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)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 1 of 4)

PROLOGUE

In the mid to late 1960’s, a generation of unwitting trailblazers learned to navigate unsure waters and relationships by constructing new bridges built on the hopes and dreams of their parents. In spite of the culture clashes they would experience along the way, they were still expected to make grades indicative of any student who had obtained the privilege to matriculate at such “prestigious” institutions. Yet the effects of these clashes, though varying in intensity, lingered. The results of these socio-intellectual experiments met levels of success that were equally varied but that was to be expected. Change was coming and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

In June of 1963, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway. In November of that same year President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. On July 2, 1964 the Civil Rights Act was enacted. A little more than six months later, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was killed. Wednesday evening, April 3, 1968, while speaking to a group assembled at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. requested that America “be true to what you said on paper”.  Less than twenty-four hours later presidential candidate Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy would help spread word across the nation that Dr. King had been shot dead.  Almost 200 years came and went between the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence and the last words Dr. King would utter in public.

Two months later, in June of ’68, Bobby Kennedy, himself, was killed.  And we were waist deep in the-war-that-wasn’t-a-war that divided our country in ways not seen since the Civil War. It had become crystal clear that change was not high on America’s list of priorities. Our big cities were being destroyed with riots spawned by the outrage of one America that feared change and another America hell bent on assuring its arrival. And in that same year, some seventy-one years after its opening, The Gilman School for Boys (and I will assume schools like it across the county) graduated its first Black students … all four of them. In 1969 we put a man on the moon. And just one year later, in August of 1970, against the backdrop of all the aforementioned, the six year old son of a uniquely radical yet prominent Baltimore City preacher and the secretary for the first Black elected Judge to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City began his first day of private school.

There were revelations and epiphanies galore. Myths were debunked and stereotypes destroyed while new ones were created. Lines were crossed and conclusions were drawn. Feelings were hurt, friends were made, identities were lost … and some were found. But change was coming! There were fights and there were truces; confusion and clarity. There was humor and humiliation. But change was coming! There was confrontation and denial. There were cheers and there was the “gnashing of teeth”. There was Black and there was White. There was Jew and there was Gentile. There was Asian, European, Latino, Mediterranean and Indian. There was gay and there was straight.  And still others who sat on the fence trying to figure all this stuff out. Yet change kept coming! There was teaching and there was learning. There was fear and there was faith that each would grow to recognize the other’s worth. And, thank God, change kept on coming!  Not all experiences were positive and not all were negative but whatever the experience, all lives involved were changed; mine among them.

We were students in these schools at a unique juncture in both America’s history and the history of the schools we were attending. In fact, some of us even made history at these schools. Life’s hard, social lessons and racial tensions were neither part of the curriculum nor were they intentionally exacerbated by the administration, faculty or staff. But it was “out there”. They – social lessons, race and classism – found their way to the playground at recess or the quarter mile jaunt from the lower school to the gymnasium.  Though equality was now a legislative reality, socially it tarried; even, and at times, especially in private schools.

Many, if not all, of us were the first in our family to attend a private school. Our parents stuffed their dreams in our pockets, zipped up their hope in our jackets and sent us on our way – to an academic “promised land” that would all but guarantee a scholarship to “any college we choose”. Some of us were ridiculed in school for being too Black then maligned once more upon our return to our neighborhoods for not being Black enough or “talkin’ white or “thinking you are better than us”. Still others made it through relatively unscathed … or so they’d like to believe.  All in all, our experiences were rich; our stories compelling, empowering and deserved of being told.

(Continued January 9, 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)

Preparing for the 1st Pilgrimage

If memory serves me correctly Dad went on three (possibly four) pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The first was in February of 1977. He had crammed a lot into his nearly 17 years of pastoring (3.5yrs at Second Baptist Church in Mumford, NY and closing in on 13yrs at Heritage United Church of Christ [HUCC] in Baltimore, MD).

Aside from tasks associated with any pastorate, Dad was working on buying another building to house more ministries that would expand the spiritual footprint of HUCC in Baltimore; he had run an extremely successful campaign (“Crusade” he would call them) but lost the election in 1974. As a child, I did not understand how success and loss could coexist. Thank God for the wisdom that comes with age! His was running on empty. His faith needed refueling. And what better place than the Holy Land?

This journal entry was on the eve of his departure for the first pilgrimage. The reader can’t help but feel his excitement.  At the same time, though never stated, one gets the feeling that he is keenly aware this could be the last time anyone he loves will see him again or vice versa  … making “good-byes” all the more imperative and difficult.

All we knew in 1977 was that the Middle East conflict was constantly in the conflict. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat were names that appeared in the newspapers daily. It seemed that stories of bombings and assassinations littered the headlines.

As selfish as children can be, I remember not being nearly as worried about Dad’s safe return as I was bothered by the fact that this “pilgrimage” was going to cause him to miss my 13th birthday! I am sure mom was worried enough for the both of us but, true to her characteristic strength, she didn’t let on. She managed a sleepover with four preteen boys and it went off without a hitch … or much in the way of a thank you … so … Thanks, Mom! Oh yeah, the other highlight was a call from Dad – who just happened to be about 7,000 miles away – to wish me Happy Birthday on February 21, 1977. Thanks, Dad!

Peace,

WFP

 

Sunday, February 13, 1977

I’m really excited about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m as anxious as a five or six year old on Christmas Eve. I really get spaced out when I contemplate the thought that in a couple of days I actually will walk where Jesus walked! That is fantastic. Though I’ve been wanting to get to Africa, the Holy Land has always been my first preference. Those roots far transcend any other roots I may ever discover. The tracing of one’s roots is great if in that discovering process, one becomes more secure in his “wholeness” and therefore is able to move outside of self into others. If, on the other hand, the process sends on further into self to live, then one need not trace their roots. My pilgrimage to the Holy Land will undoubtedly send me inside self, but only that I might regroup and come out that much more together to serve. This undoubtedly will be the climax experience of my life.

It’s amazing! Thirty years ago, 1947, Dad made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and now I go. The thought gives me peculiar vibes – good vibes however!

As I lay around the day before I left, I became acutely aware of the enormous of love my members and others have for me –I could actually feel the pulling inside when it came time for me to say “good-bye”! I really love those folk – intensely! I guess one never really knows how much others have become a part of him until one withdraws from the scene!

This is also the longest time I’ve been away from Dee and Pooh. It was hard saying goodbye. Pooh is becoming such a fantastically sensitive young man. Dee seemed much more sensitive and caring the last couple of days also.

I touched base with Chan and “J”(ane) – Mom and Dad – Al. Couldn’t locate Tread – Marie was out when I called. I’ll call her from New York City. Porter rode out to the airport with me. We’ve really gotten close since his move to Baltimore. I’ve really developed a great appreciation for Porter. It’s good to see him as happy as he is. He’s been through a helluva lot. I admire his patience and ability to deal with shit from folk who would seek to destroy him. His sensitivity to others is most unusual and seldom seen!

This pilgrimage comes at a most crucial time. I was just beginning to realize how drained I was becoming. Last year was a good but terribly draining year – a real mile marker for me. Chan’s bout with cancer took me through more changes then I’ve ever been through in my life. The thought and dealing with Chan’s death – or the great possibility of it –was scary as hell. I always had a strong desire to want to take his place. I really love that dude, as crazy as he is. It’s strange how Chan’s fight with cancer took me to the lowest part of the valley I’ve ever been -when he passed the six month death date that put me up on top of the mountain.  Everytime I see him, I just quietly thank God for intervening!

I didn’t get the chance to spend time with John and Diane (Eckholdt) as much as I wanted to! Probably it’s because I feel too deeply for them and its difficult saying “goodbye”. I’m as close to them as I am to my family – I really love them. Their love and caring for me since I’ve been to Baltimore has meant much to me and my ministry. Diane’s sensitivity and love for people – her unorthodox life style and her love for me has added great depth to my ministry and, at many times, in my most cynical moments. It’s been her insight and caring that really raised me out of my pit of cynicism. John is to me as a brother. I’d trust either of them with my life. He’s a fantastic person who has grown in his sensitivities by leaps and bounds. It’s not often that one is blessed to encounter those who are consistent in their caring. I thank God for their love!

-WHP-

“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-

The Pregnant Girl

After my father’s death in 1993 I found some of his old writings, thouhgts and insights in the unfinished journals he left behind. Before his death I used to dismiss his writing as “chicken scratch” … I couldn’t read it at all! But after he died, miraculously, I could understand his writings … because I needed to.

Written hurriedly with his left-hand … pages partially filled with small, tight, stingy letters that handwriting experts would likely tell you is exemplary of a selfish person … but I submit it was from a man with the largest heart I will ever know … whose thoughts just happened to form faster than his pen could move. He would always say, “Boy … wait ‘til I write my book!” but, alas, he never got the chance.

I found answers to questions long pondered and sauve for wounded souls in his prophetic words. I thought here would be a safe place to posit some of his thoughts and share his writings with the world as he shared himself. This unnamed poem – that I’ve decided to entitle, The Pregnant Girl – written some 30 years ago is one such example.

 

 

I met a pregnant girl today,

Who seemed so sad inside;

I asked myself, “Why should this be?

On the eve of the birth of her child?”

 

And then I thought as I watched her eyes,

Once filled with joy but now tears

Things have been rough with her delicate heart,

Especially the last few years!

 

She’s torn between a love once felt,

And what her mind screams in her ear;

“It’s over now! To hope is futile!”

My God! Why won’t she hear?!

 

Perhaps the birth of a new life begun,

Will give her the strength she needs

To face reality – and leave him alone,

And surround the babe with good seeds.

 

She’s changed from the girl I once knew,

Who lived, loved and really swung!

And now she’s sad, burdened and troubled,

As if an albatross around her neck has been hung!

 

The marriage ended before it began,

For no foundation was there from the start;

She thought she could change the one she loved,

But they’re only much further apart!

 

God is no fool! He demands the best,

From her, whom He’s given much,

She is destined for so much more in life,

Than to be a useless crutch!

 

I pray she’ll awaken, get hold of herself,

And prepare herself for her child;

Do now what’s best for the unborn babe,

Stop saying, “I can’t” for awhile.

 

The pregnant girl is sad, I know,

Her heart is broken and bruised;

Her cheeks are worn with hurting tears,

And her whole young life is confused!

 

And so I watch her in her struggle,

To break the chains that bind;

Her to her own self-made prison,

Where she now has lived for some time!

 

So now I say, Oh babe, yet unborn,

My heart goes out to you,

I pray the pregnant girl I saw today,

Will become the girl I once knew!

 

She’s leaving now – walks out the door,

An escape she hopes to find;

A walk – a talk – a word – a thought …

“Lord, please keep me off my mind!”

 

-Rev. Wendell H. Phillips-

My Name is I AM

In a solitary and somber moment

I was regretting the past

And fearing the future

When suddenly the Lord was speaking …

 

“My Name Is ‘I AM’ “

He paused …

I waited …

Had to be Him

There was no one else in the room

I was momentarily paralyzed … 

Unable to think …

He continued …

“When you live in the past

with its mistakes and regrets

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Was’.

 

When you live in the future

with its fear and uncertainty

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Will Be’.

 

When you live in this moment

It is not hard

I AM here

My name is ‘I AM’ !”

How’s Your Vertical?

As a child growing up in Baltimore City, Maryland, my friends and I used to engage in something that many kids today wouldn’t even think of doing … we actually played OUTSIDE! I loved to play pretty much everything but if I’m honest, most of the time my game of choice was basketball. The older I got the more organized my game became. I, like most of my friends through high school who could dribble a ball, began to focus on the same things.

There were two factors that for the most part were outside of our control: 1) height – standing 6’3 ½ “, I was blessed to be beyond average by that measure and 2) speed – which I had as well. Today some will argue that you can “make” someone fast but I contend that you can only teach folk how to remove barriers to coordination thus allowing them to run faster which is a completely different issue. Then there were the things we could work on –things to help level the playing field for those who weren’t recipients of the God given gifts of height and speed: 1) “handles” – the dribbling and handling the basketball – not a strong suit of mine 2) shooting – I was average and 3) one’s “vertical” – ability to jump and how high – here again, I was beyond average.

