It was a war zone with walk-up or drive up illicit drug markets. The drug boys were packing and proud of it. The police were scared to drive through. One parishioner was a victim of a purse snatching and called the police, who told her often the purse snatchers stole the money and tossed the purses in dumpsters. So they took her to the dumpsters in the near vicinity. But as she got out of the car the police, who looked uncomfortable in the interior of the housing project, locked the door behind her. But it was also home to families trying to survive. We lived in a church building across the street from the government homes. We were idealists with Jesus on our side.
So we tried to lessen the pounding poverty that stood as Damocles’ sword over their heads. One of our more successful programs was the youth program, which, if you knew Rob Toney, would surprise you quite a bit. White, pale blonde, tobacco-chewing good ole boy from Tennessee. But he had the soul of a poet and a unique, laid back way that appealed to some of the kids in the government housing across the street. He also had fibromyalgia that sometimes left him with severe pain. He was also quite capable of exaggerating his truth. He struggled a lot but somehow created a safe place for the young men who would come to his drop-in center. He visited in their homes and talked to their mothers (fathers were not usually in the picture). The mothers liked his boyish ways, his idealistic youthful way of viewing the world, and saw that he cared about their children.
He was evangelical, but not in the typical sense. He would preach about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The conversations were almost humorous as he, of a southern accent, spouted black power philosophy, spitting tobacco into his plastic cup, wearing his baseball cap; and the young men began to form a bond that would help them cope with lives that were unnecessarily hard and disadvantaged. He soon became somewhat of a legend in the neighborhood. There were attempted muggings until he let the muggers know he knew their mothers and was pretty sure they would not appreciate this new hobby they had picked up. But it was not always that easy; he would be mugged once by those whose mothers he did not know.
The rest of the staff were envious of the connection he was making with these young men. There was a magic or some might say grace that connected him to these men. But he and the staff always grieved at the hard circumstances that were blocking their way from fulfilling their potential. The neighborhood claimed many a youth before their time and even when they survived, it left a deep scar. Many lives of ‘the what may have been’ if the world was a fair place were lived. We prayed and raised angry hands to God, demanding fairness.
One night one of our younger homeless residents with whom we had been working, fell off the wagon. He was angry and walking through the government housing drunk and ranting and raving. The problem was he was using racial epithets that are very unwise to use in black communities. A crowd of black men had gathered around him to settle a racial score. Some of Rob’s youth knew he was one of our errant residents and ran to tell Rob of the danger he was in. Rob always had liked Dan, a homeless good ole boy ever since he had moved in with us. So Rob rushed to help him. The situation was out of control; punches were being thrown and Dan laid on the ground cussing and sharing his racial epithets with even more vigor. Rob rushed in between the men and told them to stop but it had no effect and now he was receiving pushes and punches. As far as they were concerned he was white and tonight it was not a good night to be in the hood for white boys.
It was then an act of courage and a “we shall rise occurred” moment occurred. Six to eight of his youth stepped in between the crowd and circled the two white men. This was an act that put them in danger; these were men with who, they had to live. Some were known gang members. They were just between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Yet they, with fear and trembling, slowly marched the two white men out of the hood and across the street to the safety of our church.
This spontaneous action by these young men made me realize they would survive and if life gave them half a chance they would thrive. These many years later some have graduated from college, one is a police officer, and others are married and have left behind a life and a place to a more fair reality. Rob, for his part, lists as his profession poet and artist. No surprise there; he always had a lot of soul.