My dad’s life was hard, from beginning to end. He was born in Buffalo, NY, when his father was 60. Orphaned at 12, he was raised by his adult siblings–raised, and suffered beatings by an older brother. At some point he was sent to military school, where he was molested. Someone in the family has a photograph of him in a sharp-looking cadet uniform.
He said, “I was basically on my own from the time I was twelve.” Eventually he ran away from home, and ended up in reform school. He told me of escaping out the bathroom window. “When all the boys were gone, I unscrewed the wire screen that covered the window, crawled through the window, and dropped down into the alley.” He hid next to a barrel under a tarp. Two officers that were searching for him stood right next to the tarp, talking about him. He said he struggled to not even breathe. After this–I kid you not–joined the circus. I think he told me he cleaned up after the elephants, but that memory is a little hazy. He told me about the circus when I was young, but when I was grown he told me about the women in the circus. “They took me under their wing and taught me everything there was to know about sex.”
Some time after he left the circus he hitch-hiked across the country. I remember him telling us about times when he bought a loaf of bread and a bottle of ketchup, and ate ketchup sandwiches under highway overpasses. He used to sit in diners and chat up truck drivers and other travelers to get rides on his journey to San Diego where an older sister was stationed. His first night in San Diego he spent in a downtown all-night movie theater.
He had finished the eighth grade.
Injury, Welfare, and the Projects
I was five when Dad worked at the Owens-Corning Fiber Glass plant near Fremont. That’s where he seriously injured his back. I was in the living room when he cried out in agony while swatting a fly with a newspaper. I was six. We went on welfare and moved into Lockwood Gardens Housing Project. Lockwood Gardens was at 65th and East 14th in East Oakland.
When my parents applied for an apartment they were told, “All we have open now is a unit in the back. That’s where the coloreds live. If you want to wait, something will open up in the front.” My folks said, “We’ll live in the back.”
That was around 1962.
Mom and Dad were fairly conventional, middle-class people. In the years following there was no long hair for me when the Beatles and the hippies made it fashionable. Uh-uh. My dad used to say, “We’re not poor, just broke.”
I think Lockwood Gardens was originally military housing–those long, two-story buildings, painted pastel brown or turquoise. I remember that senior citizens seemed to like green and red geraniums in their yards. There were nicely trimmed hedges and lawns in front, and small yards in the back with a variety of white picket fences.
If things got too rough on the asphalt-covered parking lot, mothers called their children into the safety of their own backyards. It was these white picket fences that changed our lives, or, I should say, the Housing Authority’s plans for the fences changed us.
Fences, Baptism, and the Front Lawn
In what they said was necessary to reduce maintenance costs, the Housing Authority announced that they were going to tear down the fences. With that announcement my parents’ middle-class civic values kicked in. They knew they could do something about it. They knew that the people who lived in the projects weren’t helpless, and as citizens they could act and expect a government agency to respond. That’s what democracy was all about.
When I was about nine we attended Melrose Baptist Church, Southern Baptist as I recall. One Sunday two things happened. First, my dad was baptized. I remember how strange he looked when he came up out of the water with his hair slicked down so flat.
The second event that Sunday was a big meeting on our front lawn. A crowd of about 30 people assembled to hear my mom and dad announce the beginning of the Lockwood Improvement League. The crowd heard about the need to organize in order to keep the backyard fences and their children safe. I remember peeking out the front window at all the people.
One Saturday Morning
Soon after that another event took place, one of my most vivid childhood memories. Early one Saturday morning my dad called me upstairs. My parents were in bed.
He said to me, “Ronnie, we heard that the Housing Authority may come to take down the fences today. I need you to keep an eye out in case they come.”
“Be sure and listen, okay? This is very important.”
I thought to myself, “This is really important.” What my parents had been talking about for weeks might actually happen that day. I trotted down the worn wooden steps in my flannel jammies and sat down in front of the blonde-colored T.V. For a moment I worried that I might not hear them as I returned to watching television. “Out of the blue of the western sky comes–Sky King!“
It wasn’t long before I heard loud pounding. I rushed to the back door. Two men wearing white T-shirts were wrestling our fence out of the ground. I ran out of the kitchen toward the stairs shouting, “They’re taking the fences! They’re taking the fences!”
I never saw my dad move so fast. By the time I reached the stairs he was was already on his way down. Barefoot, he was holding up his pants with one hand, belt buckle tinkling as he bounded toward me. I followed him through the kitchen.
Once in the backyard he shouted at the men. “Stop! Bring that back!”
They dragged the fencing toward their flat bed truck and said, “We’re doing what we were told.”
My dad rushed toward the fence and roared, “Stop!” He bent down to pull the fence away from them, but they continued dragging it across the asphalt. Determined to stop them he stepped onto the section of fence, awkwardly perched on the white slats, forcing the men to lower the fence and release their grip. They grimaced, looking at my dad like he was crazy. Dad gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Sitting on the fence.”
As long as we lived in the project, the fences remained.
My parents had to really struggle with the Housing Authority to get permission to use the recreation hall that was for tenant use. When they finally got the okay, they showed Three Stooges movies and served dinners.
One time an Hispanic couple who had been attending meetings suddenly stopped coming. After some months the couple knocked on the door of our apartment. They apologized to my parents for not coming and explained, “The people from the Housing Authority told us you were Communists, but we know that’s not true now. You are good people.”
The work of the Lockwood Improvement League included a variety of things. They were able to teach unwed mothers how to drive, giving them employment options they didn’t have. They organized an emergency food closet. On one occasion my dad contacted the Oakland Symphony and obtained a block of tickets for a dress rehearsal. My mom and dad wanted the tenants to see that there was more to life than poverty and the projects. Some of the women most involved in the Lockwood Improvement League eventually found decent jobs and were able to move out of the project.
There’s a lot more to the story of my parent’s work, like lobbyng the school board for hot lunches, picketing the police chief’s home over hiring discrimination, spearheading a prolonged fight for a decent library, etc.
The War on Poverty
The most significant thing to happen to my dad was being hired as a community organizer by the War on Poverty under Lyndon Johnson. Because of his skill in organizing (helped by my mom’s awesome work) he was promoted, and promoted, and eventually promoted to Director of the Southern Alameda County poverty program. My dad, in his Hayward office, with an eighth grade education, was evaluating resumes from job applicants with M.A.s in social work from U.C. Berkeley.
Why? Because Bill Goetz could actually do the job of community organizing. This profoundly affected my life, education, and my understanding of ministry as a Christian intellectual.
“Experience” is one of the elements in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I learned from my dad that education is not necessary for ministry. I learned that bold, dramatic, even confrontational actions are effective. I learned that ordinary people can accomplish great things.
My experience was a lens through which I read scripture. I read about ordinary, uneducated men accomplishing great things for Christ. I read about people like Samson and Ehud, Jesus and Paul, who did the necessary deed. And I read Paul’s disavowal of his learning and professional status for the sake of the Messiah.
My dad was not a deeply religious man, but he, together with my mother’s vigorous efforts, accomplished important things in the lives of the poor in an entire city and the better part of a county . . . with an eighth grade education.