Black minister, 83, was paster of all-white congregation
by the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Polk

(Ed. Note: In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, we present this two-part essay by an 83-year-old African American minister who lives at Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough and who has spent a lifetime spreading the gospel of love and understanding, sometimes against almost insuperable odds.)

“Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man; the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”—Rabbi Abraham Heschel

A casual comment by my oldest sister over 60 years ago helped to frame my life and career. When I happily showed her my letter of acceptance into a small, white, church-related Nebraska college, she protectively warned me that once I graduated, I would still have to return home and work within the colored community. From her experience, whites would never offer me employment, social status or a way of life equivalent to theirs.

I felt I was of a new age. The teachings of my faith led me to believe that social justice, social action and race relations were about to bring in a new way of life for all people, and I wanted to be a part of it.  My goal, consciously and sub-consciously, was to prove my family and friends wrong.

A male, African American octogenarian, I have devoted the better part of my life to the arena of social justice and race relations. What used to be considered a trophy was for a Negro to be designated as “the first black…” in one area or another. Few knew what hard knocks and diminished intrinsic satisfactions accompanied such a designation. In the aggregate, however, when evaluating my life, the joys outstripped most of the impediments and pain connected with trying to help build a multi-racial society.

When I speak of both the pain and joy of a bridge builder, I know what it has taken to identify with both sides of the color/race issue long before, during and after the Civil Rights Movement.

The pain came from all that my sister and family tried to warn me against to keep me whole and healthy and not give up my birthright as a proud African American.  But in the midst of so much of this, I have experienced and witnessed the joys of bringing people together, changing attitudes and mindsets in ways that have sustained me all my life.

The Rev. Robert L. Polk is seen here with teenagers in his all-white parish of Berthold, North Dakota, in 1955.

It began in the early 1940s when race and class wars were at a high pitch in my hometown of Chicago. We had come through the Great Depression, WW II had ended, and yet old leaders and politicians and the prevailing community wanted to return to business as usual when it came to the Negro.

What made this venture into the white world unusual had to do with what we might call reverse prejudice. A line from South African anti-apartheid writer Alan Paton may set this in perspective: “Before the white man’s heart turns to love, the black man’s heart will turn to hate.”

My parents both migrated from the south to Chicago. They wanted to leave a south with all of its Jim Crow peonage, segregation, lynchings and unemployment for what they thought would be a place of dignity and respect for the Negro. They found that living and working at menial jobs in the north was not the hoped-for panacea.

My folks experienced so much racism and class injustice that their hearts were hardened when it came to the people who they felt were the source of so much pain in their lives. My mother, more so than my father, was a harsh critic of what white folk did to our race, and she indoctrinated her children, friends and extended family with her ideology.

Few table conversations, church meetings or casual chit-chats with neighbors were without racial overtones. All of her six children bought into her theories about the white community and all they inflicted on black people, except her youngest child. I, the rebel, spent a lifetime trying to prove her wrong.

In my teenage years, a new pastor and his wife came to our small Congregational church on Chicago’s South Side. As they reached out to their new flock as well as to the wider community, they (who were Negroes) brought to their ministry the need to challenge the city’s social justice issues, especially as it related to race. It was also a time when their denomination — on the national level — made pronouncements decrying the injustices of society and called for a racially inclusive church and society.

I followed my minister and his wife to church gatherings and was on the ground floor for what we felt was a new day ascending in the area of race and the commitment to this uphill struggle that it entailed. At summer church camps and conferences, as leader of my local youth fellowship and involvement with nearly all the 70-plus all-white Congregational churches in the city, I became the poster boy for all that the church wished to accomplish in its initiative on social action and race relations. These were “firsts” for me and my race. I even managed to ascend to the high office of secretary of our national youth organization as the first black to do so.

As I visited white churches, homes and families, I would return the favor by bringing whites to my home, church and neighborhood. After my mother would have her say about her lifetime of experiences in the south and all that she witnessed and experienced, she was not short in extending Biblical hospitality and genuine acceptance to my friends. My siblings and close friends were a bit more skeptical and standoffish.

Once I had worked to earn enough money to make such a leap, like my white counterparts who were heading for Congregational church-related colleges, I too, applied to one in Nebraska, along with one of my dear female friends who was a fellow church member. We were turned down by the dean, who indicated there were no white male or female students willing to room with us. We could reapply when we brought our own roommates of color.

My first thoughts ran to all of those manifestos of ending racism in our church and society. I went to see some of the church’s top officials and presented the letters from the dean. Almost without a word, they went into action, helped to turn around the dean’s refusal to accept us, and before long, letters of acceptance arrived. A new dean had been appointed.

We were suddenly in the midst of an all-white campus (Doane College in Crete, Nebraska) and what that meant socially, academically, culturally, spiritually and more. As “firsts” we had our ups and downs. We never shunned who we were as African Americans; we nurtured classmates who were interested in our lives and culture in the big city of Chicago, and we exposed them to our big-city lives. We made lots of friends, learned from them and developed a great fellowship of cohorts. Upon my graduation, it was noted that I was the first black person to make that transition.

At this point I had to make vocational decisions. I worked to pay off my college debt and in consultation with friends and denominational leaders, moved in the direction of becoming a minister and giving back to the church and community what I had so richly enjoyed during my formative years.

My minister and a number of other clergy in the Chicago area eventually became alumni of Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. There I was a person of color among a few others, a rich tapestry of students from all races and backgrounds, and the horror of standing out like a sore thumb was no longer present. However, there were color issues when I applied for a field work job, and after my graduation from the seminary, the office could not locate a church to accept me because of my race.

The Civil Rights Movement was on the horizon; lynching, beatings, lunch counter demonstrations, challenges to that segregated way of life were on the move in the south. Had there been a church down south willing to accept me, my mother would have forbidden my going. The few urban black Congregational churches were staffed and without need for additional clergy.