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Academy Award-nominated documentary “A Time for Burning” captured church and community struggle with racism

December 15, 2010 3 comments

Cover of

Cover of A Time for Burning

Rarely has a film, fiction or nonfiction, captured a moment in time as tellingly as did A Time for Burning, the acclaimed 1967 documentary that exposed racism in Omaha, Neb. through the prism of a church and a community’s struggle with issues of integration at a juncture when the nation as a whole struggled with the race issue.  The film really is a microcosm for the attitudes that made racial dialogue such a painful experience then.  In truth, when it comes to race not as much has changed as we would like to think.  It is still America’s great open wound and it will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.  The following two articles appeared, as Part I and Part II, of a two-part series exploring the context for the film and the impact it had here and nationwide.  The stories appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) around the time of the film’s 40th anniversary.  If you’ve never seen the documentary, then by all means seek out a DVD copy or a screening.  It’s a powerful piece of work that will provoke much thought and discussion.  In fact, from the time the film was first released to this very day it is used by educators and activists and others as an authentic glimpse at what lies beneath the racial divide.

 

“A Time for Burning”

Part I

Academy Award-nominated documentary captured church and community struggle with racism

What Would Jesus Do Today?

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

On the eve of the 1968 Oscars, a nominee for best documentary feature, filmed in Omaha, foretold the violence that was ripping America apart. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination six days earlier in Memphis was the match that lit the fire. The riots that followed spread to more than 100 cities.

About once every generation a seminal film takes an unblinking look at race in America. Crash took the incendiary subject head-on in the 2000s. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing hit all the hot buttons in the 80s. Roots offered a hard history lesson in the 70s. A Time for Burning arguably made the most righteous contribution to the topic in the 60s.

The movie took a heavy toll locally, splitting Omaha’s largest and most established Lutheran congregation on the year of its 100th anniversary.

Produced at the height of the civil rights movement, Burning captures honest, in-the-moment exchanges about race. Shot here in 1965 and released in late ‘66, Burning’s candid, unadorned style was revolutionary then and remains cutting-edge today.

Turned down by the three major networks, it premiered on PBS to national acclaim. Burning earned an Oscar nomination and became a staple of school social studies curricula and workplace diversity programs. Selected for the National Film Registry in 2005 to be preserved by the Library of Congress, the picture may be viewed in a new DVD release.

Burning holds special significance for Omaha. The film that was a litmus test for racism then and is a prism for measuring progress today. Then the mood was rapidly turning acidic. The black frustration expressed in the film first erupted in violent protest mere months after production wrapped. The race riots of the late 60s tore apart the North Omaha community as the promise of a better future was dashed against new injustices piled on a century of oppression.

The film came at a crossroads moment in Omaha history. At a time when racism was on the table for discussion, the opportunity to address it was lost.

Burning follows self-described “liberal Lutheran” pastor Rev. Bill Youngdahl, on a quest for his all-white congregation at Augustana Lutheran Church to do some fellowship with black Christians living “less than three blocks away.” The son of a popular former Minnesota governor, Youngdahl had recently come from a Lutheran Church of America post in New York, where he led the national church body’s social justice ministry. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. He traveled the country working for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

All of which led director Bill Jersey and producer Bob Lee to seek him out when he came to minister in that most typical American city — Omaha.

His “inclusive ministry” posed problems from the start of his arrival at Augustana. Church elders earlier made it clear he should steer clear of the homes of black families when evangelizing in the neighborhood. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I won’t do that.’” The film project brought everything to a head.

“After filming began, some people began to question what was being documented. ‘Why aren’t they filming the smorgasbord and the choir?’ So, that became an issue,” Youngdahl said. “I had to call those two (Jersey and Lee) back from New York to appear before the council. We talked several hours and finally affirmed going ahead with the film as Bill wanted to do it.”

Members of the church council try to get this brash upstart to tone down calls for diversity. Caught in the fray is member Ray Christensen, who goes from the timid ranks of “we’re moving too fast” to vocal advocate of outreach.

Militant sage Ernie Chambers, pre-state senator days, dissects it all. Chambers held court then in Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, where he cut heads and blew minds with his razor sharp activist ideology. A famous scene finds Chambers lecturing Youngdahl, who’s come to the shop to float his idea for interracial fellowship. The pastor sweats as Chambers, wary of this do-gooder’s intentions, critically analyzes him and foretells his fate.

As the film plays out, the black Christians stand ready to break bread and talk straight with whites, most of whom repeat the mantra “the time is not right.” Youngdahl asks his bishop, “If not now, when?”

Cinema Verite

Unseen but felt throughout is the guiding hand of Jersey — one of America’ most noted and honored documentarians. His projects range from the Renaissance to the Jim Crow era to a recent film on propaganda in modern society. He applied cinema verite techniques with his hand-held camera and available lighting. The approach registers an intimate naturalism. Point-of-view narration and jump cuts heighten the conflict. He was assisted on the shoot by the late Barbara Connell, who also cut the film.

“Nobody in that film appears because a filmmaker dragged them in,” said Jersey. “Everyone appears because they were in some way directly involved with what was going on in that community. I feel that is, in fact, its strength — it’s a story of individuals who faced one another and confronted one another. No one was ever set up to expose their prejudice.”

Jersey admits he influenced situations to further the story, suggesting a couples exchange to Youngdahl, sensing it would stir up trouble.

The climax comes when Youngdahl proposes the exchange with ten volunteer couples from Augustana meeting with ten couples at nearby black churches Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church and Hope Lutheran Church. The mere idea of meeting for fellowship in each others’ homes polarized the Augustana congregation. The adult visits never come off, but a youth exchange does, setting off a firestorm.

Former Calvin member Wilda Stephenson helped escort the youths to Augustana. The retired Omaha educator recalled “the people in the congregation became very upset that they were there and participating, especially in their communion service. That bothered me. I wouldn’t have gone if I had thought we weren’t going to be received well that Sunday.”

The visit followed a warmly received visit by white Augustana youths to Calvin.

“We were really glad to see that happen and welcomed them,” Stephenson said. “And that was the situation whenever any white people attended our church. We just always made them feel welcome. For our youths to have been treated otherwise, I was really shocked about that.”

The Calvin youths who went to Augustana that Sunday included Central High students Johnice (Pierce) Orduna and Francine Redick. Orduna said they were not made to feel “unwelcome” by anything overtly said or done. Such is the “insidious face of racism.” They only learned of the upset their visit caused when Jersey, who always stirred the pot, told them what his cameras and mikes caught. He gathered the students for an on-camera forum in which they pour out their disappointment.

“There was a fair amount of anger, certainly some frustration, but I would say outrage and real surprise that Christians we thought had similar ideas about humanity and how to live lives would behave that way,” Redick said. “The visit seemed like such a small thing. I mean, it’s not like we wanted to marry their children. It was people worshiping together. At one point in the film I utter something like, ‘How can people who profess to be Christians and Christian ministers respond in this way?’ Even today that seems outrageous to me.”

