be those who find it hard to believe at all. But it is my desire to use this blog to help us come to our similarities through our differences … leaving us all a little more tolerant and much, much stronger.

These are my lenses … welcome to my world!

P.S. For those of you who need to know a little more … keep readin’.

Wendell F. Phillips is the only child of Dorothy A. and the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips. He came to NC A&T State University and Greensboro in July of 2007. As the Director of State and Community Relations, his primary responsibility is to help develop and maintain positive relationships between the university and various State and local elected officials as well as community organizations throughout the greater Greensboro area.

Politics, community and service are the consistent threads that have run through the fabric of Wendell’s family. His father, the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips was not only an ordained Baptist minister and the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ but he also served as a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 – 1987. His uncle, the late Rev. Channing E. Phillips was not only a pastor at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ but he was also the first African-American to be nominated by a major party for President of the United States of America from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Wendell’s passion has always been helping anyone and especially “the least of these”. He channeled his passion through a well fueled campaign that won him the same seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. As a member from 1999-2003, Wendell served on the Ways and Means Committee and chaired its Business Tax Credits Workgroup. He was also a member of the Tax & Revenue subcommittee and the Education subcommittee.

Other committees on which Wendell has served are: the Governor’s Task Force to Study Educational Programs for Chronically Disruptive Students, as well as the Task Force for African-American Entrepreneurship. Mr. Phillips also chaired the Legislative Black Caucus’ committees for Judicial Appointments and its Civil Rights committee.

Mr. Phillips was named a 2001-2002 Flemming Fellow by the Center for Policy Alternatives as well as a 2001 Toll Fellow by the Council of State Governments where Wendell was one of forty (40) individuals from across the country designated as an up and coming “young leader of tomorrow” recognized for his outstanding achievement and service to state government. Wendell is also a 2008 graduate of Leadership Greensboro and a member of the Greensboro Partnership’s Governmental Affairs Committee.

He was a member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Committee on Elementary & Secondary Education and in 2001 the organization released its first white paper, Closing the Achievement Gap: Improving Educational Outcomes for African American Children.

Wendell’s creative tribute to Michael Jackson was published on BET.COM and after the tragic earthquake in Haiti, his article entitled “The Audacity to Adopt” was featured on Blackpressusa.com and as a result carried by various media outlets across the country. He is a co-author of Atonement: The Million Man March and landed a featured extra role as one of the Golden Lords in Robert Townsend’s 1993 motion picture, Meteor Man. With the ability to find humor in just about any situation, Wendell tried his hand at amateur stand-up comedy and hosted Open-Mic nights throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.

He is a graduate of Baltimore City College High School and Morgan State University (B.A., Political Science). He is married with two lovely daughters.

Hello World © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips