Part 3 of “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”
“Sinner, do you love my Jesus?”
The day I met Tony Lewis, “my Jesus” fell off the ladder.
The Jesus of my childhood was white. He was kind and loving, having descended from heaven, like the angels on the ladder between heaven and earth. My Jesus had made me a soldier of the cross whose job it was to stay on the ladder to heaven and carry others with me.
Until the day I met Tony, I had no idea my faith in the descended Jesus also was condescending, the creation of white privilege.
The day my love for “my Jesus” died was the day my church’s junior-high youth group from Marple Presbyterian Church spent helping move furniture at the Green Street Settlement House in Philadelphia.
Green Street was the ghetto. We had gone there from our middle-class suburb of Broomall, the home of all things white and Christian, to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We had no knowledge that our Minister and the Minister of the Berean Presbyterian Church on Green Street had conspired to join together the white Marple and the black Berean church youth groups with the excuse of “helping” move the Green Street Settlement House furniture down the street to its newly purchased location.
That was the day I met Tony, whose Jesus was not a suburban white guy with blue eyes and blond hair taking me up the ladder to a white heaven.
Tony’s Jesus had descended from God the Father and had made him a “soldier of the cross” — but the Jesus Tony loved was neither white nor condescending.
“Sinner,” he seemed to ask without an once of hubris, “do you love my Jesus?”
I became conscious of sin.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 7, 2017.
I remember that trip to Berean. I had a very strange time. It seemed to them, and I’m sure they were correct, that I couldn’t do some of the heavy lifting, so the set me to sandpapering a few layers of awful paint off the toilet seat. I worked hard at it all day, and only got about half done when they remembered I was there and I was embarrassed that in all that time I had not finished my only project. They were *very* nice about it. But I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the Berean folks except the lady who gave me the job.
Carolyn, I never knew this about your experience that day. It saddens me to learn of it. I had a day with Tony. You had a day alone with a crusted toilet seat. What a lonely experience! It will take time to get that picture out of my mind, time to wish I could rush back in time to Green Street and get you out of there. But there’s also something else I see that is long-lasting about your character. As long as I’ve known you from kindergarten, you have always been a “good soldier” doing whatever needed doing for a good cause no matter how lowly the chore if it was the loving thing to do. Maybe that’s what it meant to be a “soldier of the cross” that day in the mind of a white young teenage girl from Broomall — scrubbing a toilet on Green Street? I’m doing my best here to redeem your experience and failing badly.
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I think I wasn’t sure I was white until I spent a couple of months visiting my cousins in Virginia and realized we had a very different view of the world.
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Marilyn, you, Carolyn, and I should write a book!
The moment of my epiphany in 1960 was a hot June Sunday afternoon in Erie neighborhood, Chicago. Across an overpass of the Northwest Expressway on an island between highways stood a row of three-story red brick townhouses. We climbed a stairway to the third floor of the house at the end now subdivided into 12 apartments, each level leading into deeper darkness. Bobby met us at the door. He’d been expecting us. No white boy would have been there who wasn’t expected. “Well, Bobby, what do you do these days?” “Takes care’o my baby brother.” “I kills d’rats b’fore they chews on ther’ ears,” he added. “Uh, how do you do it?” “I ketches’em under a shoe box and stabs’em wid’an ice pick.” Bobby explained. That did it for me. I was disoriented. The stairs we had ascended led to a Dantean level of purgatory but here was a 10 year-old protective angel, confident in his role. The epiphany was “here in the middle” between the old and new Jerusalem, the stairs take us where they will, for there is no certain up nor down. Heaven and hell are imminent and inseparable until the veil is pulled aside, and then they are jumbled again.
Yes. Shock on the island between highways. Two roads did not diverge in a yellow wood, but you did take the one less traveled by. Peace, brother!
When I worked 3 years for the Presbytery in West Philly, on the streets, that changed my life too. I wasn’t wise enough to understand white privileged then, but I knew that our society had it all wrong.
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You and I were among the fortunate to get out of our own ghetto of relative privilege. Broomall was small potatoes when it came to wealth disparity. We were lower-middle and middle class, but the aspirations led up to Bryn Mawr while the fears led to Green Street.
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