“I’m sure whatever Bill preached was not that radical,” then-Calvin pastor Rev. James Hargleroad said. “The whole gist of the film is how such a minor thing could lead to such a momentous result when racism is rampant in a community. The civil rights movement was well under way then, but it was a little late getting to Omaha.”

Burning documents the fallout, including rounds of frank discussion that expose people’s naked fears and prompt serious soul searching, as the divisive climate increasingly makes Youngdahl’s position untenable.

Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates to show a positive portrayal of the church engaged in racial ministry, Jersey made a film tacitly critical of its efforts.

“It didn’t spark conflict, it sparked dialogue,” Jersey said. “We didn’t do a film about Omaha. We didn’t really even do a film about a church. We did a film about individuals in a church structure struggling with the issue of race in a way that I think represented how America was dealing with race at the time,” he said. “Not the crazies in the South who were using fire hoses and attack dogs. Not the urbanites who were frustrated for many other reasons and setting fires to the banks. But average people being who they are authentically.

What Would Jesus Do Today?

The figure who most poignantly grapples onscreen with his own views is Christensen. His crisis of conscience marks some of Burning’s most human moments. At one point, he said, he wanted to quit the project. Everything was topsy-turvy. The placid church that once comforted him had turned battleground. Jersey convinced him the film was too important for him to abandon it.

 

 

 

“This was scary. I wanted to bail out. I was unsure. We were all unprepared,” Christensen said.

“The church was a retreat where you go to recharge your batteries and sing beautiful hymns — it’s not where you go to be disturbed and bothered. And then Bill (Youngdahl) wakes you up. Waking up is bothersome.”

But Christensen stayed the course, one that got even rougher when he and his late wife June were ostracized by old friends in the church. A moving scene depicts the couple in a state of emotional exhaustion. A tearful June says, “I just can’t do it anymore.” She appears opposed to going forward. The unseen back story is that she was sick with cancer. The rebuffs she and Ray endured took a further toll.

Far from disagreeing, he said, “We were totally together. As a matter of fact, we had agreed that whatever Bill said, we’d support. That’s how unified we were. It’s too bad the film implies otherwise. When she says she’s tired, she’s tired of the radiation treatments, the phone calls, the cold shoulders, the loss of her friends. She’d founded the altar guild and the acolyte guild and now she’s on the outside.”

“She’s crying for the people of the church,” he says in the DVD.

As Jersey explains in the DVD, “There’s a universal important lesson in the film — that change is hard. That change can be costly, but that resistance to change is a killer. It makes even the simplest efforts impossible.”

Youngdahl said the film is an accurate snapshot of where America and the church were then with regard to race. “Our country had not advanced very far.” Churches included. At its core, Jersey said Burning examines the human tendency for one group to distrust “the other.” “It’s fear that immobilizes people,” he said.

All along Jersey meant to “find a situation where there’s a potential conflict” but never intended showing the church turning its back on racial accord.

“I offered Lutheran Church officials the option to cancel the project and to take the footage, but I wasn’t going to change a thing. And to their ever lasting credit, they said, ‘No, this is the story. It’s an honest film — keep making it.’”

Still, “this isn’t what the church wanted to say about itself,” he said.

In the end though, Bob Lee said, officials “felt it was more important to see the church wrestling with the problem than to have a pat solution…The consensus was the film was a good way to deal with this problem because it generated all kinds of discussion and still does. That’s one of the reasons it’s out in DVD. It talks about the issue and is relevant today.”

Reaction by local church officials was not as positive. Nebraska Lutheran leaders filed a protest with the national executive council, branding the film “a disgrace to the church.”

Soon after its original PBS airing, the film ignited national discourse in reviews and essays. Jersey, Lee, Youngdahl and Chambers were much quoted. The earnest pastor and militant barber even made a joint speaking appearance. Their association with the film made them public figures. But Youngdahl was too embroiled in healing the divided house of his church to care. In the end, he couldn’t square his beliefs with the rancor and resistance at Augustana.

For Johnice Orduna, Burning still has the power to illuminate racism. “The film is a gift in that it reminds us we’re not there yet. It’s not a short war. I’m not going to see it ended in my lifetime,” she said. Racism, she said, is “still there, just a little more hidden, a little better couched. But it’s still burning. We still need to put some heat under it.”

Orduna’s done mission development work for the Lutheran church to promote integration, including anti-racist training workshops. She said, “I find the movie itself is a wonderful microcosm of the time. Watching can be a real wonderful remembrance, but it’s also a real frustration. I’m still dealing with the same frustration of, Why don’t they get it?”

Some years ago she consulted Augustana on blended worship services and found resistance still alive. She said bruised feelings remain among old-liners.

“They’re angry over the film. They feel they got set up. That it showed them at their very worst,” she said. “But that would have been any (white) congregation in this city 40 years ago. The fact it was them is sad for them. I think at their core they’re good people.”

She said few Omaha churches are integrated today. New Life Presbyterian Church — a merger of Calvin and Fairview — is an exception. She said Burning reminds us how far we have to go. “I think it’s wonderful it’s still making people itch…because the things that make us uncomfortable force us to change.”

 

“A Time for Burning “

Part II

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Forty-two years have not cooled the incendiary 1966 documentary A Time for Burning. Its portrayal of a failed social experiment in interracial outreach at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, 3647 Lafayette Ave., still burns, still illuminates.

What members were led to believe was a paean to the all-white congregation’s attempts at fellowship with the surrounding African American community turned into a de facto critique.

As pastor William Youngdahl and others pushed “civil rights” at the church, things were stirred up at Augustana. When a group of black high school students worshiped there one Sunday in 1965 — returning a visit white youths made to Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church — it caused a ripple. When white couples considered hosting black couples in their homes it made waves. Burning captured the wake. The fallout led to a rift within the church’s leadership that resulted in Youngdahl’s ouster. Hundreds of members eventually left.

Augustana faced its biggest crisis on the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The film, shot hand-held style, immediately became a sensation for the naked emotions and stark black-and-white imagery that framed the problem of racism against the backdrop of the church. The dark-suited, male-centric piece has a chic Mad Men look today that belies the angst of its real-life, as-it-happened drama.

Near the end of the film the late Reuben Swanson, the church’s former pastor, asks how people can be persuaded “to change their hearts? This is the burning question … ”

Augustana’s remaining members could have closed their hearts and minds to introspection, growth, renewal. Instead, they pursued the more difficult path of facing and overcoming their bias.

“It wasn’t all a political thing, it was a spiritual struggle for people, and a very deep one,” said Vic Schoonover, who helped heal and guide the church in Burning’s aftermath. “This was a struggle for one’s soul and what they really believed.”

