Our stories have aligned—my parents’ and mine. I look at my work today and can see how the connecting line is drawn back to our Church on Fourth and Meineke.
Walk with me up the steps of the red parish house next door. Come in and meet Dad’s Senior High class—the Glisper sisters, the Ingram brothers, James Allen and his brother Gregory, the trouble maker. Smell the donuts Mom and Dad would pick up at the bakery down the street. See the big metal coffee pot to heat up water for Swiss Miss Cacao mix. Hear the voices and the laughter. The students in Dad’s class didn’t always show up though…they almost stopped coming at one point. Then Mom and Dad came up with a new approach to teaching Sunday school.
Ask Dad about our move back to Milwaukee and you’ll get a chronology of his church experiences. I kept trying to get him to talk about how he wanted to see Milwaukee schools integrated and stabilized but he kept talking about the churches we attended. Then I realized the stories were one and the same.
It begins at Grace Reformed Church on Ninth and Chambers then continues to Faith United Church of Christ. Faith Church was one church at two different locations—Seventy-Eighth Street, in a white neighborhood and Fourth Street, in the inner city. We started at one and ended up at the other.
Dad will tell you he could write a book on his church experiences alone. That might upset some—he was always taking on the rabble-rousers. Everybody has their own version of the stories and we all usually think we were in the right which doesn’t create the harmony a church is called to. Nevertheless, if there was a constant throughout our family history, it was the church.
“After graduating from the University of Illinois and moving to Milwaukee, Dolores and I attended Grace Reformed Church on Ninth Street. We were very involved—I was superintendent of the Sunday school, President of the Council and Dolores was in the Music Ministry and played the piano. After we returned from Europe we found out that the council had reached a conclusion it was God’s will that they sell the Ninth Street church to an African American congregation and build on a new piece of ground on Seventy-Eighth and Hope, just north of Capital.
Grace Reformed was the first German reformed church in the city of Milwaukee. The first German evangelical church was located on Fourth and Meineke. After much debate, the two congregations agreed to merge into one and sell the Ninth street location to an African American Methodist church. So the process moved forward— selling the Ninth Street church, constructing a new church on Seventy-Eighth Street, and continuing ministry at the church located on Fourth and Meineke. This is how it happened that there became one congregation with two locations. Personally, Dolores and I did not feel that it was right to leave Ninth Street and spoke out to that affect. We didn’t get any support. We never fully agreed with or understood the decision that was made.
We became very active at Seventy-Eighth Street, singing in the choir and teaching Sunday school but we also felt drawn to the Fourth Street location. This was more than just a passing feeling and we soon became aware of the fact that God was calling us to minister at Fourth Street so we started to get involved there. Before long, we made the change and settled in. Dolores picked up the musical responsibilities—playing piano and the beautiful pipe organ and I taught the Senior High Sunday School class.
It’s strange when I reflect on it, how great everything worked out, originally moving from the city into the edge of the suburbs, having the barn and eventually a bunch of animals. The truth is, I genuinely loved the farm as all the family did. But we spent a lot of time going back and forth from Brookfield to Milwaukee.
On a Sunday in January 1965, I found myself with no Sunday school students showing up for my class. “What have I done wrong?’ I asked the pastor Reverend Gordon Sperry.
“Probably nothing,” he told me. “Maybe the youngsters have some ideas.”
So I called some of the kids together on a weekday and learned they had no objection to me or my teaching. But they needed more activity. I asked them where their hangout was and they said, “What hangout?”
I knew they were telling the truth—they didn’t have one. Some of the kids came from homes with no fathers and had many problems in their lives. They needed a place to talk with people who cared and I knew they had little use for the traditional church activity.
Dolores had been to a coffee shop on Prospect Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side and thought the kids might enjoy something like that. So we took a group of my senior high students to it and they did seem to genuinely enjoy it. We thought the idea of a church coffee house might be the way to go. The basement church school room seemed like an ideal space for us. So my students helped us get it all cleaned up. We painted the walls white and threw out a lot of junk. It got the name the Ash Can because the kids filled eleven ash cans with trash. They also fished out much of the furnishings for it from other ash cans…there’s something about using material thought to be useless. Anyway, we thought it was a good name.
Mike Johnson from my office designed round tables for us. Mark Frank, who did carpentry work for me, built them and Dolores made burlap tablecloths for each table. We used candles and she ended up having to work like crazy to get that wax out of those tablecloths every week.
We got a record player and I bought a bunch of 45s. We thought it would be a nice place for the kids to have conversation. The first Saturday night the kids flocked in. They ignored the records we had and brought their own music. The kids didn’t want to talk, they wanted to dance! Soda pop replaced coffee and tea on the menu. You found little theological discussion but lots of dancing from a record player that seemed to be bursting its lungs. So after that first session, our plans changed.
The Ash Can with Dad and kids from his class. Journal article ’65
There were a lot of kids showing up and we started to have discipline problems. We got friends and peers to help out as chaperones. I discovered quickly that the only way I could communicate with the kids was to know their families. I had everyone sign up, so I could get their addresses then I went around to all the homes and visited with the families. The trouble makers changed their attitudes once I knew their families. Lester Ingram, one of my senior highs, was a great help—he was a natural leader and had a big influence on the kids who came. We had seven hundred names on our sign-up sheet.
All we were interested in was applying the Christian Gospel as we understood it.
The city was getting rough with rioting at the time and before long the church council voted to close Fourth Street—they wanted to tear down the building. I met with them and told them they couldn’t do that. I asked what the expense was to keep it open and they told me $1000 a year. I found $1000 and got them to keep it open for a year. I took Ed, Deb, John, Joan and their friends down to clean the building on Saturdays and get it fixed up.
Around this time, our family was returning from a summer camping trip and when we got to the city line, the National Guard wouldn’t let us go in. Our country was in a racial uproar. This was the point we felt it was time we move back. We believed we had a very clear calling from the Lord to put our kids in public schools and we responded.
Faith Church did close down the Fourth Street location and sold it. When we finally moved into our house on Shepard Avenue, we began attending Plymouth United Church of Christ several blocks from our house.”
As I finish typing this story, I am quieted by my unexpected tears. So many memories…I can see Mom and Dad’s faces, hear their voices, remember the burlap and 45s. I think of visiting some of the families with Dad. I remember joining in to play double Dutch jump rope with the girls in front of the houses. I remember the smell of the church, the winding basement hallways, the big kitchen in the fellowship hall where we’d eat plates of scrambled eggs after the Easter Sunrise service. I remember Dad putting a raw colored egg in with the hard boiled ones and pulling a prank on someone. I remember vacuuming the stairs that led up to the balcony and sneaking up into the bell tower to ring the church bell.
I think of that enormous bell now and realize that was exactly what the city needed—the joyous sound of the bell ringing. Ringing so loudly that it quieted the sounds of fighting and gun shots. ‘Let the children dance,’ Mom and Dad said.
Yes, let the children dance.