Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Life of Work, Part 3A

Those of you who were alive and cognizant on November 22, 1963 know where you were and how you found out that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I was watching General Hospital on TV while my dad and I ate lunch at home. We watched for hours, stunned, as events unfolded and our country reeled from the shock of losing our President and the metamorphosis overnight from Camelot to we didn't know what.

I had been thinking about the possibility of either going to seminary in Berkeley, CA, or moving to PA and applying at the American Baptist Convention headquarters where my friend Kathy worked. Neither possibility seemed attractive to me, given national events, and I instead applied to be a caseworker for Washington State Department of Public Assistance. They needed a new person in the Klickitat/Skamania county office and I was hired right away. A month of training at headquarters in Seattle and I was ensconced in the Skamania county courthouse by February of 1964.

It was both exciting and lonely to live in Stevenson, WA, in a tiny apartment on Main Street. I had no idea how to entertain myself and was nervous about going places alone, even in this small town. But the work was challenging and opened my eyes further to the poverty and bleakness suffered by the elderly, single mothers, the disabled, and the addicted. I lived in Stevenson for a year, the latter part of that time in an apartment on the banks of the Columbia River, and went home every weekend to stay with my parents in Goldendale; weekends alone and friendless were unbearable. After that lonely year, I was transferred to the Goldendale office, where I could live with my folks all the time.

Unfortunately, my religious views had changed a great deal because of my religion classes at Linfield and the mind-changing theology I'd heard during my Green Lake summer. It wasn't very comfortable to listen quietly to the conservative, anti-modernist views of my family members; I wasn't articulate enough at that time to disagree without risking the loss of my family relationships. So I kept quiet and found my health suffering. The family doctor was blunt: "You need to move away from your parents and strike out on your own; you can't live this way. You don't really have physical problems, you have other problems."

But where to go? In an effort to relieve the boredom and cognitive dissonance of living at home in a small town with my conservative parents, I signed up for a class about the "Life of Jesus" being offered at the Yakima Baptist church, which was taught every Tuesday night for six weeks. To get to Yakima from Goldendale required a trip across treacherous Satus Pass from the Klickitat valley to the Yakima valley. I was fearless, even in the snow, in my desperation, and one night met a young man representing the American Baptist Convention and their program for juvenile offenders. He was cute, but more importantly, he was an angel of salvation---he knew about jobs with the ABC in community centers all over the US and he hooked me up with the director of programming at Baptist-run Christian centers.

In September of 1965, I became an American Baptist home missionary at the Denver Christian Center, where I did after-school programming for children of all ages. I worked with some terrific people, including Lydia Ortiz, a woman about my age who became a wonderful friend, and Rev. George Turner, who had recently returned from Selma, Alabama, where he had been part of the Civil Right marches with Martin Luther King, Jr. My social conscience was beginning to grow and expand; it was impossible to overlook the poverty and the racial discrimination suffered by the kids and adults who frequented the Christian Center. In addition, I taught a preschool class for a semester, a pre-cursor to the federal Head Start programs which began at almost the same time. It was a thrilling place and time to start becoming a social activist.

But a year after I arrived, the DCC became a United Way agency and lost some of its Baptist affiliation; it was merged with several other similar community centers in Five Points and became the Curtis Park Community Center. I was invited to stay on, but I had met the (Unitarian) man I would later marry and decided to leave the Christian Center and go back to school to get teaching credentials. The leadership of the Center was changing as well and I would no longer be working with Lydia and George; it was a good time to leave. My missionary life had lasted a year and a half, the same length of time as my caseworker life.

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