Broke- But Not Poor – The Courage To Survive

Adversity And Disadvantage – The Doorway To Success In America

Religion and Education – The Keys To The Door – Harlem – The University Of Life

Harlem[1] has many fine churches, and many storefront churches. Empty stores were always excellent opportunities for entrepreneurs to create a business. God is good cash flow business for the poor, and handle right, can bring in as much capital as a typical mom and pop store. Distressed woman would regularly come to these storefront church businesses – and sacrifice their meager coins for spiritual therapeutic relief. 

God had a good show – complete with exciting stories from scripture artistically presented by a talented and gifted man – who could make heaven a reality just by spiritual theatrical story telling, and voices appealing through musical sounds coming from throats  – gifted to rival the sweet sounds of birds.

As these churchwomen released their songs of stress and hope to the promises of an everlasting God, feelings of relief would come over these women giving them a high coming from the release of spiritual endorphins. God’s dope brings them back again and again for more and more fixes. The storefront churches give them the psychological strength to endure and survive challenges, which could destroy many who did not have the habit.

Living through the spiritual dope pushers and watching the spiritual addicts paying dearly for this needed business, a personal decision was made, not to be part of it. Children are often forced to watch mothers go through rituals a praying, singing shouting as an affective means of relieving stress. Men had long abandoned the storefront church’s program, electing to leave this “gig” to the one male star in charge of his flock. Women were here because men had abandoned them and their children – and most of the relief sought – were thoughts of failed relationships.

Storefront churches did not encourage mending broken relationships, which would take time away from the business, but to substitute a spiritual mate from a earthly one. The women accepted the idea that they were brides of a living Christ, who was a faithful and compassionate spiritual lover. Age, maturity and a sense that this was not to be a personal chosen path – motivated a search for other stops to get off the poverty train. Storefront churches were a poverty stop, and a stop I intended to miss. Credit must however- be given these store front churches – and the one man minstral show – it saved Harlem from mental and emotional distress – helped people develop heavenly strategies- including neurological strength to prevent mental breakdowns. Poverty did not permit neurological acceptance- if someone wanted to talk to them selves – they had better be down on their knees- addressing those conversations to Jesus. Most European immigrants came through the streets of Harlem and learned the strengths of survival- They also learned how to be American.

Harlem is a church network and any form of religious service can be found in the network. A series of visits to non-storefront churches -introduced me to the many paths of faith and the socio-economic factors of church attendance.

Poverty can sometimes be the results of the wood life gives you, mine was the early death of my father – being poor, however – is a mental and behavioral choice. I was broke – but not poor, and I was determined to work my way out of broke.

Changing churches was a major step in breaking out of the traps of poverty. I found the St. Marks Episcopal Church on 137th street and Edgecombe Ave. NYC.[2] Today it is called The St. Mark’s   United Methodist Church. There were exciting programs from children. There were men in leadership roles. There were women walking with heads held high – demonstrating the working of God in their lives. There were positive role models for living life in this exciting community called Harlem. Children in the community hung out in the church after school and evenings. The church was opened seven day a week.

All social activities were held in the church. Young people learned to date from the church, and get married and have their children blessed in the church. Whatever the community needed was found in the church, from financial planning, relationship building, management and administration, and a spiritual teaching about the love and will of God. I found my God, and I found my church. The church was so crowded that it was necessary to arrive early if you wanted a seat. The minister was feeding the people with the food from God, which they needed. Women would take young girls and mentor them into the roles of Christian women, and men would take young boys and mentor them into leadership roles and Christian manhood.

That was the twentieth century, and through the grace of God we made it through. We made it through wars, racial discrimination, and unimaginable challenges of life. We had the church to hold as a firm course and a supportive guide. As children we made it through and became adults demonstrating the blessings of God in our lives. The church was filled with children from the nursery school to the university levels. The foundation of my spiritual, social, economic and educational growth was formed in this church and what I am today can be credited to outstanding ministers, religious educators, strong men and women dedicated to social justice.

