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Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and churches making a difference in area of great need

July 4, 2011 2 comments

If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.

 

 

photo
North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

 

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and churches making a difference in area of great need

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Church is universally the tie that binds and the salve that heals. Its significance in the black community is even more profound given African Americans’ historical disenfranchisement.

“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.

“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”

He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.

With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.

The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.

Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.


Apostle Vanessa Ward
, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.

“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.

©photo by Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Star

 

 

An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.

“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.

“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”

She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.

A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.

“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”

She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.

“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.

She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.

“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”

She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.

“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Apostle Vanessa Ward

 

The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.

“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”

For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.

There’s much to emulate. Her leadership’s helped make the area’s Central Park Neighborhood Association a proactive force for positive change.

Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.

Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.

It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”

Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.

“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”

If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.

Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”


Rev. Portia Cavitt
, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.

When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.

 

 

Pastor Portia Cavitt

 

 

She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.

Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.

She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”

For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.

Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.

“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.

“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”

 

 

Clair Memorial United Methodist Church

 

 

If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved  — if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”

The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”

Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”

Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some  — making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”

The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”

The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”


Rev. Jeremiah McGhee
, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.

Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.

“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.

For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants.
“We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.

Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”

He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.

“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”

McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.

All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.

He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”

Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.

“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”

In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.

“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.

He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.

“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”

He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.

“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.

All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”

“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”

He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.

“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”


Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church
, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.

The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.

 

 

Morning Star Baptist Church

 

 

Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions  — poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.

Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.

“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”

Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.

As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.

He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.

He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”

An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.

This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”

Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.

The black church is also a model for other faith groups.

“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.

Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.

“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”

Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”


Selwyn Bachus
, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.

Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.

 

Pastor Selwyn Bachus

 

 

He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.

“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.

Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.

That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.

Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.

Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.

The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.

“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”

The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”

He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.

“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”

 

 

Salem Baptist Church

 

 

Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”

Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.

The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par

“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”

He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key  indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.

Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”

If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.

More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause

©by Leo Adam Biga

Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.

African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.

After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.

“It has not come back since then,” he says.

After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.

His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.

“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”

He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.

An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.

For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.


Fr. Tom Fangman
, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.

The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.

Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.

 

Sacred Heart Church

 

The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.

“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”

Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”

The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”


Rev. Johnice Orduna
, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.

Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.

As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.

Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.

Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.

“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”

 

 

New Life Presbyterian Church

 

 

She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”

In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.

“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.

“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”

Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.

 
 
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Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

July 4, 2011 1 comment

One of the neat things about being a journalist covering arts and cultural happenings is the opportunity it provides to intersect with emerging or rising talents. In the case of this article for El Perico I got to speak with Jorge Gomez, the leader of the breakout Latin band  Tiempo Libre, who kick off this season’s Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing series in Omaha. The timba-jazz infused, Miami-based group performs July 7, and the series featuring regional and national jazz acts runs through August 11. If you haven’t heard of Tiempo Libre, as I hadn’t, you’ll soon learn why you should take notice in the space of my short article. First of all, the group has only been together 10 years and yet they’ve already earned three Grammy nominations. They’e opened for and collaborated with some world class artists. Their music draws from many different sources and influences. These musicians are highly skilled and steeped in a classical foundation. They are also inventive enough to blend their native Cuban rhythms with all manner of musical styles. And they have a great story of what fired their imaginations in Cuba and of living out their dream now as a headline act around the world.

 

Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

by Leo Adam Biga

As soon to be published in El Perico

Growing up in Cuba members of the hot Miami-based Latin band, Tiempo Libre, studied classical music at Havana conservatories. Popular music, especially American, but even their native timba, was deemed subversive and thus forbidden. Hungry for what they were denied, the players clambered atop roofs at night with homemade antennas to pick up faint Miami radio broadcasts.

The staticky sounds of Michael Jackson, Chaka Chan, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Manhattan Transfer and Earth Wind and Fire filled the tropical air. “It was fuel for our dreams. It opened a new door for us,” says Jorge Gomez, Tiempo Libre lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director. “We listened, we recorded and during the day we put the music on and everybody in the neighborhood came to my house. We danced and sang and played dominos, everything. It was a new hope for us.”

Today, Gomez and his Grammy-nominated bandmates are touting their new Afro-Cuban fusion album, My Secret Radio, and its celebration of those clandestine raves. Fresh from performing at an Italian music festival, Tiempo Libre opens the Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing season Thursday. Their pulsating rhythms begin at 7 p.m. at Turner Park (31st and Dodge Streets).

The band describes their gigs as parties rather than concerts, says Gomez, “because by the end of the show everybody’s going to be singing and dancing with us. It happens all the time, and that’s the whole idea — to have fun. It’s all about the energy people are going to feel. That’s the best reason to play music .”

