When I first visited the inner city church in which I would later work I was offered the choice of attending two different Sunday School classes. One was with fellow seminary students and my same age peers and the other was a relative new class for the homeless and whoever else wanted to go. I spent my weeks dealing with the seminary student species so I thought it would be nice for a change of pace to attend the class for homeless and whoever class.
I was surprised to find I was the only whoever else attending the class. Teaching the class was the soon to be Dr. Larkin Rossiter. He later caused a stir when he declared that he would never use the masculine pronoun for God because of the years the Church had spent oppressing women and identifying God with a masculine pronoun. He felt it would begin to rectify the situation the Church now found itself in. Needless to say I knew the class would be interesting.
When I entered the room there were five homeless men obviously fresh from the street. One with crutches and his cast foot propped on the table. The others observing the whoever else that had entered the room. They were a friendly lot and to my surprise exhibited various intelligences. Emmitt whose broken foot was on the table had a wealth of folk wisdom. Others had biblical knowledge out the wazoo. It was a fun class and my first real contact with the homeless. My stereotypes were thrown out the stained glass windows. They knew more about sharing and caring than most of my other Christian friends. They had a sense of the essence of Jesus’ teaching; I did not.
I had been taking a class In Peacemaking at the seminary I was attending. We had spent a lot of time discussing the art of turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. Our professor Glen Stassen had emphasized that what Jesus was trying to teach through these words was to create peace you sometimes needed to take a ‘surprising initiative’. By turning the other cheek you have caught your enemy by surprise that can lead to a chance to dialogue and create a peaceful resolution. To strike back in kind would do nothing but continue the fight or make the other person submit to you. Neither of these should be our desired effect. It was a unique way to address conflict. Do the unexpected and create the opportunity for change.
Now if you have never been to seminary you will know every point and its counterpoint must be ‘discussed’ endlessly. And it was also so with this passage. The thing is seminarians are sometimes way too young to be acting like they have it figured out but they always feel a need to act as though they do. This is the occupational hazard of young wannabe ministers. On this particular Friday the acting as though they know everything crowd had been arduously thorough in their discussion and I was glad to hear the bell to end the class. They had come to no conclusion. Although I think they would all agree that turning the cheek was not in their futures.
At my new church I had noticed a certain who does he think he is Jesus because I had not chosen to attend the seminary class. But I was truly enjoying the homeless and whoever class. It was good to be a whoever for a while and not the seminarian. But the true believers were concerned and I was allowed to know this through the grapevine. Because I was not sure if the homeless enjoyed my presence I gave into pressure and I skipped the homeless class to attend the seminarian class. It was as I had feared. They had deep discussions leading to nowhere and asking nothing from them in return. So despite ruffled feathers I went back to the homeless class.
The homeless greeted me as if I were the prodigal son returned home. I felt not compelled to be there but welcomed to be there. The subject today was peacemaking and the class began. We talked about different ways to tear down fences and create peace. Emmitt as he was want began to expound on something. He had read in the paper how the then premier of Russian was for about the third time in the hospital. This surprised my prejudicial self because I truly thought he could not read. He continued talking about the hospitalized Russian premier and how the American comedians, cartoonists, and politicians were making jokes about the feeble state of Russia because of their sick leader. This was in the midst of the Cold War and Russia was our sworn enemy. So ridicule of the Russians and Communism were commonplace. But he said this was wrong, if we were serious about making peace we would send the premier a card and flowers not make fun of his health. Furthermore since we boasted the greatest medical system in the world we should send our best doctor to assist in his treatment. He said this would be the best way to move us to peace not all this caterwauling.
He continued as I listened to the non-political savant speak the truth. When a man is down the little things are what touches him and opens the door to change. This was human nature. You do not think of dropping bombs are other bad things harming someone who has shown you care. That is why we greeted you with cheers this morning Mike. You hurt our feelings by going to the other class to see if they had a better deal but we knew if we showed you love and acceptance we would have a better chance of getting over it and making peace with you.
I looked up at Emmitt amazed he had just ended the Cold War and reconciled the group to me in one short breath. I thought forget seminary I can learn more here as a whoever than I ever could as a seminarian.
I have combined in meandering prose short stories and historical ruminations. So at the end of this post to continue you will need to go to the Historical Ruminations Page for the conclusion. I know my faithful readers can adapt to this change and hopefully it will be worth your time.
A Gaffe, A Paradise, and a Gift
It was our first dinner party as a couple. The gathering was in celebration of her colleague starting a new job. I wanted to make a good impression. They were all friends she had made as a curator at the art museum. I was a minister/social worker who worked with Persons Living with AIDS. I knew no one and their world was different from mine. The night was going well and her friends appeared to be liking me as I was them. The subject as could be expected turned to art and museums. I was not an expert but comfortable with discussing art after all I made an A in my art appreciation class and had been to hordes of art museums as well as read a few art books. The subject of architecture came up. And the conversation had been witty and a little ribald. So I thought I would bring up a subject I had with my friends about what was the ugliest building in town. Savannah is a city of 18th and 19th century architecture with very few examples of modern architecture. The building my social work friends had all come to the conclusion for the ugliest building was a modernist apartment complex. It seemed to us the logical choice. The group became quiet which should have been a clue something was up. Chris my partner was out of the room at the time. I coaxed the guests and they all named various buildings but the one I was sure should be the answer as my social work friends had chosen was not included. After a few awkward moments I chastised them for not naming what was to me the obvious choice. I said the modernist apartment complex. The room became as quiet and uncomfortable as a teenage boy’s first meeting of his date’s father. The man who had said he was a lawyer in town looked at me and said, ‘Calmly my father was the designer of that building. Some people think it is quite a remarkable building.’
