My People and the 19th Hole

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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.

A Journey of Faith into Economics

 – Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 12, 2012

North Philadelphia street scene

Where I grew up Karl Marx was the enemy of all that was good and true. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a dead heat in the Cold War between the Christian and capitalist West, and the atheistic, Communist East. In elementary school we dove under our desks during air raid drills to prepare us for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Broomall, Pennsylvania, population 1,000. We began the school day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – “one nation under God” – and a prayer that asked for God’s blessing. In World War II our fathers had beaten back the evil of Nazism. Now, evil was threatening once again from fascism’s opposite, godless Communism. It was either us or them.

It took a while before I asked about the coupling of Christian faith and capitalism or read Marx himself. To read him or to entertain the idea of a classless society was heretical treason, or treasonable heresy. Church and nation were two sides of the same thing. But the more I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, went to worship and youth group,  and became acquainted with the poverty of north Philadelphia, I began to realize that “freedom and justice for all” was, at best, an aspiration, not a fact.  At worst, it was a compelling myth that allowed us to think of ourselves as the chosen whose job was to eliminate evil from a fallen world.

Two summers working as a street worker for the Presbytery of Philadelphia in the poorest neighborhoods rattled my world and shook me to my knees. Every Monday through Friday during the summers of 1961 and ’62, I traveled an hour-and-a-half by bus and subway from my suburban home in Broomall to north Philadelphia and back trying to make some sense of these two very different worlds. How and why did they exist – one white; one black? One materially satisfied; one not? Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement were answering that it was because of  the politics and economics of white privilege.

When I read the work of Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch philosopher of religion who grew up as part of the underground resistance during World War II, I found the philosophical mind that looked below the surface to the deeper convictions that hold our hearts and minds captive. The rest of the story is too long to tell.

Capitalism, like Communism, is an idol manufactured by the human heart, one of the convictions, often unexamined, that vie for our worship and allegiance. No economic system is now, or ever will be, perfect. Its efficacy and utility are to be judged by what it does to the people who live under its mindset and institutions.  Today, I hear strident voices that sound like the voice of the late Senator Joe McCarthy who turned over the tables looking for America’s internal enemies. I would like it to be said when I am gone that I honored the memories of Edward R. Murrow whose courageous reporting exposed McCarthyism, and of Joseph Walsh, the attorney for the Army who spoke aloud the words that brought an end to the power of the McCarthy Hearings to destroy decent, dissenting American citizens: “Have you no decency, Sir? Have you no decency left?”

Ours is a later time. The issues of our day are complex. But underneath the debates, the “us against them” mindset of World War II and the Cold War is no less alive than it was then. However and wherever McCarthy’s eyes flash while his finger points and his voice rises again, those of us who hear a Deeper Voice must not be silent. The Deeper Voice is the “still small Voice” of conscience and dissent.