He had grown up in Chicago, he said, and served in Vietnam. After the war, he had found a job as an executive trainee at Continental Illinois Bank and had risen fast, enjoying the trappings of the work-the car, the suits, the downtown office. Then the bank had reorganized and Will was laid off, leaving him shaken and badly in debt. It was the turning point in his life, he said, God’s way of telling him to get his values straight. Rather than look for another job in banking, he turned to Christ. He joined St. Catherine’s parish in West
Pullman and took a job as the janitor there. The decision had put some strain on his marriage-his wife was “still adjusting,” he said-but according to Will, the ascetic lifestyle suited his new mission: to spread the Good News and puncture some of the hypocrisy he saw in the church.
“A lot of black folks in the church get mixed up in middle-class attitudes,” Will said. “Think that as long as they follow the letter of Scripture, they don’t need to follow the spirit. Instead of reaching out to people who are hurting, they make them feel unwelcome. They look at people funny unless they’re wearing the right clothes to mass, talk proper and all that. They figure they’re comfortable, so why put themselves out. Well, Christ ain’t about comfort, is he? He preached a social gospel. Took his message to the weak. The downtrodden. And that’s exactly what I tell some of these middle-class Negroes whenever I stand up on Sunday. Tell ’em what they don’t wanna hear.”
“Do they listen?”
“No.” Will chuckled. “But that don’t stop me. It’s like this collar I wear. That really gets some of ’em mad. ‘Collars are for priests,’ they tell me. But see, just ’cause I’m married and can’t be ordained don’t mean I don’t have a calling. Ain’t nothing in the Bible talking about collars. So I go ahead and wear a collar to let people know where I’m coming from.
“In fact, I wore a collar when some of us went to meet with Cardinal Bernardin about a month back. Everyone was real uptight about it. Then they got upset when I called the Cardinal ‘Joe’ instead of ‘Your Holiness.’ But you know, Bernardin was cool. He’s a spiritual man. I could tell we understood each other. It’s these rules again that keep us apart-rules of men, not rules of God. See, Barack, I’m in the Catholic church, but I was raised a Baptist. Could’ve joined a Methodist church, Pentecostal, whatever, just as easy. St. Catherine’s is just where God happened to send me. And He cares more about whether I’m about the business of helping others than whether I’m straight on my catechisms.”
I nodded, deciding not to ask what a catechism was. In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school, two years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies. My mother wasn’t overly concerned. “Be respectful,” she’d said. In the Catholic school, when it came time to pray, I would pretend to close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and thirty brown children, muttering words. Sometimes the nun would catch me, and her stern look would force my lids back shut. But that didn’t change how I felt inside. I felt that way now, listening to Will; my silence was like closing my eyes.
The bus came to a stop in the church parking lot, and Will walked to the front of the bus. He thanked everybody for coming and urged them to stay involved. “It’s a long road we’re traveling,” he said, “but tonight showed me what we can do when we put our minds to it. That good feeling you got right now, we got to keep it going till we got this neighborhood back on its feet.”
A few people smiled and offered an amen. But as I stepped off the bus, I heard a woman behind me whispering to her friend, “I don’t need to hear about the neighborhood, girl. Where these jobs they talking about?”
The day after the rally, Marty decided it was time for me to do some real work, and he handed me a long list of people to interview. Find out their self-interest, he said. That’s why people become involved in organizing-because they think they’ll get something out of it. Once I found an issue enough people cared about, I could take them into action. With enough actions, I could start to build power.
Issues, action, power, self-interest. I liked these concepts. They bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion. For the next three weeks, I worked day and night, setting up and conducting my interviews. It was harder than I’d expected. There was the internal resistance I felt whenever I picked up the phone to set up the interviews, as images of Gramps’s insurance sales calls crept into my mind: the impatience that waited at the other end of the line, the empty feeling of messages left unreturned. Most of my appointments were in the evening, home visits, and the people were tired after a full day’s work. Sometimes I would arrive only to find that the person had forgotten our appointment, and I’d have to remind him or her of who I was as I was eyed suspiciously from behind a half-opened door.