The churches success was also responsible for its decline. The church taught its young people how to work and let God work in their lives. God did work in their lives. Many became success businessmen and women and professionals. Many demonstrating the workings of God, married, had children, and moved out of the community. They brought homes in the suburbs and other communities, they loved their church, but many could and would not send their children to the neighborhood schools.

As the school system in New York City began to decline, so did church attendance. People were not leaving the church; they were seeking better learning opportunities for their children. The church, without knowing it, had a vested interest in the quality of education delivered to the children in the community. It was directly affecting the bottom line of church operation. I too made my flight out of the area of my birth, electing to find a safe place to raise my young family, and especially interested in the quality of education my sons would be receiving.

Black flight cause a socio intellectual drain on the Harlem community as the middle class left taking with them their positions of role model for the next generation. We were the group that made it through the hard times, we knew where the road mines were and we had developed strategies for going around, over under or through them and coming our safe. There were few left to teach the remaining youth – who we were, and how we were able to get over. The first law of nature is to survive, and just as my grandmother made her mid night runs with all of her children – from the south lands of the country, many black fathers took there little brood to safer less challenging growth areas to give the children a better chance in life. The vacuum left by the Black flight was soon filled by society drop- outs, the lost and the forgotten.

Many were trapped in deep pockets of despair and poverty, and there were no guides to show them the process of survival. Poverty pimps moved in and exploited the weak and the hopeless, and as negative behavior transformed the reputation of Harlem as a safe place to live, the schools reinforced this information, and presents the students with a hopeless curriculum, and sent them teacher prepared to sustain the hopeless situation. The churches tried to survive with its out of town weekend visitors, who came in with there fancy cars, and left as soon as the pastor said Amen. The church and the school came together and participated in the destruction of a generation of children.

Harlem, which once sent its students to the best colleges and universities in the country, was not the major funding source for upstate communities whose primary source of jobs and income was the dependable operation of an efficient prison system. A failed education system was the major sending source of prison inmates and made it possible for prisons in America to be listed on the Stock market as an important capitalist industry. Religion and education the primary socialization and stratification agents of society, joined together and created the class society, and Harlem was considered the home of the lower classes. This does not negate the fact that millionaires and paupers live in that area located between the two rivers, but no one would ask how many millionaires Harlem has, but rather can we depend upon the school system to fill the prison quotas?

The challenges of the 21st century, is to solve the problem of educational delivery to poor children, and also to make the church more responsive to the social justice needs of poor children. Education is the doorway out of poverty and the key to the American dream, a dream, which millions of people have crossed vast oceans to achieve. Some of our educations are not only keeping some American students out of the American dream, it is causing them to lose faith in the promises of the country.

The wants the desires and the day and night dreams are still holding the songs of the soul, but some students are being intentionally deprived of the tools for making the possible happen and releasing the song from within. A failed education system makes the possible impossible, and leave feelings of blame, guilt and helplessness on a people who see the possible dream slowly taken away with plan and intent set down in 19th century socialization strategies.

Finding God was a transforming experience. I had to know that this God of my ancestors was the God for me. I had to take a step in the direction of faith and trust that God would be with me in every step that I took. It was necessary to deny the reality of my present existence and just the knowledge that I was made in the image and likeness of this God. I learned to look in the mirror and see a reflection starring back at me that was a reflection of the face of God. I learn to look into the face of other people and also see this same reflections. My decision was what would I do with this awareness of who I was. If I were made in the image and likeness of God, then I would have abilities to do things, which I could not imagine with my natural mind.

My natural mind look at the reality of my existence, and told me that there was no way that an individual would be able to over come circumstances with so many obstacles blocking the way. The still voice, which comes into your mind, during times of quiet and surrender revealed the thought that what man cannot do, God could do. It was around this time that I decided to take a closer look at these storefront church- women; I wanted to know what they had in common. I wanted to see the degree of their dependence on this church system. I noticed that all of them had made poor relational choices in their lives. I noticed that most if not all of them, were not in any positive relationship with men. In fact most of the content of their weekly testimony related to some negative behavior of friends or relatives with whom they associated.

