Saturday, October 29, 2016

Growing Up Black in Cleveland • Around Town Tomorrow: Sunday on Tap

​Cultural Anthropology, Part I: Growing up Black in America
What I learned from my Sunday School teachers

I used to think Protestants did a pretty terrible job teaching children what religion was all about. My opinion was largely based on a narrow sample size: my own experience. I was still in junior high school, and we spent a lot of time in my Sunday School classes on the Old Testament, reading about people with weird names who lived a very long time ago in places no longer on current maps of the world. [I loved geography.]

Many of those Biblical folk behaved very badly and often paid a terrible price for their misconduct and disobedience. Violence seemed a regular part of their lives, from sacrificing animals to endless wars fought between tribes that no longer existed, except for one group that seemed to keep meticulous oral records of who begat whom in what order through an endless Hebraic lineage that was somehow related to the people around today who were known as Jews, whom I understood to be a distinct and significant branch of white people. Mixed in with all of this was a great deal of climate change, except in biblical times and through at least the 1950s it was called pestilence. Locusts and floods and drought occurred with generally unpredictable frequency, wreaking havoc on the world.

The New Testament was different. It was a lot more accessible. It was shorter, only 27 books compared to the OT's 39. (There was a whole lot of memory associated with all this Sunday School, which was tough because it was only once a week for an hour or so, and it was basically about a whole 'nother
Mt. Zion Congregational Church
10723 Magnolia Dr., Cleveland OH 44106
[Photo 1980s?]
world that had no easy translation to my world, whose epicenter was the Northeast side of this big city called Cleveland that had a gigantic downtown. And I knew that New York City and its Empire State Building dwarfed Cleveland itself. (I was there once as a kid with my family: we were at someplace called Radio City Music Hall, where I froze when a live mike was thrust upon my supposedly precocious self. The experience left a scar, but that's another story.)

The New Testament seemed totally unrelated to the old one, except the two were bound together. Literally. I liked the New Testament better. Jesus was special, a man like no other, though it was hard to comprehend exactly how.

I probably had about seven or eight teachers in my Sunday School career. Three in in particular stood out. One was Mrs. Harding, a kind but extraordinarily serious small woman who seemed to talk without ever moving her teeth or lips. She doubled during the week as the librarian and typing teacher at my school, Empire Jr. High, where our paths seldom crossed. It wasn't until I was much older that I learned she actually had a smile, kind of a minuscule shift of a couple of lip muscles accompanied by a nearly imperceptible twinkle. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it. I don't know if she developed her humor in later life or if I just became a more sentient creature.

Mrs. Harding's self-control stood in stark relief to her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Moore, a rapid talking nonstop torrent of energy. A world traveler way before that was common, Mrs. Moore stood out because she was a black woman (medium brown, actually) with a 1950s head full of totally white Big Hair. Had I known the words I would have said she was phenotypically unique.

Betty Moore started the church Gift Shop as a way to raise money for the coffers. Her fondness for jewelry, her keen eye for trinkets, many selected during her world travels, when combined with her indefatigable energy and ebullience, made the Gift Shop a destination. Out of town visitors and even people from other congregations would come to Mt. Zion's Gift Shop. Originally open only after worship, the space devoted to her enterprise was soon expanded, and the shop was opened before service as well. It became a great place for a procrastinating absent-minded kid of my ken to find a last-minute Mother’s Day notion or Christmas present.

Back to Sunday School and the two teachers I most had in mind when I started this piece. I can't say much about Gertrude Cobbs except she was sweet. Really sweet. Probably had Job's patience squared because she had a class of mostly 13-year old boys with boundless energy and raging hormones. Whatever she persevered in trying to teach us, whatever she did in the rest of her life, Mrs. Cobbs surely earned a place in Heaven just showing up every Sunday to try and deal with us.

I may consign myself to perdition with this admission: the class was taught in the minister's office. Our minister was a tireless worker, much beloved for his devotion to the Church and his even more beloved wife. He had an inimical preaching style that was rooted in deep faith, explicated by reason and supported by scholarship. He knew the name and circumstances of every one of his members, nearly 800 at peak. When he was home I called him Dad. Yeah, the PK was the leader of Mrs. Cobbs' bad boys.

