The summer of ’66 I was asked to take a summer interim job as Minister of Education & Youth at Central Christian Church in Peoria, Illinois. There was no summer school at Cotner and the salary was as much for the summer as my year’s pay at the school. We moved our little family into a furnished house the church rented for us. Our kids were 5 and 3.
My main job was to organize and manage the vacation church school and run the summer youth programs, which included two weeks at high school church camp. This was a time of growing interest in integration and the more liberal churches were beginning to push the issue, primarily at the national and state levels. Local congregations were dragging their feet, except for a handful of radical young clergymen.
I had been hearing about these “immersion” experiences in Chicago, conducted by the Urban Institute, where people from suburban settings would be “turned loose” for a couple of days to experience the poverty of the inner city. I somehow convinced my senior pastor, Bob Bennett, and the parents of the high school youth group, that this would be a great summer experience for their kids. We rented a 12 passenger station wagon, loaded it with 9 boys and girls with all of their luggage tied on top and rolled-up sleeping bags tucked around them, and headed for the big city. I had made some arrangements through our church’s state office with the pastor of Jackson Blvd. Christian Church, an African American congregation in the middle of Chicago’s west side ghetto for us to sleep in their building, as well as to have a get-acquainted session around a meal with the young people of his church.
We arrived in Chicago as the sun was setting, found the church after driving around the west side of Chicago and stopping at the local Jewel Tea supermarket to stock up on groceries for our stay, the only white faces in a sea of black shoppers with suspicious stares. The pastor met us at the church parking lot with a warm welcome as he unlocked the gate to the wrought iron fence surrounding the building, after which he showed us to the hall where we could lay out our sleeping bags for our two night stay.
The get-acquainted session went well and was an eye-opening educational experience for our kids, as these young black kids talked of what life was like growing up on the west side of Chicago. It also became clear to all of them that their hopes and dreams for their lives were not that dissimilar. It was an eye-opener for me in that it was beginning to dawn on me what a sheltered life I had led and my naïve liberal images were being shattered, one after another.
Somehow we survived that brief immersion and got all the kids back to Peoria safely. The rest of the summer unfolded smoothly. Summer youth camp was a relaxing and fun end of our Peoria summer. Three of the black kids from Chicago attended the camp. One vivacious girl took on a real leadership role at the camp. She was also a comedian. On one occasion several kids were on the lake in boats. The girl was in one boat chiding her two friends seated in the front and back of another boat with a white kid in the middle rowing. The young lady shouted for the whole campground to hear: “Hey look! They’ve got a slave!”
It was only two years later that the west side we had visited was burning after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were not aware of all the undercurrents of erupting anger we were in the middle of at the time.
So at the end of the summer we packed our belongings and headed back to Lincoln, without a clue what would be next.