For me one of the best things about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy was not that it got me thinking deeply about race matters in America (though I have to admit that his description of left vs. right brain thinking in blacks and whites reminded me of the “studies” done in the early 20th century that led to racial comparisons, later repudiated, by scholars such as Carl Brigham, founder of the SAT, and suggested that maybe we haven’t come as far as we like to think).
Nor was it that the Wright thing became another sizzling episode in this reality soap opera called the race for the Democratic Party nomination (though I admit again that it was entertaining to see both Barack and Hillary suddenly enter the lions’ den of the Fox cable news network for sit-downs with Chris Wallace and Bill O’Reilly).
For me the best thing about the Wright controversy was that it got me thinking about the black church in America and about a friend of mine I will call Pete, who is holding on to his independent life in the face of recommendations that he move into a group home (not in Princeton, you can be sure) or a nursing home (for him, a prison, to be sure).
All this Rev. Wright stuff triggered some serious discussion of the role of the black church in the community. It reminded me of an assignment from New Jersey Monthly magazine in the mid-1970s to profile the Rev. S. Howard Woodson Jr., who was not only a political power in the New Jersey Assembly — the first black to lead the lower house of any state legislature — but also pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton.
Thirty-plus years later I can still hear Woodson’s voice resonating through the sanctuary. Like Jeremiah Wright, Howard Woodson drew on the world around him for his sermons. On this day he acknowledged a litany of challenges that his congregation might face in their daily lives:
You might find that you’re out of work, and can’t make your rent payments, and the man is getting ready to throw you out on the street, but that’s the time you have to hold on, hold on, hold on to your faith.
And so it went through the sermon. Woodson acknowledged the travails of life faced by his parishioners, and then turned back to his refrain — to hold on, hold on, hold onto your faith.
At the end of Woodson’s sermon, I followed the minister to his office in another part of the church. While we were continuing our interview, a young woman knocked on the door to ask Woodson for help. She was in the midst of exactly one of those crises that Woodson had referred to in his sermon. Woodson offered some encouraging words, and then rattled off a list of things he would do, or ask others to do, to turn things back in the right direction.
In the here and now back in Princeton, ministers like Woodson exist, I am sure. One of them was the William Drew Robeson, a man who escaped slavery at the age of 15 and became pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was the father of the legendary Paul Robeson. The singer, actor, athlete, and activist credited his father’s determined fight against racism for helping to create his own social consciousness.
I wish my friend Pete had a minister like Woodson or Robeson to help him out in his current struggles. But he doesn’t. And he has no family to lean on nor a close group of friends or colleagues.
But he does have an apartment of his own (within walking distance of downtown), the resources to pay for it for the next four or five years, and a person who comes in once a week to make sure the place is clean. Unfortunately he is caught in an awkward no-man’s land with respect to social service agencies. He has too much money to qualify for assistance in some cases. In other cases he could qualify for assistance but only if he lived in a group home. To get help he would have to give up his most prized possession, his independence.
What Pete needs most is a trustee who would oversee the payment of his bills and the filing of his medical forms and review his finances once a year to make sure no one is ripping him off. (It’s a long story, but most of Pete’s assets are tied up in a mortgage with me. So I am one of the people who could rip him off and therefore I am not a good candidate for the role of trustee.)
Knowing what I know about Pete’s finances, he could afford to pay such a trustee a modest honorarium of $100 a month or so for a job that often might not involve more than an hour or so of time and a drawer in a filing cabinet.
So Pete is holding on, holding on, holding on to his independence. We don’t need anyone as loud as Rev. Wright. We don’t need someone as eloquent as S. Howard Woodson. We just need one good person to step up and lend a hand.