The teacher I remember most was Wanda Dickey. She was a slight, compact woman, extraordinarily neat and totally self-contained. An insurance agent during the week, Mrs. Dickey was a model of rectitude, very detail-oriented, and wholly intolerant of nonsense. We could not dither on her watch. She held us accountable. I don't recall her being any more successful with that approach in terms of our learning, but she did keep us knuckleheads in check.

Later in life, I came to share with her, her husband, and a wonderful lawyer named Dick Gunn the 900 square feet of office space that housed two legal offices and the insurance agency her husband had founded. Also a lawyer, Roosevelt Dickey was a courtly, Georgia-born gentleman who was one of my father’s best friends, and an early Negro member of Cleveland's Community Relations Board. I spent many odd hours talking with one or both of the Dickeys during the workweek. A teacher at heart, Mrs. Dickey taught me a few life lessons during the roughly five-year period we were office mates.

I recall most vividly her insistence upon separating the act from the perpetrator. She would judge a deed coldly and without compassion but she would not demonize the perpetrator. In refusing to label the miscreant she seemed perhaps to be allowing for the possibilities of atonement, forgiveness, redemption.

Mrs. Dickey is just one of the three hundred or so reasons I despair at the possibility of Donald Trump as US president. This candidate, who makes the Beverly Hillbillies seem cultured, sees the world totally in terms of himself, casts everything in the world in personal terms, assigns or denies value to every individual he encounters, and is judgmental in the extreme. I’m quite sure all of my Sunday School teachers would be reviled by his behavior.

Trump's candidacy, like Bernie Sanders', has highlighted structural problems with our economy and our politics. But that result comes at great cost to our civility and our society.

The man who indiscriminately shouts fire in a crowded theatre is seldom the person you would trust to direct the evacuation, especially when he also claims the sole capacity to heal the afflicted, rebuild the temple in gold, and do so at a bargain. Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?

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Sunday on tap

I realized a while ago that you could learn a lot about someone if you understand where and how they worship. As a preacher’s kid for most of my life, I was usually bound to my home church. We didn’t really participate much in the preacher and choir exchange and visiting that occurs among many black churches. Since we were for more than a century the only black Congregational Church in the area, perhaps the whole state, any sort of denominational exchange we had with other churches was perforce with white congregations. I remember visiting suburban congregational churches in Lakewood, Middleburg Heights, Chagrin Falls, and Brecksville, for instance. These were all lily-white parishes, some of which liked to see themselves as broadminded; they loved any exchange they could have with us on such designated days as “Race Relations” Sunday. Before long my father stopped participating in such events with any pastor or congregation that favored such exchanges only on such artificial occasions.

My larger point is that in my youth I seldom visited other black churches during their normal Sunday morning worship unless our family was out of town. So I really had little idea of what my non-Mt. Zion friends experienced on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps for that reason, I've relished attending Sunday mornings at unfamiliar churches when they have special programming. This week we received notice of two such occasions. Tomorrow, the eminent Marian Wright Edelman, longtime fighter for civil rights and a forceful, tireless, and articulate advocate for children, will be speaking at two area churches with a message on the importance of voting. She will be at The Word Church, 18909 South Miles Road at 10:30AM and then later at South Euclid United Church of Christ, 4217 Bluestone Road at noon.

We also received notice that Minister Louis Farrakhan will appear via satellite at First Cleveland Mosque, 3790 East 131 Street. Doors will open at 10:30AM and the program will begin at 11:00AM. The program will be streamed online at We understand that First Cleveland may be the oldest continuous African American masjid in the United States.

Also on tap tomorrow is a Community Forum on “Clean Drinking Water: Myths, Realities and the Future”. The program is a part of the excellent “Forums that Matter” series sponsored by First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, 21600 Shaker Blvd. The guest speaker will be Julius Ciacci, executive director of the Northeast Regional Sewer District.  

Forums begin at 9:30AM and end at 10:45AM, leaving you enough time to get to your own church, or find a seat upstairs at First Unitarian if you wish. The church is located at 21600 Shaker Blvd.

Daylight Savings Time Ends at 2:00AM next Sunday, November 6.

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