The free performance kicks off the weekly series that runs through August 11.

This is Tiempo Libre’s first Omaha show but the group’s well known for breakout recordings on Sony Masterworks and high profile appearances on Dancing with the Stars and the Tonight Show and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their genre busting work includes collaborations with classical artists Sir James Galway and Joshua Bell and Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz.

 

 

The band first made a splash in 2002 opening for Cuban music legend Celia Cruz.

Formed a year before, Tiempo Libre only came together after its seven members separately fled Cuba. Their individual journeys included long stays in other countries before their paths merged again in 2000 in Miami. They were all working with different artists then “and in our free time we came together to make the band, ” says Gomez, hence the name Tiempo Libre or “free time.”

He’s proud the band has disproved predictions timba cannot thrive outside Cuban-centric Miami. “It’s fantastic the way people respond to it,” he says. Playing before enthusiastic audiences around the world, he says, “it’s incredible how beautiful the music can be between people who don’t even speak the same language.” By mixing timba with other styles, Tiempo Libre breaks down artificial barriers, as in the live orchestra work Rumba Sinfonica and the album Bach in Havana.

“Timba style is a mix between jazz and Cuban music. For example, if you put Buena Vista Social Club with Chic Corea, that’s timba style,” he says. “The harmony’s going to be deeper in the jazz roots but the rhythm is going to be, of course, Cuban rhythms, like rumba, ch-cha-cha, bolero. We play a mix of everything — timba, jazz, classical.”

Gomez says as the band’s exposed to ever more diverse musical influences, the more there is to blend with Cuban rhythms, including a new Placido Domingo Jr. album they’re collaborating on.

“We are living our dream playing all the music, all the mix that’s in there, adding a lot of Cuban flavor.”

Noted for their rigorous musicianship, yet free-spirited manner, Gomez says, “the way we’re playing now is so different from the beginning. We feel so secure. Now it’s all about how to enjoy yourself and transmit that energy to everybody around you. It’s unbelievable, the sensation. It’s a beautiful life.”

Now that Cuba’s more free, Gomez expects Tiempo Libre will perform back home.

“That’s part of our dream, too,” he says. “We want to play there in our neighborhood, for our friends.”

And perhaps inspire others to live their dreams. “Exactly, that’s the idea,” he says.

Jazz on the Green features other Latin-style bands this summer, including Incendio on July 14.

Visit jazzonthegreenomaha.com.

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

July 4, 2011 44 comments

With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.

 

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.

Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.

The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.

Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.

Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.

Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.

Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.

“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”

 

 

 

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Felecia Webster

 

 

What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.

Nate Goldston III  left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.

“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.

He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.

“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.

He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”

New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”

Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”

He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”

 

 


Nate Goldston III

 

 

Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.

“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”

He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.

Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying  employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”

Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.

“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.

 An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.

“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”

Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”

 

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Cathy Hughes

 

 

Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.

“It has a long ways to go,” she said.

Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.

Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.

“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”

All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.

Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”

Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.

Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.

Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.

Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.

“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.

“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”

Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.

Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.

“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.

 

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Carleen Brice

 

 

“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”

Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”

Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.

“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”

 

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But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”

Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.

“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful celebration, now, and all the days gone by

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

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Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful celebration, now and all the days gone by

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
photo

photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

July 4, 2011 10 comments

The vast majority of my journalism is accomplished far away from other media, but once in a while I end up as part of the pack when reporting a story, as was the case when I covered a May address by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba during a visit he made to Creighton University in Omaha. Actually, there was just one other journalist there to my knowledge, but he was representing the local daily and so I needed to be on my game with tape recorder rolling and notepad and pen at the ready capturing Ortega’s remarks. As the leader of the Catholic Church in that island nation, he has navigated an uneasy relationship with the Communist regime. In recent years he’s presided over a revival of the church there and entered a dialogue with the hard line government, which has considerably softened in what can only be called a reform movement that’s transforming Cuba into a freer nation. Critics of Ortega contend he hasn’t pressed Cuban officials enough, but the evidence suggests a major change is underway and basic human rights are being respected in ways not see before under the revolutionary banner. My story appeared in El Perico, a weekly Spanish-English newspaper published in South Omaha.

 

 

Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

During a May 12 commencement address at Creighton University, Havana, Cuba archbishop Rev. Jaime Ortega described the uneasy journey the Catholic Church has navigated in the Communist island nation.

At a separate weekend event, Cardinal Ortega received an honorary law degree in recognition of his humanitarian work.

In introductory remarks last Thursday Creighton president Rev. John Schlegel, who’s visited Ortega in Cuba, praised the cardinal for “working relentlessly to mediate between the government of Raul Castro and the families of prisoners of conscience…Above all, Cardinal Ortega has proven to be a great pastor, a great leader, especially through challenging times, and a great priest.” Schlegel described Ortega as a “diplomat” seeking “the greater good, truth and justice.”