Still, these were minor difficulties. Once they were overcome, I found that people didn’t mind a chance to air their opinions about a do-nothing alderman or the neighbor who refused to mow his lawn. The more interviews I did, the more I began to hear certain recurring themes. I learned, for example, that most of the people in the area had been raised farther north or on Chicago’s West Side, in the cramped black enclaves that restrictive covenants had created for most of the city’s history. The people I talked to had some fond memories of that self-contained world, but they also remembered the absence of heat and light and space to breathe-that, and the sight of their parents grinding out life in physical labor.
A few had followed their parents into the steel mills or onto the assembly line. But many more had found jobs as mail carriers, bus drivers, teachers, and social workers, taking advantage of the more rigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in the public sector. Such jobs had benefits and provided enough security to think about taking on a mortgage. With the passage of fair housing laws, they began to buy homes, one at a time, in Roseland and other white neighborhoods. Not because they were necessarily interested in mingling with whites, they insisted, but because the houses there were affordable, with small yards for their children; because the schools were better and the stores cheaper, and maybe just because they could.
Often, as I listened to these stories, I would find myself reminded of the stories that Gramps and Toot and my mother had told-stories of hardship and migration, the drive for something better. But there was an inescapable difference between what I was now hearing and what I remembered, as if the images of my childhood had been run in reverse. In these new stories, For Sale signs cropped up like dandelions under a summer sun. Stones flew through windows and the strained voices of anxious parents could be heard calling children indoors from innocent games. Entire blocks turned over in less than six months; entire neighborhoods in less than five years.
In these stories, wherever black and white met, the result was sure to be anger and grief.
The area had never fully recovered from this racial upheaval. The stores and banks had left with their white customers, causing main thoroughfares to decompose. City services had declined. Still, when the blacks who’d now lived in their homes for ten or fifteen years looked back on the way things had turned out, they did so with some measure of satisfaction. On the strength of two incomes, they had paid off house notes and car notes, maybe college educations for the sons or daughters whose graduation pictures filled every mantelpiece. They had kept their homes up and kept their children off the streets; they had formed block clubs to make sure that others did too.
It was when they spoke of the future that a certain disquiet entered their voices. They would mention a cousin or sibling who came by every so often asking for money; or an adult child, unemployed, who still lived at home. Even the success of those children who’d made it through college and into the white-collar world harbored within it an element of loss-the better these children did, the more likely they were to move away. In their place, younger, less stable families moved in, the second wave of migrants from poorer neighborhoods, newcomers who couldn’t always afford to keep up with their mortgage payments or invest in periodic maintenance. Car thefts were up; the leafy parks were empty. People began to spend more time inside; they invested in elaborate wrought-iron doors; they wondered if they could afford to sell at a loss and retire to a warmer climate, perhaps move back to the South.
So despite the deserved sense of accomplishment these men and women felt, despite the irrefutable evidence of their own progress, our conversations were marked by another, more ominous strain. The boarded-up homes, the decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls, kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets-loud congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block-all of it whispered painful truths, told them the progress they’d found was ephemeral, rooted in thin soil; that it might not even last their lifetimes.
And it was this dual sense, of individual advancement and collective decline, that I thought accounted for some of the attitudes agitating Will when we’d spoken the night of the rally. I heard it in the excessive pride some of the men took in the well-stocked bars they’d built in their basements, with the lava lamps and the mirrored walls. In the protective plastic that the women kept over their spotless carpets and sofas. In all of it, one saw a determined effort to shore up the belief that things had in fact changed, if only some people would start acting right. “I try to avoid driving through Roseland when I can,” a woman from neighboring Washington Heights explained to me one evening. “People down there are just rougher. You can see it in the way they keep up their homes. You didn’t see things like that when the white folks still lived there.”
