By Dave Rohlfing
It was early morning in March, l965, As pastor of St. Stephan’s UCC, Newark, NJ, I answered a phone call from the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. Joe Merchant, head of Urban Ministries, had heard from the Rev. Andrew Young, a UCC clergyperson and a colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. A major march was being planned from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to arrive on March 25. The purpose: support voting rights. Joe was asking for my help gathering UCC and other clergy and lay leaders from Newark, NJ, to join Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on the march. A week or so later, a chartered plane carried the NJ delegation to Montgomery, transferred us to a bus for Selma where we joined the march. Sleeping at the side of the road, eating food offered by area residents, wearing out shoe leather, we marched.
On the outskirts of Montgomery, a poor, elderly couple of color, the lady in a make-shift wheelchair and the man on crutches, were offering bottles of Coca Cola to marchers on the hot, sunny day. Each person taking a bottle took a sip and passed it on – truly a communion served by this couple.
Hearing that several were killed by opponents, after the huge rally in Montgomery, marchers disbursed, and we went to the airport to await the return charter – about 3 hours late, and return home by morning. On the way home, I reflected on what in my personal history had led me to strong feelings and commitment for civil rights and justice for all.
In the 1930’s, in St. Charles, MO, where my father was pastor of St. John’s UCC, the Franklin kids went down the hill in front of the church and parsonage on the way home from the `separate but equal’ Franklin school. It was more than a hour’s walk every school day each way….. Even at five or six years of age, I could not understand why these young people had to walk so far to school.
Years later, the Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) decision by the Supreme Court became the rallying cry – No segregating to `separate but equal’ schools. Some students and faculty on the `Long Walk’ of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, buzzed with excitement. Can such importance be recognized? I wondered.
By the late 1950’s, lunch counter sit-ins had become recognized as advocating racial justice. UCC’s Eden Theological Seminary students regularly joined strategic efforts and student pastor assignments provided the opportunity to share gently the concerns with congregations. I was usually at Woolworths. Even in Milwaukee, a few years later, the NAACP Youth Council with Father James Groppi – and other religious and community leaders, led daily marches for almost nine months supporting open housing till the city enacted an ordinance.
Nationally, the UCC had organized the Office on Racial Justice and with the UCC Board of Homeland Ministries continued the focus on racial justice in education, housing, employment, et al. The historic tradition of the UCC and its fore bearers continued. Remember, the UCC has congregations including African, Asian, Latin American, and Pacific Island traditions.
Special ministries, programs and projects were supported by Homeland Ministries, Conferences, Associations, with financial and `people’ support, and many congregations fulfilled community ministries – pantries, elderly transit, work exchanges, garden projects, et al. That remaining was the continuing necessity of political advocacy – the influencing regional, national and global policy around the concerns of `love of neighbor.’
May 17th marked the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education
Personally, I had the privilege a few years later of joining staff of the UCC Office for Church in Society. With regular education and advocacy and General Synod policy pronouncements joined by many UCC members, political decisions could continue to impact society. Racial Justice, Immigration, poverty, education, taxes, peace and war, et al. became some of the political foci of the continuing historic traditions of the UCC.
I am extremely grateful for my personal opportunity to serve in several of these efforts. And by the way, Franklin School and all other schools in St. Charles, MO, now have a diverse student body.