Omaha and New York City

This Friday, Oct. 17, the UNL College of Journalism will screen Burning at 1 p.m. with a Q & A to follow with Director Bill Jersey. On Saturday, Oct. 18. Film Streams will again screen Burning, at 2 p.m., with a panel discussion to follow, moderated by current Augustana Pastor Susan Butler . Jersey will participate, along with two key figures in the film. Ray Christensen is the Augustana member who had a change of heart — moving from opponent to timid supporter, and then to outspoken witness for change. Johnice Orduna is one of the teenagers from Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, who speaks out strongly against the response her youth group’s visit evokes at Augustana. On Sunday, Augustana Lutheran will be hosting an interfaith service at 10:30 a.m.

Similar programs are happening the following Monday in New York, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is sponsoring a screening of Burning and panel discussion. Longtime Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who plays a prominent “role” in the film, is appearing with filmmaker Bill Jersey.

‘Stirred people to their bones’

Today, Augustana is a beacon for an inclusiveness, crossing racial/ethnic lines, to sexual preference/identity. Butler said that as the only Reconciling Church in Christ congregation in the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Augustana “is welcoming, affirming and supporting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered believers.”

What transpired at Augustana wasn’t unprecedented. Ministers often get people’s backs up for taking unpopular stances. Tensions rise, disputes erupt. Members of First United Methodist Church in Omaha have endured their own schism, only over same sex marriage, not race.

What set Augustana apart is that its wrestling with controversy and discord was caught on film and aired nationwide. One could argue the parish might never have come to brand itself “a progressive, thinking, Christian church,” as it does today, without Burning as a backdrop for discussion, examination, inspiration and transformation. Longtime member Janice Stiles said the film initially “created a lot of hard feelings” within the church.

“I felt and most of the people felt they only picked out the bad parts,” she said.

Her perspective changed because, wherever she traveled, she met people familiar with the film, and they wanted to discuss it.

“I was really astounded. It gave me another outlook you might say; that maybe it did something good. Much more than we thought. It really was a blessing that we did that,” she said. “It really brought up the feelings and the discussion out into the open, and it needed to be done very much.”

Since the film’s release, the parish has fielded inquiries from around the world.  People ask:

“How’s Augustana doing?” It still sparks discussion wherever it’s played. That is what Lutheran Film Associates intended when Burning was commissioned.

“Some of these memories are going to be brought back up again, for better or worse,” Augustana member Mark Hoeger told a recent gathering of church members who watched the film as part of adult forums he led there. The forums were meant to generate discussion and they succeeded, Hoeger said. He also screened a 1967 CBS special on the impact of Burning.

Butler views the programs at Augustana and at Film Streams as educational opportunities.

“My intention is to use this reunion weekend as a time to revisit a particular part of Augustana’s history,” she said. “I think it is always productive to review one’s story from time to time in order to see where we have come from, where we are now and where we are going.”

Butler said reviewing church history can only be healthy.

“I don’t think there is any healing that needs to be done at Augustana. I think we have moved on quite healthily,” she said.

The CBS News special about the aftermath of Burning was entitled A Time for Building.

Moderator Charles Kuralt, Burning co-director Bill Jersey, executive producer Bob Lee and Lutheran pastor Philip A. Johnson discussed reaction to the film.

For the special, Jersey had traveled nationwide and captured audience reactions, including church congregations.

The program ended with members of all-white Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Seaford, N.Y. deciding to proceed with an interracial exchange. Pastor Bob Benke’s benediction offered thanks “for the willingness of the Augustana congregation to let themselves be seen; for we are well aware of the fact that we have problems here, too.”

Forty years later, Benke is in Portland, Ore., a town Youngdahl also calls home, though the two have not met. Our Redeemer did follow through with interracial youth fellowship, but Benke confirmed the attempt was not well received within his church.

Willing or not, Augustana members found their weaknesses laid bare on screen. for all to see, becoming a mirror for others to do their own inventories and ministries. Introducing the program, Kuralt described the buzz Burning had generated: “It is a film that has stirred people to their bones … “

 

 

 

 

‘A social tide’

The Hoeger-led forums at Augustana were attended by dozens of parishioners. Most had seen Burning. Few had seen Building. There were lots of questions. For newer members, the most obvious was “What happened next?” The answer is best informed by the context of the film’s troublesome times. The mid-’60s marked the height of the civil rights movement. A great social tide was moving forward and an old-line, inner-city Swedish-American congregation in the Midwest like Augustana felt threatened by change that might disrupt its homogeneous traditions.

More blacks were moving into the area. Cries for black power, equal rights and change by any means necessary (as the late Malcolm X famously put it) disturbed many. Black discontent is well expressed in the film by a young Ernie Chambers as well as Earl Person, Rev. R.F. Jenkins and students from Central High/Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.

The exclusion blacks felt was tangible. Omaha’s pronounced geographic and social segregation meant whites and blacks lived parallel lives, separate and unequal. The era of white flight saw scores of Augustana members move to The ‘Burbs, a pattern that played out in inner cities across America. The tinderbox of racial tension exploded in riots here and elsewhere during the late ’60s.

Schoonover said those who left Augustana in the decade following the film did so for many reasons, “but the rapidity and the intensity of it I directly attribute to A Time for Burning.” Now a retired minister, he’s an active member of Augustana.

White-black interaction was so thoroughly circumscribed that the mere suggestion of interracial exchange concerned enough Augustana members that the proposal was defeated and Youngdahl forced to resign.

Heated discussions ensued, prejudices surfaced, conflict escalated and resistance held fast. Filmmakers Jersey and Barbara Connell captured fears and doubts that usually remain hidden or silent. The film is a prism for viewing all people’s struggles with race.

Burning uncovered racism among otherwise decent, churchgoers. Unfortunately, Augustana took the fall for the bigotry, cowardice and hypocrisy of the larger white Christian church and society. Its members scarred with the celluloid scarlet letter, when virtually any white congregation would have looked that way under the same scrutiny.

“I think A Time for Burning was a slice of the American church wherever you would have cut it in those days,” Schoonover said. “There was racial tension all over the city and the country. White congregations were not really ready to face the whole racism issue. They wanted it to go away.”

He said the film resonated with audiences everywhere.

“If people across the country hadn’t identified with that on a personal level as well as a just oh-my-gosh level, it would never had had the popularity that it did. It hit chords in people,” Schoonover said.

Hoeger agreed, saying “ … this was not the story of a single congregation, it was the story of our society, our community in general. People could see in this bunch of white Lutherans themselves.”

But for Augustana members, a stigma was attached to their church that made it/them a symbol or scapegoat for prejudice.

“To a certain extent the congregation was sacrificed for a greater good and in that sense probably deserves some credit,” Hoeger said. “The pain and suffering they went through as an institution led to a larger, better good. And frankly, we think, it’s a better congregation than if it had not gone through that experience.”

Indeed, as Building brought out, people admired Augustana for initiating steps to deal with race. Hoeger and Schoonover said they elected to worship there because of the church’s role in the film, not in spite of it.