At first I thought he was joking with me, but one look at his solemn face showed he was not. I apologized profusely which did not help matters. Thankfully, one of her friends tired of seeing me squirm politely changed the conversation. Chris who had been out of the room had come in at the tail end of the disaster not soon enough to hear the disaster but to feel the uncomfortable air in the room. She would ask me later what happened and she aghast looked at me and shook her head. Needless to say that particular dinner party never returned to the table. And the building? It has since been put on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
It turns out Cletus Bergen who designed Drayton towers, the modernist building, is considered one of Savannah’s great architects. In fact while he was alive and even today he is called “the Dean of Savannah Architecture.” He opened his office in Savannah in 1927. He would serve on many city committees: Secretary of the Chatham County Planning Board, Chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Chairman of the Historic American Building Survey in Savannah, Chairman of the Chatham County Construction Trades Council, President of the Chatham County Building and Trades Association, Chairman of the Georgia State Board of Architectural Examiners, and President of the South Georgia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to name a few. Many of the city's major architects began their careers with internships in his office. He has major buildings throughout Savannah. He has designed many of the Tudor homes you see throughout Savannah. He designed the Savannah College of Art and Design Bergen Hall on MLK Jr Boulevard. It was originally built in 1926 for one of Savannah's largest dry good wholesalers. His work can also be seen in St. Mary's Home for children on Victory Drive now the diocese headquarters, Henry Ford's Richmond Hill plantation, the Art Deco Emma Kelly Theater in Statesboro, and Savannah State University's library. He and his son William who joined his firm as a partner were prolific not only in numbers but also architectural styles. He died on May 6, 1966.
One of his buildings was Gould Cottage that sits in Ardsley Park on Hull Park. This is a beautiful Tudor building designed to be a boys’ home. I was fortunate enough to have an office in the building with a window overlooking Hull Park for several years. It is truly a beautiful home. Its history is interesting and I want to tell you this but first I will tell you as I meander a personal story that somewhat indirectly connects to the reason for the building.
It was Passover time in Jerusalem. The streets were filled with vendors, travelers, thieves, beggars, pilgrimers. The city was also alive with religiosity. The Sadducees walked around with their inflated importance. The Pharisees were on each corner praying fervently for the coming of the Messiah. The Zealots were gathering crowds in back streets and exhorting the Israelites to rise up and claim their heritage. The Romans stood watch bemused but ever watchful for inciters of riots or thieves who were causing too much disruption. The vendors were as carnival barkers telling of their wares. Wine merchants, bakers, animals for sacrifice, prostitutes, and sundry of other people all gathered for this great religious event.
Jesus had never been to Passover before in Jerusalem. He had never seen so many people gathered in one space. John was his guide. They had without their parent’s knowledge escaped from the compound of John’s house. They were totally immersed in the hordes of crowd. John had told Jesus if they went he needed to stick close. He was the host and would be held responsible if anything happened to Jesus. But he knew by this time keeping Jesus under control was not going to be easy. John stopped at a vendor and was aghast at the prices and the newest in tassle fashion. “What were we becoming,” John thought, “that price gouging was allowed at Passover.” He turned to voice this to Jesus but he was gone. John had made a wrong turn because of the crowds. He did not recognize the street. He stopped to regain his bearings. But even worse he had lost Jesus. Then he saw them row after row of beggars. The beggars were out in full force this time of year. Beggars knew the Sadducees and Pharisees would have their generosity on full view especially near the temple. It was Passover time in Jerusalem. But where was Jesus.
He looked frantically about. After turning completely around several times he found Jesus only fifteen feet away. He had been right in front of him lost in a crowd of beggars. Jesus blended in so well. Then to John’s horror he watched as a Roman centurion passed by and assuming Jesus was a beggar flipped him a coin with Caesar’s engraved face. John was embarrassed and angered so much by this he ran to Jesus and snatched him up without thinking. John angrily denounced,’ Jesus what are you doing? You are not a beggar. Where is your lunch? Where is your coin purse? You gave it all away to these beggars didn’t you?” Jesus smiled and shrugged sheepishly yes. John continued,’ You share your lunch and coin one day don’t you realize you will never be able to feed them all. And oh my lord you smell like a beggar already. If you are so high minded why don’t you join the Zealots? At least they have a plan for ending this occupation and creating a better world. Maybe they can end the corrupt Roman power structure that creates a beggar. But don’t sit there with beggars and accepting coins from a centurion.”
Jesus calmly replied,’ Gee John stressed much?.” John grimaced at him. Jesus continued,” These beggars should have not be fed and loved but should I had spent my time with some far removed government and not addressed the people right in front of me.” John more relaxed now as he prepared for his usual verbal joust with Jesus, ’Yes but they will be hungry again tomorrow. We must plan and strategize not lower ourselves to beggar’s standards.” Jesus chided,” And tomorrow if someone does not look to change governments but looks to help the person in front of him they will be fed again.” John sternly, “Have not you yourself said the poor will always be with us? Especially if we spend time not looking out for tomorrow.” Jesus nodded his agreement,” but today I was not leading rebellions or advocating for our countrymen. So today was the day to feed and give coin. Who knows maybe tomorrow I will throw all these price gouging vendors out of the temple and start an uprising.” John seeing he was not getting anywhere attempted the last word,” Somebody needs to lead the children out of the Wilderness in to a new Promise land. But we must realize the Wilderness is our home first. And we must demand the Promise Land not beg for it’ “John, we should not look to be yet another leader of the poor. We both know too many people who want to lead. My goal is to show the poor their worth and their power. We cannot do that in temples or on thrones but only by being amongst them.” The conversation was over. They had silently agreed to think on each other’s words.