Most of them had a considerable amount of time to contribute to church activity. These activities included cleaning the church, arriving early to set up the church for weekday or evening services. The women would join together and cook all day Saturday and brought the food to church on Sunday. Cooking and eating was an important part of church activity. There seemed to be a sense of comfort in the shared rhythm of their lives. They were the same, almost carbon copies of each other. If these women were not able to find their way out of the poverty box themselves, then what guide could they be for their children? The pied piper of ministry preached them on a path of heavenly rewards and riches, and taught them how to pray for earthly salvation and accept delayed gratification for a prize only achieved through death.

The slow deaths and magnificent funerals of these women only gave the earthly remainders courage to stay the course. There usually was no room for after school reading or math centers in these small areas because the weekday space was taken up by prayer meetings and weekly testimonials. No financial planners or business people coming in to run seminars on how to get out of poverty and achieve wealth, for these store- front church women, wealth is considered anti-Christ and not God’s will for his people. The poorer you are the closer you are to Jesus is the hidden message in many of the sermons, and the women do nothing that will keep them away from the cross.

This type of belief system is difficult to change, and unless you change the messenger and the message poverty continues. Children escape as soon as they can, but are usually left without a God or a message. They head for the streets for a breathe of fresh air and another message. If they are strong enough, they find themselves another spiritual message center and in the process find their way to a personal relationship with God and a personal guide through life.

Twenty First Century

Returning to school in my senior years, resulted in my completing a Master of Divinity in Religious Education and Pastoral Counseling, and a Doctor of Minister degree in the role of religion in addressing global issues of the post modern world, specifically the quality of education of children and the understanding and respect for the inter faith family.

This brings me to the development of my Christian witness and a major step in my spiritual journey. It is hard to praise God from an extreme position of poverty. There was a relationship between poverty, religion and education. If parents were sending their children to schools that did not prepare them for the work world in which they would live, then some of these children would grow up and live hopeless lives of pain and suffering.

The minister saw these people after the disappointments in life had led them to the church as a refuge from pain. There had to be a way to change the direction of the lives of these storefront churchwomen and their children. It was obvious, that children who received quality education tended to make better choices in life. If education were the path to understanding what God wanted for us, then education would be my ministry call. I entered the education field, and with the help of God, delivered quality education to children and the adults whom I had the privilege to serve.

My ministry today focuses on helping churches to become educational centers. This is not reinventing the wheel – it is about encouraging churches to do what they do best. Churches are in the transformation business .The elimination of poverty is a transformational issue. Poverty clouds the lens of the eyes and makes it impossible to see the paths that God has prepared for His people. Churches have the power to make the blind see, and the lame walk. The healing powers of Jesus are found in the hearts and the hands of those who serve children.

Today, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church sits in Harlem a shell of its former self. The church used to hold 1,500; today maybe seventy-five senior citizens attend on Sunday. There are no Sunday school or youth programs. The building is locked six days a week, and on Sunday, the one day that it is opened, the members quickly disappear after service to return to their homes. St. Marks and many main line churches sit and wait for “Superman” and senior members, holding on to yesterday’s memories, stand in the door and forbid the children to come to the house of God, for fear they will mess up sacred memories. This church was my escapee heaven in the days depression of my youth, taking off with nothing but a bag filled with hope carried on a stick of courage over my shoulder – I found my refuge and my rock; today I wish the past on the future.

Needless to say the schools in the Harlem community had been in decline for years, and the churches remained quiet permitting that decline to take place. I am not impressed with churches that have loud exciting music, and no children. If the children in the neighborhood are hanging in the streets and know more about the inside of a jail than they do about the inside of a church, then something is wrong. If we don’t help them with school problems, why should they attend our churches?

The saving your soul message does not work with a youth who is bullied – hurting in the mind and the body. To them it is not the soul that needs to be saved – it is the body, a body surrounded by Christians who seem to want to hurt them. Christian relatives prey on unprotected young body and minds and can always depend on the family to keep secrets of abuse. Christian policemen who set traps hoping to weed out the frail and the weak in order to make jobs easier, and meet quotas.

