REMINISCENCE ABOUT A NUDGE INTO A NEW DIRECTION
During our last year and a half in the ministry program at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1963-5, Lyle, Jim and I spent a lot of time considering our career options. In those days choices spread before us: pastoral ministry, missionary service, urban-industrial ministry, theological education, church music, Christian education, and many more. The three of us had honed our concern in the direction of the inner-city. Inner-cities were places of commerce surrounded by residential decay into which were crowded immigrants, migrants, and vagrants.
By our third and final year at McCormick we knew a lot about the inner-city since McCormick was right on the fringe of one. Our seminary also specialized in preparing people to minister in the inner-city. One entire department of the seminary offered a Master’s degree in “Church and Community”. Of all the Presbyterian seminaries, McCormick was the place to go to train for that challenging field. The other seminary was non-denominational Union Theological Seminary in New York City, connected to Columbia University.
There were three primary forms of inner-city ministry. Most prominently were established churches which had been there when the residential ring was prosperous. Successful churches had welcomed or been established for immigrant groups. Chicago was famous for its Polish, Italian, and Lithuanian neighborhoods into which then migrated Mexicans, Puerto Rican, and African-American residents. The second form of inner-city ministry was centered on “neighborhood houses” modeled after Jane Addams’s famous Hull House. The newest form was just gaining notice, and we three were noticing that. Its model was the East Harlem Protestant Parish (EHPP) in New York City.
EHPP was one of a number of combined community-living and social-justice experiments being undertaken in the Post-World-War-II era between 1950 and 1980. EHPP was established in 1948 (and dissolved officially in 1977). The first three ministers were 3 graduates of Union Theological Seminary. They began with a storefront church and lived in urban housing in the neighborhood, as close and accessible to the people as they could get. Funding for the parish came from 7 supporting denominations, the National Council of Churches, and Union Theological Seminary. The key concepts, and what set the parish apart from other inner-city ministry, was (1) COMMUNITY worship as the core of daily living, (2) COMMUNITY empowerment through improvement of community organizations for leadership development, (3) and COMMUNITY activism including (a) robust opposition to real estate exploitation, (b) reaction to police brutality and corruption, (c) response to the horrible education provided by inner-city schools, (d) and opposition to narcotic trafficking (brought by organized crime syndicates with local participation) and, at the same time, action to get addiction treated medically rather than as a crime.
We three classmates had a plan. We would get ourselves into position through an entry-level post-seminary experience of three or four years, and then we would don the gray clergy costume of the EHPP and move into one of Chicago’s blighted neighborhoods. Our target was 1969 to set up a “prep-school” as our first project. One has to start with something that was needed. All the neighborhoods had churches, but the schools were failures – turning out failures as graduates who were not educated, not energized, and not equipped to do much of anything with their lives except inhabit the dangerous and decayed environment from which they would find it impossible to move. As we gathered for tea in my dorm room we grew enthusiastic as we were aware of the way the three of us, from our diverse backgrounds, complemented each other. The prep-school would be a boarding school. It would be inclusive and unstinting. We’d expect excellence. We would exude confidence, even though we had a very realistic idea about the challenges.
But by 1969 that was no longer a plan we could build on. 1965 to 1969 saw war come full-blown to Vietnam, assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. – bringing the end of idealism and the rise of urban violence. The church was losing ground as a force for urban activism, and “community” was becoming impossible in the soon-to-be demolished housing projects. Our Chicago Inner-city Prep School dream faded. Each of the three of us had also been nudged into new directions of ministry.
Still I wonder, as one does at a stage of life such as this, from this distance of 50 years, if our hours of tea and talk were entirely vain. The resonance of that enthusiasm has never entirely disappeared, and its vibrations have shaken almost every enterprise I’ve undertaken since. I was sad in 1969 to get back to McCormick and the inner-city was not to be my venue. The plan we toasted with tea faded, but the impulse to stay close to the ground where people are has not faded.
[The picture accompanying this reminiscence gives a clue as to the endurance of the idealism as I bounced from one plan of ministry to another, rarely getting far from street level.]
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.