Hoeger first saw Burning in grad school, where it was held up as the pinnacle of American cinema verite. He recalls being struck this searing drama set in his native Nebraska. When he and his wife moved to Omaha in 1980 their “church shopping” brought them to Augustana without realizing its connection to the film. The day they went there, Schoonover led the congregation in confessing their sexism, typical of the radical liberal sermons he delivered.

It was only then, Hoeger said, “it clicked in my head this was THAT church” from the film.

He was hooked. He was also intrigued by how Augustana had so drastically changed in 15 years. Hoeger discovered it had been a process led by Schoonover, fellow pastors and a lay leadership willing to “embrace change.” The groundwork for that change can be traced to Burning.

In 1969 Schoonover accepted a call to lead Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries in his hometown of Omaha. His social justice mission tasked him with confronting racism in the Lutheran Church and wider community. Following Youngdahl’s exodus Augustana had a “quiet-things-down, not-rock-the-boat” pastor in Merton Lundquist who, to his and his lay leadership’s credit, began doing more minority outreach, Stiles said.

Schoonover joined Augustana and within a decade was asked to pastor there. He shepherded to completion a year-long self-study begun by Lundquist at the church on its future. Ironically, the church that drove off Youngdahl got a bigger troublemaker in Schoonover.

 

 

Vic Schoonover today

 

 

‘Hit square in the jaw’

When Schoonover began preaching he sounded-off on integration, police-community relations, poverty, prejudice — both from the pulpit and in his work with the activist group COUP — Concerned Organized for Urban Progress. He quoted Stokeley Carmichael. He once called America “a structured racist prison.”

COUP’s overtures to and advocacy for the black community made Schoonover a target. “I had to move my family into a motel because we had anonymous threats of doing harm to us and to our property,” he said.

His less militant stands led him to co-found a handful of social service programs still active today, including the Omaha Food Bank, Together Inc. and One World Health.

Schoonover was attracted by what he found at Augustana. “I thought, here was a congregation that at the very least was forced to begin to look at the issues and maybe had made some progress,” he said.

The people were, he said, “in any other circumstance some of the most generous people I’ve ever known.”

“They would do anything for you. Really good-hearted. But on that issue (race) it was a blind spot,” Schoonover said. “It’s a dichotomy. But that’s what they were taught. Because I don’t think it’s possible for any white person to be raised in our country without being raised a racist and a sexist. I just think it’s in the air you breathe and in the systems you get socialized in.

That’s the milieu in which you live and — that’s what you absorb.”

Janice Stiles acknowledged the blind spot she had in those days. She recalled her feelings when blacks moved in.

“All I could think of was the price of my house going down,” she said.

She recalls when her son Mark became friends with a black schoolmate. At first, she was bothered by it. She gradually changed.

“I started looking at people and seeing what’s on the inside instead of the outside. I’m glad I got to know black people as people.”

Schoonover was also the product of a myopic vision. He grew up on Omaha’s north side, where his family kept moving, in white flight mode, as neighborhoods were integrated. His own “baptism” or “awakening” came as a young minister in Kansas City, where he “took a class taught by black clergy called Black Power for White Churchmen,” he said. “It cleared my eyes open to some of the problems.”

After interacting with Augustana members, he said, he “really became aware of their anguish” over the film and how it held them back.

Some felt it unfairly made them an example. Some accused the filmmakers of betraying their trust. Others believed the film presented a gross distortion of them and their church. After all, much of the conflict in the film went on behind the scenes, in private, in the inner circle of the church council. That’s why most members who went to the Omaha premiere were shocked by the friction Burning depicted.

“They all traipsed to the world premiere at the Joslyn in their best bib-and-tucker and got hit square in the jaw,” Schoonover said.

 

 

 

As if being exposed in that way were not enough, the film became a phenomenon — the subject of untold screenings, reviews, essays, articles, public programs, debates.

Burning aired coast to coast, prompting the CBS special. The film earned an Oscar nomination. It’s been used in film/social studies programs and diversity training. In 2005 it was selected for the National Film Registry.

Thirty-odd years ago the wounds were still fresh enough that Schoonover discovered members didn’t want to relive the film. Understandably, they didn’t appreciate being a whipping post, as they saw it, for a national dialogue on race. When he became co-pastor there in 1976, he decided to bring it out of the closet.

“It wasn’t mentioned, it wasn’t something talked about, it was something avoided in the congregation,” he said. “They were traumatized. They felt totally betrayed, misled. I knew we could never get healthy without confronting it, so we bought a copy of the film and began showing it. The young people were especially interested.”

Thus, Burning became a conscience or barometer for the parish to measure itself. Older members may not have realized it, but outside its walls Burning wasn’t viewed as an indictment or condemnation of Augustana, but as a challenge for America to confront the nation’s racial divide. That’s why the film endures beyond being a mere artifact of ’60s racial tension. Instead, this document of a congregation struggling with its worse nature was the impetus for that same congregation, and presumably others, to realize their better angels.

‘You’re already dead’

At the end of Augustana’s year-long self-study, the congregation was faced with several options. Stay and expand the ministry, merge/relocate, close or continue as is. The parish council recommended remaining and expanding its inner-city ministry. Put to a vote of the general membership, a majority opted for the council’s recommendation.

“It was a test for the parish and to their credit they said, yes, and we did,” Schoonover said.

His sermons helped sway the congregation to stay its new course. He cautioned against being mired in old ways, old attitudes.

“The past cannot be brought back,” he told them, “and the way things were is irretrievable.”

Janice Stiles said his preaching exerted much influence.

“Oh, yes, he opened our eyes to so many things,” she said. Rather than criticism she said “it was more like a challenge.”

Despite empathy for his flock’s distress, Schoonover didn’t let them off the hook or allow them to rationalize or minimize their reluctance to accept diversity.

“I told them, ‘Look, I understand your pain, but what the black people have felt far surpasses any pain you have felt.’ I was extremely blunt about what they faced and what it meant and what it would require of them. I said, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re already dead. You’ve got to change. You don’t have any choice.’”

One of his sermons put it this way: “ … There is no place you and I can go to hide from change. We might wish things would leave us alone but this will not be … Organized religion has often been in the conservative role of resisting change. This has often been at the cost of truth and integrity. A congregation can lose touch if it is static and immovable. It’ll become irrelevant … ”

From that crucible, Augustana evolved into the progressive place it is today. The rupture that divided the church allowed Augustana to reinvent itself.

“By splitting the church and creating this schism,” Hoeger said, “those who were left were the core of folks who were more socially aware, concerned, interested in embracing change then the folks that were upset … There are still some people here who I would consider very conservative, but what differentiates them is they were willing to stick with it.”

The film that created this house divided also helped repair the breach.

“In the end run I think whether they realize it or not the film was worth it … It certainly changed the direction of that congregation, that’s for sure,” said Schoonover.

