I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth.
“Those black women…” , the short Latino man said. “Are all the same!”
Here I was being faced with racism and sexism at its worst in a place where I went to seek refuge and spiritual growth. This was my church!
The church stared a community center and wanted to include job placement as one of its services. Mom wanted me to volunteer while I was still at the Organization, but the thought of spending my evenings listening to more problems and excuses of why people wont go to work after 8 hours the Organization made me want to cringe. Things had changed. I was unemployed. Although I had my hands full with the show, writing and rebuilding my business, I missed hearing “Ms. Wash, can you get me a job?” Artistry is my career, but workforce development is my ministry. Helping others find jobs was how I showed my love to the community. I wanted to give, even though I didn’t have a job myself.
I arrived at the community center to find nothing. No people? No classes? What was going on?
“ I am here to see Sister Johnson”, I told the stanch woman sitting a the front desk who demanded I sign-in as a walk in client before I could tell her I was the new volunteer.
“Have a seat, she is in class.” She pulled her coat over her shoulders.
I could hear Ms. Wilson speaking to a man with a heavy accent whose origin I could not distinguish behind a cubicle.
“That is enough for today. We will resume next week.” The man walked from behind the cubicle. She followed
“Oh you made it”.
She hugged me. I was feeling the love already. She took me on a tour of the center which was a room filled with computers. I followed her and listened.
“I need teachers for GED, arts and technology. I need someone to develop jobs and place people. I need an administrative assistant. I don’t have a budget. I need volunteers.”
I was overwhelmed by the laundry list. What didn’t she need?
That question was answered when she toured me around the community center and introduced me to the jolly Latino man sitting at a computer.
“This is Julio”
“Hello.” Julio said standing up to shake my hand.
“He is going to teach the computer class.”
Of all of the things she needed, there was one I felt most passionate about, Jobs! Disappointed to see the lack of programming but not discouraged, I returned the next week with my Rolodex determined to at least get the jobs program off the ground. Over next few weeks, I set up meetings with my contacts.
After one such meeting Sister Johnson called me into her office.
“I need you to look for a new computer teacher.” I noticed the word need coming from her
often. What she really needed were employees. I was a volunteer. I wanted to help out, but I couldn’t do it all.
“There have been complaints on the instructor. It’s the way he speaks to people.”
He always seemed like a kind man. Sure, he talked too much. He was always interrupting me when I came into the center to make calls, forcing me to bring my volunteer work home. I didn’t see it until the week before the program was scheduled to launch.
Sister Johnson, as usual had a list of things she needed, but I was surprised to see an older woman who was a new volunteer. Great, I thought. I will have some help.
“I need you to make calls to tell people to come to class.” She said.
“What time is class?” That was the logical response.”
“Oh” She paused flipping back her weaved in shoulder length hair. “Let’s have a meeting.
Did she really expect me to make calls inviting people to a class with no scheduled times? I guess so!
The three of us walked over to Julio who was at his usual computer. He dragged his chair to the center of room. We each took a seat surrounding him. That was when I noticed something was different. His wide smile was gone.
He crossed his arms. “No! I don’t know what time to have the class. You need to call them.”
“We have to give them a time, when we call.” She said.
“How can I give a time, when I don’t know when they can come?”
I thought back to my entire lifetime of taking classes in elementary, high school, after-school dance class, University, writers workshops. Never had I been asked what time I could come. Maybe given a course option or two, but if I couldn’t make it, I couldn’t take the class. I looked down at my folder with the names of over twenty potential students and imagined them each giving me a different time.
One person would say “I can come at 1 O’clock.” Another would say “I’ll be there at 2.”Then someone would ask, “Is 6PM OK?”
Nearly an hour passed and he wouldn’t budge. The discussion between Sister Johnson continued to escalate and frustrated she called him by his first name.
“I think you are trying to diminish my position. I am a Reverend.” He asserted. His cheeks were turning red.
The room was silent. Was he serious?
“You should refer to me as Reverend”, he barked.
Yes he was. That's when I realized. He had an ego. I knew how to handle that.
“Reverend Julio, I have an Idea that can solve our problem.” I said with excitement.
“Well you are the only one who can teach computer. I can’t teach computer.” He nodded. I had him.
“Can you teach computer Sister Johnson?”
“Well I can but I don’t have time!” I couldn’t believe she said that. Come on work with me. I had to do something to keep him on track.
“Well I can’t. When it comes to this class you like the King. We can’t do it with out you.” Ok maybe I went too far, but it worked.
He stood up a little taller and agreed to everything we asked him earlier. We set times for the classes and I agreed to come in the next day to call the students.
That next morning, I arrived at 10am and the door was locked. I called Sister Johnson to open the door. She came down to the center and began telling me more about the things she needed. As she opened the door I noticed the Reverend sitting at his computer.
“Oh Reverend Julio is here.” I announced making sure to include his title.
He didn’t turn to acknowledge us.
I didn’t have time to defuse another tantrum. Since getting laid off I had gotten out of the habit of getting up early. It was 10am and I was tired. I wanted to make my calls and go home.
Sister Johnson asked. “Do you think we can print manuals?”
I didn’t know anything about the manuals.
She turned to Julio to ask and that's when it started.
“You could have said hello!”, he cried.
I didn’t have the patience for it. I resolved to simply remain on my task and ignore him.
“You don’t have to call me King like she did!” He pointed his finger in my direction.
“Did something I said offend you?”
“No, it offended me when you didn’t say hello.”
This was unbelievable. Was I back in high school? That was the last time anyone wanted to argue over something that trivial.
“You are a supposed to be a Reverend, I should be learning from you?”
That is when he started.
“THOSE BLACK WOMAN! She probably speaks to every man like that!”
I acknowledge that any woman who asserts herself is perceived negatively, however black women are placed in a unique position of combating racist stereotypes. I expect this the world, but never in the safety of my place of worship. No pace was sacred not even church! With that realization all I could say was...
“I can’t believe this is happening in my church.”
I felt betrayed. If this was a test I was failing miserably. I felt tears come to my eyes and that was when I remembered. I was a volunteer. I didn’t need to be there. The best thing to do was to remove myself from the situation.
I went to church to share my love with community. I wanted was the satisfaction of a job well done, instead I suffered one the worst heartbreaks of my life.
That Sunday I took a trip across the water to a new church. A friend and fellow poet, who I know as Freedom, was preaching. Until that week I did not know she was a minister, but she arrived just in time to give me the something that my distressed heart needed. As I stumbled in late making my way to the front pew, I was carried by her voice. I looked up to see her short locks framing her brown face. She was singing us into her sermon. It was then that I realized in the year past three years I had been attending church, I had never seen a woman preach in either my home church or any of the churches I frequent in Harlem. At that moment that was what I needed to restore my faith.
She read from Isaiah 49:16a “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” , She said.
“Inscribed!” She reiterated, putting extra emphasis on the word.
God had not forgotten and I, like everyone was inscribed in the palm of his hand. What did my inscription read? Something told me that I would have a lot more trials before I would know the answer. One thing was for sure, it was time to get back to work. Art would always be my career, but social services was my ministry. Maybe it wasn’t time to give it away. I needed an equal exchange. That Monday I began the job search.