Christian minister who operate after- school centers in their churches, and some of the after- after school activities relate more to the carnal needs rather than God’s activities. The loud singing women in these churches were too busy praising the Lord, and shouting for the minister to notice something was wrong with the children. Decades of watching this Christian church scenario take place, has left a bitter taste in the minds and mouths of our judging youth, who wonder who is this God and Jesus they sing about.

Then there was the problem of having to die to go to heaven to meet this blind and deaf Jesus who appeared not to see the struggles of the people, or hear their cries of pleading. Young people are not like their grandparents, and in some cases slave ancestors. They do not say give me Jesus, and you can have the rest of the world. They feel that there is something wrong with a religion that supports poverty and oppression, and they are unwilling to attend church building, which they consider, the building centers for the weak. When a man has a job and is able to take care of himself and his family, then he is willing to praise the God who made it possible.

A man without a job or a means to support his family will not come into the church. Churches must be job centers, with training and access to resources, which can help him to be a man. When a student feels that the education system is giving him the tools that he will need to get a good job, then he will be willing to sit in school and listen to teachers who respect him and his ability. It is the Fathers good pleasure to give us the kingdom, and good schools supported by good churches is part of that kingdom. The male is like the canary in the mind shaft. He will give the first signs that there is something unhealthy going on in the environment. Therefore, we must pay attention to the absence of men in our churches, homes, schools, and even universities. Jesus first healed then he taught scripture. He did not give scripture to the blind man or the cripple man; first, he healed the condition, which they were facing.

My spiritual calling was influenced by this history and these concerns. Inside of me a voice was saying, you know the way; you are chosen to be a change agent and a guide. There was no bright light or being knocked down on a specific road , – it was just a quiet voice saying, tell your story. Share the knowledge of the God who brought you through poverty and despair – without letting it change your soul or your heart. It was the combination of religion, education and life choices, which helped in the understanding of how God works.

The Scott Irish, Native American- African – vanilla sisters – my ancestors – left legacies for the future. Today the children, grand children and great grand children are in and have attended some of the best colleges and universities in the country; others are struggling to find their way. They are elevated by the struggles of ancestors to rise up a little higher and make a mark on our society. There is a road and there is a path, sometimes branches and thorns hide it, but you will find the road. We celebrate their strengths and their challenges. Nancy carry the infant Otis in her arms to a safe place, having the courage to run with fear and stand with determination made it possible for the threads of life to continue. The next generation will catch on to the thread and know that it comes from the fibers of life and it is strong and unbreakable.

 

[1] I had a rich and varied religious ecumenical background. I was born a Catholic, raised in the Baptist church, baptized through submersion, attended the Seven Day Adventist church, attended several Pentecostals, and several churches that were called “Holy and Sanctified.” My extended family were members of the Methodist Episcopal denomination, ( now called the UMC) after many searches and visits – I found my place in that denomination. At a young age, I was only permitted to travel the distance of Harlem, which could be considered less than three square miles. So my search for my God was kept in those three square miles.

[2] I was impressed with the size of the church. I was impressed with the large number of men husbands and fathers in the congregation. The church had beautiful stained glass windows depicting stories from the Bible in beautiful display. Thousand of people attended the church, and they praised God for the wonderful things that were happening in their lives. I wanted to know more about this God and this religion that was being demonstrated in the lives of these people. I joined the church. Joining was easy, telling my mother would prove to be the difficult part. I became totally involved with the church. I attended alone, but I was welcomed into the church family. I became a Sunday school teach and member of the senior choir. My leadership roles continued and were supported in the church. I was still living in poverty, but poverty was no longer living in me. Through the early deaths of my father, sister and mother, I felt the presence of God in my life, and I knew that whatever the trials and adversities, I had a companion in life. Through his power and grace, I began to live the life of the people in the St. Mark’s church. Began to see wealth, happiness and prosperity demonstrating in my life. I wanted to help others to know this companion. I wanted others to know the power of correct focus and beliefs. Today I encourage people to find a place where God is working in the lives of people, and join those people. Sometimes you have to change your environment in order to change your life.

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