It’s meant Augustana engaging in urban, interfaith service-mission ministries.

For example, the church is active in the ecumenical social action group Omaha Together One Community, OTOC offices there. Augustana’s Cornerstone Foundation addresses the inner city’s shortage of affordable-livable housing by buying-fixing up homes for low-price resale, or refurbishing residences that owners don’t have the means to renovate.

In the late ’60s Augustana and nearby Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church launched Project Embrace, a summer youth enrichment program for minority kids. At one time, Embrace included an after-school tutoring program serving thousands of kids at six churches. It has dwindled to a summer-only program at Augustana and two other churches. The integrated Danner day care operated for years at Augustana.

Schoonover carried those relationships over to the larger black community through Augustana, where he performed weddings, funerals and confirmations for blacks. Some blacks began attending the church. A few became members. As did Hispanics. Several Laotians, whose immigration the church sponsored, joined Augustana. He said those experiences “helped win the congregation over.” Stiles was among them.

“It was our occasion of getting to know a different race,” she said.

Even as barriers at Augustana have vanished, blacks still comprise only a small fraction of the parish rolls.

Vic Schoonover would say Janice Stiles is representative of the changed hearts that can move institutions forward. He acknowledged much work remains to be done.

“I go from hope to despair on the whole racial issue,” he said. “From thinking, ‘Yeah, we have made some progress, to thinking, Geez, we’re not any further along. We’ve just become more subtle, more guarded about it. Not much has changed.’”

As Bill Jersey said in Building: “Until the individual is willing to say what I can do, we’re going to continue with all this pious dialogue and get nowhere.”

The tragedy in that, everybody agrees, is that as the beat goes on, the flames still burn. Who will put out the fire? And what will heaven say if we had the chance but didn’t act?

 

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Two blended houses of worship desegregate Sunday: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are houses undivided

August 30, 2010 3 comments

This story is personal.  I occasionally attend an Episcopal church in north Omaha that was formed by a merger of two previous churches, one with an all-black congregation and one with an all-white congregation.  This blending had its ups and downs at first but the church has survived and a couple decades later it is a model of multicultural, interracial harmony. It’s called Church of the Resurrection.  A similar story resulted in the formation of New Life, a blending of two north Omaha Presbyterian congregations, one white and one black, and like Church of the Resurrection it remains an intact interracial house of worship.  The reason I attend Church of the Resurrection is that my girlfriend and her mother attend there.  The people are warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I am Catholic and I have never felt out of place there or pressured to be something I’m not.  When I discovered the history behind the church I knew I would one day want to write about how it came into being, and that’s what prompted the article here.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Martin Luther King Jr. scornfully observed that 11 o’clock Sunday morning “is the most segregated hour in this nation.” His indictment rings as true today in worship places as 50 years ago.

Organized, affiliated Christian churches are historically houses divided regardless of location or denomination. Witness Omaha, where defacto segregation is reinforced by geographic racial lines. With rare exceptions whites and blacks exclusively attend their own churches. That’s true even when a white congregation and black congregation of the same religious organizationare within close proximity.

The difficulty of achieving a racially mixed congregation is evident by the story of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha. The documentary A Time for Burning portrayed the upset that even timid attempts at interracial outreach caused within white Augustana in the mid-1960s. The film and a CBS news special about it elicited national discussion. The congregation underwent a self-study to examine their hearts. Augustana responsed to its neighborhood’s increasing African-American presence through outreach programs. Despite all this, the church has had little or no success in attracting black members. Why that should be so there and at many other churches is hard to answer without looking at the past.

Given America’s racial history, whites could always attend black churches without repercussions. Few did. Blacks attending white churches were made to feel unwelcome. Manifestations of this exclusion were designated inner-city Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist churches set aside for blacks.

Anymore, it’s not about being banned, barred or shunned. There’s more inclusion today. Chalk it up to enlightenment or political correctness. Of course, anything smacking of racism may generate a lawsuit or a YouTube-Facebook-Twitter campaign. Independent, nondenominational churches are most likely to be mixed. Without a compelling reason to integrate, most churches remain segregated because it’s easier to remain in their comfort zone.

Circumstances can lead two racially-defined, old-line churches to unite as one. It happens when they fall on hard times. Rather than move or close, they merge. Often, these unions fail. Even when they work, it’s by no means a smooth ride. Two successful Omaha inner-city blendings are Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd., and New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

Each was a marriage of convenience. When all white St. John’s and all black St. Philip the Deacon faced declining rolls in the ‘70s, members reviewed options and elected merger. It took effect in 1986 with Resurrection, housed in the former St. John’s building. The same scenario happened with Fairview and Calvin Memorial, only nominally white Fairview was already integrated and predominantly black Calvin resulted from a previous merger between black Hillside and white Bethany churches. New Life opened in 1991 in the former Fairview building. Calvin was one of two black churches that tried fellowship with Augustana.

By all accounts, New Life and Resurrection make multicultural diversity work. Challenges remain: each has only about 100 active members whose average is 60-plus; few members live in their church neighborhoods; the neighborhoods are rife with poverty and violence; physical plant needs persist; short budgets are stretched thin. But the journey of each church is a lesson in how we can heal the racial divide.

Sisters Johnice Orduna and Nola Jeanpierre share a unique perspective on both churches. Orduna, a licensed minister, attended Resurrection in the ‘90s and now serves as “a supply preacher” at New Life until a permanent pastor’s found. Jeanpierre grew up at Calvin, she experienced the birth of New Life, where she’s a member, and she’s now Resurrection’s choir director.

“I think the folks at New Life and Resurrection have made the 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,” said Orduna. “We’ve gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. I think we have been convinced by society we can’t do it any differently, and it’s just not true. But we have to be intentional and we have to learn to respect that culturally we’re going to want to do some things differently, and that’s OK. I mean, it’s wonderful.”

 

 

 

Church of the Resurrection

 

 

 

A merger doesn’t just happen. “It’s a process,” said Orduna. “You have to be intentional, you have to be diligent, you have to commit.”

Member Pat Tooles said New Life “overturns the myth African-Americans and whites can’t worship together because they have two different worship styles.” Presbyterians, white or black, favor a sedate service light on emotional displays and heavy on orderly structure, although there’s some call-and-response at New Life.

Whether at the pulpit, in the pews, working on the building and grounds or breaking bread together, the people at New Life and Resurrection say they see how they are more alike than different. They view their differences as gifts not threats. They embrace their diversity as enriching, even branding their faith communities that way. Resurrection describes itself “…a culturally diverse family united in God’s love.” New Life’s mission statement begins, “We believe we are called to be a congregation of diverse backgrounds, ages and races…”

“I just think we have so much every day all the time to learn from each other,” said Orduna. “Sure, there are tiffs, but they’re not gamebreakers.”