It was a fact that one of the most important factors along with height, weight, shooting and free throw percentage was the strength of your leap … your vertical. “What’s your vertical?” was the question asked among ballplayers on all courts throughout the city. “How’s his vertical?” was one of the most important questions running through the mind of college recruiters and NBA scouts alike -looking to bring the next “Moses” to lead their team to the “Promised Land”.

One of the most recognizable symbols of Christianity is and has been the cross. The cross, with its two intersecting beams, one horizontal and the other vertical when analyzed further can represent two different relationships. The horizontal beam, the shorter of the two, represents our earthly relationship with all things human: our families, friends, organizational affiliations, co-workers and I would argue even our religious affiliations. The vertical beam, running through the horizontal beam and much longer, symbolizes that which is not of this world or more poignantly our individual relationship with our God. It is this symbol that is synonymous with matters of faith and the church – especially the Black church.

Through the institution of slavery and all other machinations of separation that followed (Jim Crow, desegregation) Black Christians have maintained a strong love for the church and an unyielding devotion to a God that can “make a way out of no way”. During slavery the only white-collar profession open to Blacks was the ministry as it was against the law in the Southern states to teach then “Negroes” to read. For much the same reason, places where Blacks could gather were just as limited as the professions from which they could choose. The church became the logical place to assemble for reasons including but not limited to a service on Sunday morning.

Over the course of their history, Black churches have served as stations on the Underground Railroad during slavery, prep-rooms for sit-ins and other demonstrations during the Civil Rights Era, polling places for elections and meeting venues for various community organizations still today. In fact, as I write these words some community group is meeting in some church, somewhere. People have learned everything from reading, writing and arithmetic to computer literacy and the proper way to approach or prepare for the SAT in the hallowed halls of the Black church. Some churches even have basketball leauges and bowling teams – bringing a whole new meaning to the term “holy rollers”.

Taking care of the spiritual needs was the obvious but addressing the social needs of many who would be considered “the least of these” was just as common for the Black church. The pastor made sure these services were offered to “all God’s children” – not just its members but also to people who were so downtrodden that they didn’t know what “up” looked like.

These pastors were and – in many cases – still are treated like royalty. Pastors were God’s earthly emissaries. Their word was believed to be more than just their word but rather, God’s Word. In times past the pastor was accessible; he lived in the community and lived like the residents of the community. Member and pastor not only saw each other in church but also at the grocery store, school PTA meetings, the bank and in my father’s case, it was usually on Monday depositing the offering from Sunday’s service. Every human encounter was an opportunity to minister to and quite possibly be ministered to, as well. The lives of the two were not that different. They worked hand in hand on problems within the community because the member’s community was the also the pastor’s community. The pastor was a visible, vigorous and viable part of the community and if he was in good enough shape, he may even join in a quick game of basketball with the rest of the folk in the neighborhood.

No matter the myriad shattered dream stories we’ve all heard and they have most certainly seen, basketball and the unlikely dream of making it to the NBA never seems to be enough to deter the next generation of ballers. Sports and its limited number of rags- to- riches recipients are all they need to see to continue to keep hope alive. In the minds of our young ballers, the dream of pro basketball being “the way from around da way” continues to trump the Church, God and His “way out of no way” truth. Basketball has not lost its luster but I am sorry to say that for many, the Black church has. And we are left to wonder, “Why?”

Have Black churches become so self-centered and insular that they have neglected their role as a major care taker of the community in which they sit? And if so, does that weaken or strengthen an individual’s relationship with God? Over the years I have become keenly aware of how intensely personal one’s spiritual life can be. I have come to the conclusion that it is my spiritual relationship with my God, my vertical relationship, if you will, that grows more important and essential with each passing day.

So … How’s your vertical?

How’s Your Vertical? © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips

For Those Who Say There Is No God: Exhibit (A)

This morning was not unlike most mornings. Eugene, called which made me get out of the bed. I was not asleep but like many mornings, Eugene was the first person I spoke to. It is usually a race between Eugene and my daughter, Clarke, to see which one will get me to talk first. He asked if I would ride out with he and his daughter, Lynn, then two-years old, to check out the progress the builders were making on he and his wife’s new home.

