Tuesday, March 27, 2012
EAST ST. LOUIS... MY LIFE, 1967-68
I never could have imagined what God was going to drop into my life, through this House, and why, and how.
In February, 1967, I moved from Tacoma to East St. Louis. I stayed with the roommate I had in Tacoma whose spiritual insight had opened the "God-door" and through whom I met a leader who led me to the Lord. A few months later, she moved back to her family in Belleville, not far from E. St. L., and when we agreed to have me come, they found an apartment for us. It wasn't fancy, by any means, but sufficient. She had a job and I found one and, between us, we could pay the bills.
I can't remember how it happened, but in April, I became involved at the Neighborhood House. On Friday evenings there were dancing and skating activities in the basement level and I helped prep and clean. In June, I quit my job and moved into the House to work full time. The income was extremely limited, but I was a Boarder, and that met the basic needs.
I have written a number of stories about what I faced through it. You see, E. St. L. was at least 90% Black and most of that race was poverty stricken, partly because of the lack of work that could meet their needs and the White controllers that they faced. Believe me, I saw horrible housing conditions, and it sure wasn't their fault! Consequently, angry and fighting people lived in the surrounding area. It was a very good thing that I came from a poor and angry and fighting background. I was not frightened very often, and when attacked, I fought back -- maybe not godly, but protective reaction. I gained wonderful friends and fit in with them better than I had for years anywhere else.
A funny one: I was walking down the street and a toddler ran away from his Mom and was headed my direction. She hollered and he kept running. I stepped in front of him and told him "go back to your Mommy." He stopped suddenly and I reached for him. He froze. He looked at my hand, then his hand, then my hand... and started running back to Mom, screaming. The Mom and I laughed. He hadn't seen a "white" hand before.
A heavy-sigh one: I met a 25 year old woman, very pretty, very sweet. She had just become a grandmother. She was 12 when she had her first baby and her 13 year old daughter had had her first child. I was horrified. I couldn't have imagined anything like that, even with my tough background.
A sad one: I was walking through the neighborhood with a list of House survey questions. I saw a little 8-year old girl that I had in one of my classes. I asked her how she was. She said she was fine. Then she said, casually, "My Ma died yesterday." No stress on her face; lots on mine. When I ran back to the House and talked to the lady who ran the whole program, Miss Provence, she wasn't surprised or shocked. She just nodded at me and truly understood.
I could go on for MUCH time, believe me. However, frequently I have to think of this one and laugh -- and be grateful.
We were supposed to stay in the building after dark. Period. WELL, I often broke the rule. I would go down the fire escape on the back wall and hit the street. When I first started doing it, kids going past in cars would lean out the window and holler, "Miss Jo, Whacha doin'?" They were concerned about my safety. I was 21, and looked a bit younger, so really put myself in some less-than-bright situations, and all my fault, of course.
Not long after, I'd gained a reputation for being out after dark. When I began walking, a couple minutes later a tough-looking mid-20s guy would step out from under a tree or out of a local doorway. "Hey, Miss Jo. Where're ya goin'?" I'd just smile and say hi and he'd keep walking with me. These guys were friends of mine. Arzell, Steve, James and others. Four were Black; one was White. What finally dawned on me was that these good buddies had set themselves up as my Protection Guards. They always stayed near the House, during certain hours, and watched in case I would hit the street.
Talk about being blessed and loved. They were good to me -- always good to me.
I left E. St. L. in late-March, 1968. Had walked through the result of riots, the Black Power movement -- someone right under my face once, and not being nice, believe me, and Arzell protected me then, too -- and a group of teen girls had attempted to kill me and the boys threw themselves between us and stopped them. Even with those events, I felt loved by so many. Appreciated. Comfortable. But I knew I needed to leave or I'd be in real trouble. I wasn't sure why, but I knew I was to leave NOW!
A few days after I had reached Tacoma, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Fighting, anger, and danger increased in many locations of our nation, of course. It is quite possible, because of the danger of that surrounding neighborhood, God was taking me out for safety.
I hadn't seen this building for 44 years until last Saturday. I had been following the instructions from my GPS voice telling me to "turn" and "turn" again, and I glanced up and saw the House. Unexpectedly. Nothing leading to it looked familiar. Everything has changed... large housing project built across the street, all the former houses gone.
My glance flooded me with joy and love. Yes, that House connection had sadness and sorrow and deep difficulty at times; but it had love and warmth and appreciation in a level I'd never known before, and, in some ways, have never known again.
My friend Susie's comment when she knew I had left in '68 ... the angels that had been taking care of me had pleaded for an R and R after having to work so hard.