Lesley Dean grew up in St. Philip’s at 26th and Binney. Her parents were active members. She moved away and once returned was “heartbroken” her beloved home parish was no more. In her absence the merger happened, She liked what she found at Resurrection.

“I immediately felt comfortable there. I felt like this was the next step of St. Philip’s, especially because of the blending of the two congregations. It just seemed natural. I think one of the things that made me be able to accept it and to go with the flow is because I lived in San Francisco for 20 years, so I had already experienced different cultures coming together and getting along. That wasn’t anything thing new to me. I thought it was great actually.”

She wasn’t there for the merger but knows it wasn’t all roses.

“I don’t think it was anything instantaneous,” she said. “That blending did not come along easily. It took a lot of work from my parents and all the other elders that came before me. They just worked very hard to build a sense of trust amongst the rest of the congregation. And I just think they all learned from that — from the bickering and whatever else was going on. When I came back it was just like, What was all that for? — let’s just start anew, we’re all human beings, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They just kind of formed that alliance. Then the generations that came after, like me, have just taken it a step further.”

Deacon Juanita Johnson was there. Coming from St. Philip’s, she confirmed Resurrection’s first years saw conflict. Disputes arose over the racial composition of lay leadership roles. Any hint of favoritism took on a racial slant.

“At that time it was very important to keep everything racially balanced because there were people from St. Philip’s that weren’t completely on board with the merger,” she said, adding the same was true with some from St. John’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also resentment from St. Philip folks over sacrificing their building for the move to St. John’s.

A black splinter group alleged racism against Resurrection’s first rector, Rev. John Nelson, who was white, and against the local Episcopal diocese’s all-white administration. A national consultant was brought in to get people talking. Some folks left — black and white — but the core remained. New membersof both races joined.

“The people that stayed wanted it to work,” said Johnson, whose experience told her it could. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student in the late ‘40s she and fellow black students were denied admittance to campus dormitories. They resided instead at International House, where they lived harmoniously with students from Europe, Asia, et cetera. She also did interracial outreach while a Fisk University student in Nashville, Tenn. with students from nearby white colleges.

“I had that background, so I knew it could work.”

Resurrection’s long past how many blacks-whites serve on the vestry. Those things work themselves out. St. Philip’s took a sense of ownership by incorporating elements from their old church, such as stained glass windows and candles, into the Resurrection sanctuary. A more vital music liturgy of gospel, spirituals, even jazz, was introduced. A popular fish fry St. Philip’s held was adopted.

Tim and Cheri Oelke got married at St. John’s. They left long before the merger.  Then they visited Resurrection and were hooked by the “inspirational” black hymns. The couple are the last St. John’s members left there. For Cheri, the spirit of the place is not an edifice, an icon or an event. “It’s not in the building as much as it is the people. I think the reason we want it to work now is that we all care about each other, and if we do it in this building or if we have to do it in another building we want to worship together. Bonds have been formed, friendships have been formed, and we feel like we’re all a family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping ease the transition were shared Lenten worship services and other events St John’s and St. Philip’s hosted prior to merging. Still, old habits die hard.

“For a long time it was just the two churches worshiping at the same time in the same building but still two identities,” said Resurrection’s new rector, Rev. Jason Emerson, who previously served as an intern and curate there. Tim Oelke said, “It’s the Church of the Resurrection now, it’s not St. John’s. St. John’s was certainly special but that’s in the past.”

New Life’s tribulations were similar. Former Fairview member Janet Decker recalls a meeting where Bernard Grice voiced Calvin’s concerns. “He got up and said he hoped we didn’t do the same thing the whites did at Bethany, which was disappear.” She said Fairview’s integrated ranks avoided that. “We had only one family who decided not to continue to come — absolutely everyone else stayed. We didn’t have this feeling of giving up a thing. We were gaining. We knew if we were going to survive we needed to merge. We’re very comfortable with each other.”

Change was more traumatic at Calvin, not due to race but turf. “There were a lot of hard feelings. It was like giving up our church,” said Nola Jeanpierre. Calvin members like she and Michael Maroney did abandon their beautiful building at 24th and Wirt. “It was not an easy or smooth transition inside Calvin. There was a lot of contention in terms of how Calvin was actually dissolved,” said Maroney. “In hindsight, it probably went the way it had to go.” Those wounds healed.

Just as Resurrection eased into things pre-merger, New Life did. Joint worship services and soup suppers were held at Calvin and other events at Fairview “so the two congregations could be together and people could kind of get to know each other,” said Rick Rudiger, who belonged to Fairview. “You kind of have that courtship time. If you try to force it, you’ll probably fail.”

Carolyn Grice, whose father Bernard was a leader at Calvin, served with Rudiger on the merger committee. “We met weekly to start ironing out stuff. It pretty much started from scratch — what is it we want to see and then how are we going to get there. We had lots of disagreements but we’re all friends now,” said Grice. Rudiger said people tended to draw lines along Fairview or Calvin. “You had to reinforce it all the time of who we are — we’re New Life now, so let’s move on. Change is hard for everybody. Some accept it. For some it’s very difficult. The way you have to deal with change is you do things a little at a time.”

Jeanpierre said it’s imperative to “come in open-minded and ready to work together and not to exclude anyone, not to remove anyone from a post or role. You’re talking about a marriage, about one family meeting the in-laws and basically trying to make everything work for both in-laws, so that the family as a whole and on both sides can come together and find a common ground.”

After a few interims New Life’s first full-time pastor helped solidify things. “We had a strong female minister who kind of got us turned around and really focused on becoming New Life,” said Rudiger. “I would say overall we really have grown strong. I don’t think there’s too much thought even of what Fairview used to do or what Calvin used to do — it’s what’s New Life’s doing.”

Decker said there’s appreciation for what each faith community contributed. “There’s a lot of things we do now because that’s what they brought with them (from Calvin).” That includes spirituals. On a more practical level, she said, “they brought the numbers (more members) and we had the place.”

Ruth York, who came over from Calvin, said “those of us that have seen it through have been through quite a bit, financially and so forth,  but we’ve stayed strong and stuck together like a family, and we’re stronger for it.”

Just as New Life is on its second generation, Resurrection is, too. Lesley Dean feels a legacy calling.

“I have really worked hard to make sure some of the traditions of St. Philip’s continue on, like our Black History month celebration and the fish fry named after my dad. Myself and some others have tried to make sure our African-American culture was not lost in the merger. We still needed an identity and the St. John’s people were willing to embrace that.”

Dean said sensitivity makes all the difference.

“That’s how people get along. Ignorance is I believe why we have so much discrimination and racism in society because people don’t take the time to learn about each other. I just really feel Church of the Resurrection is a family. We are accepting and welcoming of every one and there’s a genuineness to that acceptance — it’s not just for show or not just for money.”

Richard Artison and his wife were St. Philip’s members and then moved away for his career. Once back, they went church shopping before settling on Resurrection.

