My People and the 19th Hole

How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”

What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

8 thoughts on “My People and the 19th Hole

  1. I worked at Berean – my first job after graduation! We rented space from them for at least a year. Small, small world. I don’t think we did training there- I know we did training but I think it was downtown somewhere. We’re you There those same 2 years?

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    • Small world indeed. How could I not have known you were in that program? My years were 1961 and ’62. The first year was with youth I got to know on a playground playing stick ball. Second year (the one I described on Opal Street) was at Corinthian Chapel. Did you know Tony Lewis or Peggy Lewis during your time in the program?

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  2. I had several streets while working for the Presbytery in ‘62 and ‘63…Felton St and Alden St, both in West Philly. Two hot summers with The Moons and a bunch of great ‘church kids’. I came back to the suburban church and spoke to the congregation on a Sunday morning. I tried, but I don’t think I succeeded in changing anything….except me. That’s a start…..

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    • OMG! Barb, were part of the same program? I never knew that. I did two summers. The first summer was at Tabernacle Pres. near the Univ. of Penn. Tell me more. IMO, Ken hammond et. al. knew we couldn’t change a thing, BUT the experience would change us, and it did!

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      • I suppose it must have been the same program….I can’t remember any of the Presbytery people, but my first summer was at a Richardson Pres on Walnut Street- Dick Righter was the minister. There were about 6 of us- 4 from the area and one from North Carolina and one from Tennessee (who I fell in love with!). The second year was at Patterson Pres on 63rd and Vine and Dick Rice was the minister. He was with us the first summer as a student pastor and Patterson was his first church. Any of those names ring any bells??

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      • No bells are ringing, Barb. None of the names are familiar. My dad was good friends with all his colleagues in the city. Our two week training was at Berean Pres. I remember three students from Yale being part of that training. One of them, Richard Bell, became professor of philosophy at the College of Wooster and was a member of the pastor nominating committee that invited me to Wooster.

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