Distinctions between neighborhoods, then blocks, then finally neighbors within a block; attempts to cordon off, control the decay. One thing I noticed, though. The woman so concerned with the cruder habits of her neighbors had a picture of Harold in her kitchen, right next to the sampler of the Twenty-third Psalm. So did the young man who lived in the crumbling apartment a few blocks away and was trying to make ends meet by mixing records at dance parties. As it had for the men in Smitty’s barbershop, the election had given both these people a new idea of themselves. Or maybe it was an old idea, born of a simpler time. Harold was something they still held in common: Like my idea of organizing, he held out an offer of collective redemption.
I tossed my third-week report onto Marty’s desk and took a seat as he read it through. “Not bad,” he said when he was finished.
“Yeah, not bad. You’re starting to listen. But it’s still too abstract…like you’re taking a survey or something. If you want to organize people, you need to steer away from the peripheral stuff and go towards people’s centers. The stuff that makes them tick. Otherwise, you’ll never form the relationships you need to get them involved.”
The man was starting to get on my nerves. I asked him if he ever worried about becoming too calculating, if the idea of probing people’s psyches and gaining their trust just to build an organization ever felt manipulative. He sighed.
“I’m not a poet, Barack. I’m an organizer.”
What did that mean? I left the office in a foul mood. Later, I had to admit that Marty was right. I still had no idea how I might translate what I was hearing into action. In fact, it wasn’t until I came to the end of my interviews that an opportunity seemed to present itself.
It was during a meeting with Ruby Styles, a stocky woman who worked as an office manager on the north side of the city. We had been talking about her teenage son, Kyle, a bright but diffident boy who was starting to have trouble at school, when she mentioned a rise in local gang activity. One of Kyle’s friends had been shot just last week, she said, right in front of his house. The boy was all right, but now Ruby was worried about her own son’s safety.
My ears perked up; this sounded like self-interest. Over the next few days, I had Ruby introduce me to other parents who shared her fears and felt frustrated over the lackluster police response. When I suggested that we invite the district commander to a neighborhood meeting so the community could air its concerns, everyone agreed; and as we talked about publicity one of the women mentioned that there was a Baptist church on the block where the boy had been shot, and that the pastor there, a Reverend Reynolds, might be willing to make an announcement to his congregation.
It took me a week of phone calls, but when I finally reached Reverend Reynolds, his response seemed promising. He was the president of the local ministerial alliance, he said-“churches coming together to preach the social gospel.” He said that the group would be holding its regular meeting the very next day and that he would be happy to put me on the agenda.
I hung up the phone full of excitement, and arrived at Reverend Reynolds’s church early the next morning. A pair of young women dressed in white gowns and gloves met me in the foyer and showed me to a large conference room where ten or twelve older black men stood talking in a loose circle. A particularly distinguished-looking gentleman came up to greet me. “You must be Brother Obama,” he said, taking my hand. “Reverend Reynolds. You’re just in time-we’re about to start.”
We all sat around a long table, and Reverend Reynolds led us in prayer before offering me the floor. Suppressing my nerves, I told the ministers about the increased gang activity and the meeting we had planned, and passed out flyers for them to distribute in their congregations. “With your leadership,” I said, warming up to my subject, “this can be a first step towards cooperation on all kinds of issues. Fixing the schools. Bringing jobs back into the neighborhood…”
Just as I passed out the last flyers, a tall, pecan-colored man entered the room. He wore a blue, double-breasted suit and a large gold cross against his scarlet tie. His hair was straightened and swept back in a pompadour.
“Brother Smalls, you just missed an excellent presentation,” Reverend Reynolds said. “This young man, Brother Obama, has a plan to organize a meeting about the recent gang shooting.”
Reverend Smalls poured himself a cup of coffee and perused the flyer. “What’s the name of your organization?” he asked me.
“Developing Communities Project.”
“Developing Communities…” His brow knotted. “I think I remember some white man coming around talking about some Developing something or other. Funny-looking guy. Jewish name. You connected to the Catholics?”
I told him that some of the Catholic churches in the area were involved.
“That’s right, I remember now.” Reverend Smalls sipped his coffee and leaned back in his chair. “I told that white man he might as well pack up and get on out of here. We don’t need nothing like this around here.”