“We’ve been to some churches that were very cold and impersonal and you feel like a number and we’ve gone to churches where nobody would speak to us. Just got ignored. This church has a lot of warmth and a lot of love. We like it,” he said.

Emerson’s proud his church is so inviting.

“The least worry I ever have at this congregation is that somebody new will walk through the door and not get spoken to. That just does not happen. They’re going to get spoken to. They’re going to get greeted, they’re going to get welcomed and I don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Other congregations, you have to work at that, it’s not as ingrained in their nature. It’s a problem in Episcopal churches churchwide, and that’s not the case here.”

He said Resurrection’s open mat, Sunday social hour/lunch and ministries targeting the underserved — including an after-school program, an emergency pantry, a transitional living site — reflect the church’s origins.

“I firmly believe this congregation’s history has led them uniquely to a high level of hospitality and I don’t know mean they just put on a good food spread, which they do. That attitude, that desire, that passion for outreach and justice comes from the two churches melding and the level of hospitality they had to practice to each other to come together and become one parish.”

He said Resurrection’s reputation for tolerance is why it’s a player in the Tri-Faith Initiative for a shared Episcopal-Jewish-Muslim campus.

Dean senses Resurrection’s come a long way in the eyes of a diocese that’s been slow to accept it. “For the longest time we felt they looked down on us, they didn’t want to participate in any activities we were doing, basically because we’re in north Omaha and the media portrays north Omaha as this horrible place. Our congregation has fought really hard to change that image, and it’s working. Some of the other diocesan churches are now participating in some of our ministries, so that’s a good feeling. We’ve got a lot further to go, but it’s a beginning.”

New Life’s at-risk kids mentoring program continues the legacy of the two socially conscious churches preceding it. Fairview ran Head Start and Project Embrace prpgrams. Calvin was active in youth job/leadership training and civil rights.

Orduna said the unity embodied by New Life and Resurrection “has the possibility to create a strong, trustworthy identity that could really be powerful force in bringing this whole neighborhood back to God.” Artison said, “I think church is the one place where we should come together. I think we’re an example for others.” Decker said churches that resist diversity “don’t know what they’re missing.”

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

April 29, 2010 13 comments

Growing up, I knew of a certain barbershop in northeast Omaha for one reason and one reason alone, it is where former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers held court as a barber and firebrand activist.  I never drove past Goodwin’s Spencer Streeet Barber Shop nor walked into it until a few years ago, when I went there to file a story on the special place it holds in the local African-American community beyond the usual gathering and gossip stops that barber and beauty shops serve.

Chambers is one part of the story, but another is the shop’s namesake, Dan Goodwin, who in his own way is an activist every inch that Chambers is. When they worked the shop together at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tensions in Omaha, they made a formidable duo of strong, socially conscious black men cutting their way to freedom.

 

 

 

 

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2006

The splintered front window of Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop, 3116 North 24th Street, might as well read: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too. Amid all the jive, the shop’s a forum for street-wise straight talk, scholarly debate, potent ideology and down home lessons from its owner and master barber, Dan Goodwin, and the gallery of young fellas and Old Gs (old guys) that hang there.

That was never more true than during the Black Power movement and Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the Spencer was a must-stop for anyone partaking in the vital brew of philosophy, polemic, dialectic and rhetoric coursing through black America. The “star” attraction was a then-young Ernie Chambers, the barber-provocateur-activist turned-politician. Between razor cuts, relaxers and jeri curls, he and Goodwin made like Malcolm and Langston, interpreting the times in an eloquent spoken word style that was part call-and-response sermon and part lecture. They were variously protagonists or antagonists. The customers and curious onlookers, their disciples or students or foils.

“It was like open line every day of the week down there,” said Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith. “All the conversation topics were about relevant things that were not talked about on radio/TV or written about in newspapers or discussed in school. Whenever you went there you were always intellectually challenged and stimulated.

“People would always bring in books and articles and things, and they would read them there and discuss them. Sometimes, people would come there and not even get their hair cut. They’d just come to listen. Others would come just to vent.”

“You’d go at ten in the morning and you may not leave until two or three in the afternoon. You’d sit around and listen to a lot of positive things,” Omahan Richard Nared said. “You’d go and get a lot of ‘mother wit’ (knowledge).”

Things could get intense. Smith said Goodwin, Chambers and company “could be confrontational. Sometimes they’d take the opposite position just to stimulate your thinking and to broaden your perspective. But it wasn’t meant to destroy you — it was meant to strengthen you. Now, I didn’t always agree with ‘em, but I didn’t always oppose ‘em either. I enjoyed it and other people did, too.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie Chambers and Bill Youngdahl
Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl at the shop in scene from A Time for Burning

Smith said “the salient” subjects batted around included “Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie Newton, racism, economic development, the lack of black teachers in the public school system, housing discrimination, police violence” and any “issues relating to our people.”

Memories of Vivian Strong and other victims of police gunfire still elicit strong responses. Goodwin refers to the 1969 fatal shooting of the 14-year-old Strong as “murder.” The incident ignited disturbances that he said were branded a riot.

Unlike some leaders who’ve done more reading about The Struggle than living it, Goodwin speaks from the harsh experience of a man who’s encountered his share of police harassment and brutality, including the cold hard steel of a double barrel shot gun pressed to his temple and the butt of that same gun jammed into his gut. He’s been rousted and arrested for “driving while black.”

His social consciousness was stirred in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”

Back home, he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

He marched on Washington in 1963, a witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped sponsor a 1964 Omaha speaking appearance by Malcolm X, a personal favorite whom he met. In 1996, Goodwin got on the bus and went to Washington again for the Million Man March.

Over the years, he’s filed complaints about police misconduct and other improper behavior directed at him and his people, making enemies along the way. All that’s bound up in him and in his shop is symbolized in the cracked glass out front he’s never fixed. Bullets hit it one night years ago. It’s a reminder of past incidents. Once, he got an anonymous call saying cops shot out the window at his old place. A warning to tone it down and to play like Uncle Tom. For many, the broken glass at the present site symbolizes hostility toward blacks. It’s also a defiant proclamation that Goodwin will not be intimidated or silenced or run off.

“I can handle anything that comes down,” Goodwin said.

As a visceral reminder of that resolve, he’s made the shop a fertile ground for developing not just the mind, but the body, too. The muscular Chambers introduced weight training there. Goodwin started lifting at age 40. With a ripped body that testifies to his dedication, Goodwin has in recent years become a world-class power lifter in the masters division. He’ll wear you out in the makeshift gym he has in a corner of the shop or wear you down with his treatise-like arguments. Some of the trophies, plaques and ribbons he’s won take up one side of the shop, whose walls are filled with clippings/photos of some of the sports greats to get their hair cut there (Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Sayers, Ron Boone, Johnny Rodgers, etc.).

Along with the Fair Deal Cafe, the shop was the place to be for any politically aware person interested in serious dialogue about the black experience.