It was an overcast day. One of those days it would have been just as easy to roll over, close my eyes and go back to sleep but I was feeling good. It feels good to see friends doing well and “making it happen”. Eugene and Tanya were doing just that as were James and Malone. I am very proud of and extremely happy for both of those families – they are the kind of folk that make me glad that I am a human being. I thank God for the blessing of their friendship. You’ll pardon my digression.

When I got back from hanging out Eugene and Lynn, Ruth and Clarke were literally on their way out the door. Perfect timing! They were off to get their nails done – a necessity for Ruth, a novelty for Clarke. As much as I love family and the idea of “family time”, I really love the occasions when I am by myself. It is at those times that my mind really gets to run wild. It is in those instances that I communicate with God. Through music, writing, being otherwise creative, goofing off or just being quiet and listening to Him or listening for Him. In the space those times afford, things are on my mind; not necessarily troubling things but the kind of things upon which one can ponder while going about mindless chores around the house.

Eugene calling me first thing in the morning prompted me to do the same to another good friend of mine. I called JD and mentioned to him that I had all of these sermon titles rolling over in my head but I needed some hermeneutical “meat” to put on the bones of my titles. It is important to note that though almost all of my male predecessors were ordained ministers I was far from a bible scholar … very far. I knew principles taught in the Bible but couldn’t point you to where to find the support for those principles in the Bible … at least not with any certainty. At the same time, my mind was always full of spiritual thoughts and sermon titles that related to the principles that I knew but needed help finding where those lessons were referenced in the Bible. JD had a great command of scriptures and where to find what in the Bible. He went on to tell the story of how a good minister friend of his had told him he had much promise – in fact, the minister said he believed that JD had even greater promise than he! Part of what JD remembered was a sermon the young minister preached that was directed at the young men who had the energy that was needed in the church but most of those said men had not the time for church. JD said, “I think . . . he said Aaron or something like that . . .”

After we got off the phone, I decided to grab my Bible and look up Aaron. I knew that he was Moses’ brother but that was about it. In my New International Version (NIV) Life Application Bible I read Aaron’s profile. I learned that he was a good team member but not a good leader. The attributes that made Aaron a great team member made him a terrible leader. Aaron was too pliable to lead but if you gave him the words, he could deliver them with great aplomb.

As I was silently reading where to find out more about Aaron in the bible Ruth and Clarke returned from their outing. Normally when Clarke comes in, she will search each room in the house until she finds me – today was no different. She usually just wants to seek me out to make sure that everything is “ok”. Clarke has an extremely strong sense of family for a five year old. Everything is not “ok” unless and until everyone who is supposed to be in the house is actually in the house. Once she is assured of that fact, she feels comfortable enough to go on and do whatever it is five year olds do.

Clarke bounded up the steps and stopped at the threshold of the Master bedroom to find me sitting in the chair, 10 feet away, reading silently about Aaron.

“Hey Daddy, we’re back”, she said. Ignoring the obvious, she asked a quick question almost without pause, “Whatcha doin’?”

With my chin still resting in the palm of my hand, I glanced up to see my five year old ball of energy with her hands gripping either side of the doorframe, kicking her right leg back and forth creating a rhythmic “squeak” each time her sneaker touched the hardwood floor on which she stood.

“Reading”, I answered. I was in the process of flipping to the beginning of Exodus to start reading more about Aaron as most of his story is told in that book of the bible.

Almost as soon as I got to that page, having laid reassuring eyes on me, Clarke, still 8 to 10 feet away from me, turns to leave the room singing in a low, melodic voice, “Let my people goooo!”

“What did you say?!” I barked out the question in disbelief, startling her.

“Let my people go”, Clarke turned around to reply, “Like Moses said in the Prince of Egypt.”

“What made you sing that song?” I calmly asked, accepting what this moment revealed but still pleasantly astonished by the whole event that took all of about 7 seconds. But there was more to come.

“There’s a little fairy saying it in my ear and she told me to say it out loud. She said you needed to hear that song and she told me to sing it to you. They come to me all the time” Clarke said, “now she’s making bird sounds.”


And you still say there is no God?

(Written March 25, 2005)

For Those Who Say There is No God: Exhibit (A) © 2005 by Wendell F. Phillips