Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said, “We are living in a world of constant change!” And if you doubt that, just look in the mirror.
That was me! 1968-69 in my office at Mott Haven Reformed Church [Officially The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Mott Haven – an all black church in a Puerto Rican and black neighborhood of the South Bronx. As my kids used to explain the name, “Dutch Chocolate!”] I was all set to change the world yet to confront the realities and politics of the church. Innocent. Naive. This white kid from Michigan dropped into the middle of the South Bronx.
It is said if you are a minister that your first church will set the tone for your ministry and determine who you are. And it is true. “You can take the kid out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the kid.” True also. To survive I learned a lot about the streets, street life, street power, aggressiveness, get what you want, but also how to appreciate and love people . . . regardless of color, background, life situation, experience, issues, problems . . . whatever, people are people the world over. Thank you Mott Haven!
To impact our world we worked with anybody and everybody. Black Panthers, Young Lord’s Party (a Puerto Rican independence group), the City of New York, all the other churches, courts, prisons, cops. And sometimes we were caught in the middle. I will never forget the night I spent in the Baptist Church in Spanish East Harlem. My kids were amongst the Young Lord’s who had “liberated” the church, which had mostly a membership that came in from the suburbs. The kids inside the church were armed and determined that the “revolution” would begin in the Baptist Church. The cops were on the rooftops surrounding the church, also locked and loaded and ready to but down the “revolution.” It was a long and interesting night.
When the cops from the 42nd precinct wanted a payoff because our building construction fence was 1″ over the sidewalk I gave them a fist-full of new building fund envelopes and told them we would very much appreciate their “contribution.” When I’d go to the 42nd they’d see me coming . . . And the NYC building inspector, whom we refused to pay off, was later arrested receiving a bribe while taking a pee in the restroom of the Bronx County Court House. When we met intransigent city officials and policies I’d meet with the Father of the nearby big Catholic church. His brother was the conveniently the head of the NY Mob [later assassinated at Columbus Circle on Columbus Day], but magically resistance faded. But because of some of the connections we always expected that the click on the phone when we picked up was our calls being recorded. Some things never change!
We tore down a 150 year-old church that was falling down and replaced it with a community center and day care center. We worked with other churches to create new, affordable housing. Almost every night we had “Center”, a place for kids to hang out. When my wife, Nikki, and I were dating and she would take the train from Philadelphia up to New York, then the number 5 train to Third Avenue and 149th Street, on Friday night she would be met by an escort party of black and Puerto Rican kids hanging over the subway entrance to bring her to the church. I couldn’t risk leaving the “Center” unattended since we always had competing gangs wanting to control what was supposed to be a neutral facility.. [Next to the basement entrance was a wall that had been dry walled. Once, during a confrontation, I threw a kid up against the wall, only he went through the wall. I never had the wall repaired. Part of the mystique: “That’s where ‘D’ put Jose through the wall when he pulled a knife.” Oh to be young, stupid, and invincible once again!]
I was involved in starting two different drug rehabilitation programs for hard-core heroin addicts, one of which I directed for four years.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to change the world. I did however impact a few kids. Unfortunately most of “my kids” (some of whom in the drug program were older than me at the time) died young. But I am forever grateful to the Bronx and Mott Haven. Since it was a largely Puerto Rican area I should speak Spanish fluently, unfortunately the only Spanish I learned was street talk Spanish . . . “Tu madre es una . . . “, etc., etc.