 

 

If you were a Black Muslim or Panther or garden variety activist, then you went there to hear the latest thinking. Whether you supported Malcolm or Martin, read Cleaver or Chrisman and marched in step with the NAACP or the Urban League, you were ripe for the Spencer Street indoctrination.

“Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us,” said Frank Peak, a former Black Panther member in Omaha. “They were mentors.”

If you were a minister, you’d better go prepared to recite the Bible chapter and verse or defend your theology. If an elected official or a candidate seeking the black vote, you tested the waters there.

If you were an idealistic white student or adult civil rights sympathizer, you came as an acolyte to learn at the feet of the black men who, by virtue of the oppression they endured and resisted, earned the right to hold court there.

If you were a reporter looking to measure the pulse of the community, you no sooner flipped open a note pad or switched on a tape recorder then you got more than you bargained for in the way of unvarnished views.

“It wasn’t always serious, now,” Smith said. “There was a lot of laughter. And sometimes people laughed to keep from crying.”

Nothing much has changed. The same issues persist, only the incendiary talk has been somewhat muted and the rallies that got their start there have been relegated to the history books except for an occasional revival.

At age 77 Goodwin commands respect from young and old alike for still being a relevant spokesman and soul brother.

“He’s like the father of this barbershop,” customer Charles Taylor said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the young men that come in here refer to him as Mr. Goodwin. That shows respect.”

Goodwin’s not lost the fervor to fight injustice or to do the right thing. But there is an edge of resignation in his words and in his voice today. Chalk it up to all the shit he’s seen go down from his perch on North 24th, where the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t been realized the way he hoped.

“I feel a lot of frustration. I was naive enough to believe that by now it would be different for our youngsters,” he said. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just a little more sophisticated now, that’s all.”

 

For sixty years the "Goodwin

 

His vintage red brick building, only a stone’s throw from Lothrop Magnet Center, Littlefield’s Beautyrama and Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, is a symbol for the once teeming area gone to seed. The upper floor windows are boarded up. On the north wall, a faded advertisement for “Uneda Biscuits, 5¢,” faces a vacant lot upon which other buildings and businesses once stood. The south wall is awash in a celebratory mural portraying “the way things used to be,” said Goodwin. The mural depicts a parade in which young people hold a banner that exclaims, “Beating the Path to Freedom,” something he’s invested the better part of his life doing.

It hurts him to see his community a shadow of its once vibrant self and to be still embroiled in the quest for equal rights, yet unable, in this era of divided ranks, to marshal the support a systemic movement takes.

“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. In my judgment, were a lot more fragmented today, to the point where we can’t come together to bring about real change. I miss the unity and the organization — when people were more focused on trying to bring about improvements. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”

 

 

 

 

He rues the loss of moral constraints that allows, as he sees it: an unjust war to continue; elected leaders to lie; war profiteers to flourish; corporate execs to cheat; celebrities to set an indecent example; and drugs and gangs to proliferate.

“There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug and gang culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”

He sees a corrupt ruling class setting a precedent of greed and malice that only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have nots and to reaffirm the anything-goes mantra.

“Too many people can’t see past what’s happening to them right now. They don’t look at the consequences of what they’re doing today,” he said. “There was a time when you really felt like there were people that really wanted to see some things different. But there just wasn’t enough people that wanted to see the right kind of change. Now we’ve reached a time when liberal has been turned into a dirty word and decent people run from it. That says a lot about this country. I don’t feel good about that or the fact black people get done in just for telling the truth.”

Lively discourse has always been part of the scene at the Spencer Street, but was at its peak when Goodwin took on Ernie Chambers, a loquacious minister’s son and law graduate who used his barber chair as a lectern. Chambers proffered doctrine there from the mid-’60s through the early ’90s, a period that saw him build a constituency, first as a grassroots leader, and then as a state senator (District 11). He was the only black in the Nebraska Legislature during the entire four-decades he served as a member of that conservative, otherwise lilly-white body.

 

 

photoRudy Smith

 

 

 

 

Chambers came to the shop after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service. The then-Creighton law student was an outspoken activist.  It was a perfect match.

In Goodwin, Chambers found a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years,” Chambers said. In Chambers, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose. We had some good ones,” Goodwin said.

“It just so happened Ernie fit in with the atmosphere and then he began to exert himself,” Rudy Smith said. “I think the shop gave Ernie a platform to grow, as it did a lot of other people.”

They made a formidable team. Their give and take, something to behold. They were arrested together. They traveled together when Chambers made lecture stops.

“As Ernie grew, so did Dan,” Smith said. “Dan wasn’t an intellectual, but he became that as he expanded his knowledge and his sphere of understanding issues socially, politically, psychologically. Ernie spearheaded that. He’d stimulate him.”

“Dan didn’t go to college, but whatever conversation came up he could talk about it. No matter where he goes, people stop and talk to him” Richard Nared said.

The pair’s persuasive powers are immortalized in the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning. The film filters the era’s militancy through the charismatic figure of Chambers, who’s captured, alongside Goodwin, eloquently making points in the manner that made the shop a hotbed of impassioned ideas. Amid sports memorabilia on the walls were images/articles/cartoons that graphically illustrated the opression blacks lived under. An in-your-face reminder to pale-faced do-gooders of what The Struggle was all about.

“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.

“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.

 

 

 

 

 

Roger Sayers of Omaha said the shop was “kind of the northside human relations department for folks who felt their rights were being trampled on by the police or the school board or the city. If Dan and Ernie thought you had a case, they would try to help you resolve the problem with a letter or a referral or a phone call.”

Richard Nared said the duo were among the cooler heads to prevail at a time when agitators interpreted “by any means necessary” as a call to violence. “A lot of things happened in north Omaha,” Nared said. “People would come in and talk to them about wanting to hurt somebody that’d messed them over. ‘Man, I ought to go kill him.’ Well, Dan and Ernie would say, ‘Hey, man, do what you’re supposed to do, and walk away. It’s not that serious. Life is too short to get hung up on some petty mess. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up two ways — in jail or dead.’ I feel to this day Ernie and Dan were a big factor in keeping the peace.”

Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”

He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”

As much as Goodwin’s been influenced by Chambers, he’s his own man.

Goodwin set the agenda for the shop and made it into what Smith calls an “institution of higher learning.” “That’s exactly what it was,” Smith said. “It fostered an arena of ideas. It’s still going on — without fail. The barbers there were all like teachers and professors and in many ways they were more articulate in espousing their points of views. I was stimulated more sometimes in the barbershop than I was in college. It’s the only barbershop of it’s kind. It should be on the national historic registry.”

Goodwin’s much admired for remaining in the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually,” Chambers said. “It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay.  People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”

For Goodwin, staying put is a matter of “this is where I feel comfortable. I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.” There’s no chance he’ll mellow. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. I do believe in non-violence. But the truth is the truth. I have to tell it like it is.”

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