The estimated 125 attendees included Creighton faculty, Archdiocese of Omaha officials and members of Nebraska’s Cuban and greater Latino communities.

Speaking through a translator, Ortega charted the repression that followed the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Ortega sounded hopeful about the new, freer Cuba emerging. He referred to frank, cooperative exchanges between the church and government authorities that recently brought the release of 52 political prisoners.

This avowed son of Cuba proudly declared, “I am a Cuban who lives in Cuba. I never wanted to live outside Cuba. It is a country I love with all my heart.”

He drew parallels between early Christian religious leaders serving their flocks amid oppression and clergy and pro-Democracy dissidents finding their voices suppressed under Fidel. He said rather than take a militant tack, the Cuban church followed a pastoral, passive approach.

“The Cuban bishops have tried to be shepherds in this way in Cuba,” he said. “Its role is not to confront the established powers.”

However, he says “the church is always asking for religious liberty, so that its followers can live their lives in peace.”

He outlined where the church and Cuba are today in comparison with the post-revolutionary period. “Initially,” he said, “there was a great acceptance of the revolution because of finding so many points of value with it.”

Within two years though, he said “very strong confrontation” and persecution  distanced the church from the regime and the revolutionary fervor. He said priests were expelled from the country, Catholic schools closed, ministries and other expressions of religion curtailed and various “attacks” made on the church. He was among many young men in the church sent to labor camps.

The harsh measures, he said, “had a negative impact on the Catholic faithful” and “marked the memory” of older Cubans. He said, “This is a mark that is hard to erase.” While the bishops decried human rights violations, he said “the church as an organization was very diminished and had no means of communicating with its people.” He characterized the Cuban church then as “a church of silence,” adding, “The attitude of the church then was one of patience, perseverance, prudence.”

He said despite restrictions imposed on social, political, religious practices, fear of arrest and economic hardship, many Cuban Catholics remained faithful and risked much to speak out.

A turning point was a reflective, renewal process the Cuban Bishops Conference initiated in 1981, extending to every diocese, culminating with the 1986 National Ecclesial Encounter Cuba. “This constituted a very decisive moment for the history of the church in Cuba,” he said. It laid the groundwork for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. As a result, he said, “the church in Cuba let itself be known to the world and Cubans themselves realized there was in Cuba a church that was alive and dynamic.”

Since the conference and papal visit, he asserts the church has taken more of an active, public, missionary role and today is a church “that lives for its people,” rather than “wrapped up in itself,”” welcoming whoever comes to it.

 

 

Framing this empowerment, he said, is a new spirit of dialogue between the church and government, which he describes as “more fluid” under Raul Castro. In a Q & A after his address, Ortega said, “It has been much easier to find somebody with whom to dialogue. There seems to be a greater openness to changes.”

He’s encouraged by greater religious freedom, whose public manifestations include massive crowds for outdoor rites and a recently dedicated seminary.

On the activist front, he said an intentional process of “pastoral action” with authorities negotiated improved conditions for political prisoners, who were allowed to have contact with their families before finally gaining release. “Our humanitarian gesture was accepted,” Ortega said. He also alluded to recently announced Cuban social-political reforms.

With Cuba now thriving, he said its experience demonstrates “the human spirit should not be endangered or limited” and that liberation needs to come in both the spiritual and social life of people, adding, “It should never be necessary to negate God in order to enjoy human rights or to be active citizens.”

Ortega acknowledges that for victims of Cuban injustice “the baggage” and “suffering” remain. For “true reconciliation among all Cubans,” he said, there must be forgiveness and understanding — only then will the wounds inflicted under the old regime heal. Cuba, he insists, is moving on in acceptance and he suggests the rest of the world move on, too.

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s extensively studied Cuba, admires Ortega for “toeing the line for the purposes of advancing the church and its teachings and its ministry.”

Referring to criticism by some that Ortega’s been slow to press for more reforms, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “His approach perhaps wasn’t as quick as some would have liked, but the fact is it’s been successful. I think what he’s understood perhaps better than most was the limitations on what the church actually could do. He moved when he could and didn’t try to deal with issues he wasn’t able to have any answer or response to.”

Long Live Roberto Clemente: New exhibit looks at this late king of Latino ballplayers and human rights hero

July 4, 2011 5 comments

I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.

 

 

Long Live Roberto Clemente:

New exhibit looks at this late king of Latino ballplayers and human rights hero

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

With baseball season in full swing, El Museo Latino hosts a touring exhibition from Puerto Rico celebrating National Baseball Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente.

Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.

It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.

When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.

The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.

He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.

In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.

His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.

With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.

Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.

“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”

 

 

Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”

Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.

Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.

“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”

She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”

Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.

Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”

Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.

El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

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