“Listen…what’s your name again? Obamba? Listen, Obamba, you may mean well. I’m sure you do. But the last thing we need is to join up with a bunch of white money and Catholic churches and Jewish organizers to solve our problems. They’re not interested in us. Shoot, the archdiocese in this city is run by stone-cold racists. Always has been. White folks come in here thinking they know what’s best for us, hiring a buncha high-talking college-educated brothers like yourself who don’t know no better, and all they want to do is take over. It’s all a political thing, and that’s not what this group here is about.”
I stammered that the church had always taken the lead in addressing community issues, but Reverend Smalls just shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “Things have changed with the new mayor. I’ve known the district police commander since he was a beat cop. The aldermen in this area are all committed to black empowerment. Why we need to be protesting and carrying on at our own people? Anybody sitting around this table got a direct line to City Hall. Fred, didn’t you just talk to the alderman about getting that permit for your parking lot?”
The rest of the room had grown quiet. Reverend Reynolds cleared his throat. “The man’s new around here, Charles. He’s just trying to help.”
Reverend Smalls smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t misunderstand me now. Like I said, I know you mean well. We need some young blood to help out with the cause. All I’m saying is that right now you’re on the wrong side of the battle.”
I sat there, roasting like a pig on a spit, as the pastors went on to discuss a joint Thanksgiving service in the park across the street. When the meeting was over, Reverend Reynolds and a few of the others thanked me for coming.
“Don’t take Charles too seriously,” one of them advised. “He can be a little strong sometimes.” But I noticed that none of them left with my flyers; and later in the week, when I tried to call some of the ministers back, their secretaries kept telling me they were gone for the day.
We went forward with our police meeting, which proved a small disaster. Only thirteen people showed up, scattered across rows of empty chairs. The district commander canceled on us, sending a community relations officer instead. Every few minutes an older couple walked in looking for the Bingo game. I spent most of the evening directing this wayward traffic upstairs, while Ruby sat glumly onstage, listening to the policeman lecture about the need for parental discipline.
About halfway through the meeting, Marty arrived.
After it was over, he came up and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Feels like shit, huh?”
It did. He helped me clean up, then took me out for coffee and pointed out some of my mistakes. The problem of gangs was too general to make an impression on people-issues had to be made concrete, specific, and winnable. I should have prepared Ruby more carefully-and set out fewer chairs. Most important, I needed to spend more time getting to know the leaders in the community; flyers couldn’t pull people out on a rainy night.
“That reminds me,” he said as we stood up to go. “Whatever happened to those pastors you were supposed to be meeting with?”
I told him about Reverend Smalls. He started to laugh. “Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t tag along, huh?”
I wasn’t amused. “Why didn’t you warn me about Smalls?”
“I did warn you,” Marty said, opening the door to his car. “I told you Chicago’s polarized and that politicians use it to their own advantage. That’s all Smalls is-a politician who happens to wear a collar.
Anyway, it’s not the end of the world. You should just be glad you learned your lesson early.”
Yes, but which lesson? Watching Marty drive away, I thought back to the day of the rally: the sound of Smitty’s voice in the barbershop; the rows of black and white faces in the school auditorium, there because of the factory’s desolation and Marty’s own sense of betrayal; the cardinal, a small, pale, unassuming man in a black robe and glasses, smiling onstage as Will swallowed him up in a big bear hug; Will, so certain that the two men understood each other.
Each image carried its own lesson, each was subject to differing interpretations. For there were many churches, many faiths. There were times, perhaps, when those faiths seemed to converge-the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Freedom Riders at the lunch counter. But such moments were partial, fragmentary. With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.
A man like Smalls understood that, I thought. He understood that the men in the barbershop didn’t want the victory of Harold’s election-their victory-qualified. They wouldn’t want to hear that their problems were more complicated than a group of devious white aldermen, or that their redemption was incomplete. Both Marty and Smalls knew that in politics, like religion, power lay in certainty-and that one man’s certainty always threatened another’s.
I realized then, standing in an empty McDonald’s parking lot in the South Side of Chicago, that I was a heretic. Or worse-for even a heretic must believe in something, if nothing more than the truth of his own doubt.