Sweet Potato Pie and Social Justice

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My mother and father were very much pre-Vatican II Catholics, and the changes wrought by the Council delivered some real shocks to their systems. They trusted the Church, however, and they tried hard to “open the windows of the Church” as Pope John XXIII exhorted them to do. My father, especially, was not a man to do anything in a small way. He was definitely a “jump in with both feet” sort of fellow. Thus it was that in 1969 I found myself transported from Christ King Church on Sunday mornings to St. Boniface Church, an African-American parish on the other side of town.  We started attending St. Boniface because it was Fr. James Groppi’s parish, and my father wanted it to be very clear that the Maloney Family stood with Fr. Groppi. (For those who were busy or not alive in 1969, Fr. Groppi was a priest in Milwaukee who marched for open housing and other civil rights; he was a real rabble-rouser.)

Our Sundays at St. Boniface were an early experience of the variety to be found in Catholic worship. Whereas the mostly German white Republicans at Christ King Church maintained a safe distance from each other at all times and performed the newfangled “Sign of Peace” as brusquely and quickly as possible, the worshippers at St. Boniface really got into it. Instead of remaining in our pews, we all stood around the altar with Father, and the Sign of Peace was The Enthusiastic and Lengthy Kiss of Peace. Never a demonstrative child, I was not a fan of the Kiss of Peace and spent the first half of mass glancing sideways and dreading the kissing moment that was to come. While for me, the Kiss of Peace only gave rise to the dread of kissing strangers, I did like the music at St. Boniface. Unlike Christ King, where Mr. Keeley labored away on his organ while the stolid German Republicans grimly stared forward, at St. Boniface, we sang. I can still sing several choruses of “Sons of God.” (“Sons of God/Hear His Holy Word/Gather ‘Round the Table of the Lord/Eat His Body, Drink His Blood/And We’ll Sing a Song of Love/Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia!”)

In the Spirit of Vatican II, my father also decided to join a movement called “Cursillo.” At the age of ten I had only the fuzziest notion of what Cursillo was all about; all I knew was that my father went away for several days on a retreat and we all wrote letters to him. At the end, the whole family went to wherever the Cursillo was and the Cursillists came out of a door and we all hugged. My father was so enamored of this Cursillo Experience that he encouraged my mom to go, too, and so she did. More letters, more hugs. When my grandmother, Mommy Mayme came to visit a few months later, my father convinced her to enter into the Cursillo Experience. I don’t know if we had to write letters to her, but there was definitely hugging. On the day that Mommy Mayme finished Cursillo and we went to the Church for the Hugging Ritual, my Aunt Bernie was visiting us and she came along. When the Cursillists walked out for the Hugging, Mommy Mayme had a giant crucifix around her neck and she was beaming at everyone. My Aunt Bernie turned to my parents and said, “WHAT have you done to Mother?!” In any event, Cursillo activity ended there and we moved forward, no doubt stronger—if not more demonstrative—as a family.

As part of his newly intensified social conscience, my father got involved with an African-American gentleman named Henry Carter. Henry Carter had a wife, Barbara, and a lot of children, one of whom—Glinda—was my age. Henry had been arrested for theft, and claimed that he was innocent. My father believed him, and thought his arrest was an example of the lack of justice in our racist society. He paid Mr. Carter’s bail, and we ended up getting involved with his entire family. They were, of course, deeply grateful to us, especially Barbara, and embraced us fully. My father invited the Carters to join us for Easter Dinner that year, and while they couldn’t for some reason come for dinner, they did come and spend the afternoon with us, bringing us a sweet potato pie. What with our family and Henry’s large family, it was a memorable day in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and I can bet that my parents got more than a little bit of enjoyment imagining the neighbors’ faces when the Carters piled out of their car and into our home.

At some point shortly after that Easter, my dad received a late night phone call from Barbara Carter. Henry had been arrested again. And apparently this time he had been caught red-handed with the goods. It was pretty clear that Henry was guilty and he was going to jail. My father did not abandon Henry’s family, though, and we stayed in relation with them for some time. I was about ten years old, and Glinda—the Carter child who was my age—invited me to her birthday party. I barely knew Glinda, having met her once at Easter, but I knew that my parents thought that my going to her party would send a Strong Social Statement, so I accepted her invitation.

It was a strange experience for me, and no doubt for my mother, who brought me. The Carters lived in a housing project on the North Side of Milwaukee, and when we arrived at their apartment we saw that they owned no furniture. In the abstract, I had always thought that it was swell for our government to build housing for people who couldn’t afford it on their own; seeing where Glinda and her family actually lived was a sobering experience. The apartment building looked like a Stalin-era gulag (I had read the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so I did know what a gulag wasit was an unusual book for a ten year old to have read, but in those days my brother Johnnie was giving me reading lists. That was also the year I read Fail Safe.)  Not only were the buildings bleak, but there was very little grass and tiny trees that offered no shade whatsoever. I was really, really glad I didn’t live there.

Even more disorienting to my ten year old self, the Carters’ living room had nothing in it except a television set, although it was a very nice television set. (Even at the age of ten, I pondered the fact that Henry had been arrested stealing television sets.) All of Glinda’s guests were there when we arrived, and mother told me later that never before had I looked so very white. After we had been at the Carter’s for about half an hour, Barbara said that she was going to go out and buy a cake, and “Mrs. Maloney will be in charge of the games.” This was big news to my mother, who generally did not like children and hated games. A lot. We were both in uncharted territory.  I have no memory of what my mother did with us, but we all did something until the cake arrived. I am pretty sure she found a container of some sort and something to throw into it, for a variation of “Drop the Clothespin in the Bottle.” Whatever she did, the partiers were quickly bored and decided instead to sit on the floor and listen to Otis Redding sing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” over and over again. So there must have been a record player in addition to a television.

I spent “Game Time” recovering from all this diversity. I was still trying to get my mind around not having any furniture. Also, I was hungry because my mother and I assumed we would be having lunch. That cake couldn’t come fast enough for me. This seemed like a very depressing place to live, yet Glinda and her friends were clearly having fun together. And when Glinda’s mother, Barbara returned (with cake, thank God!), she was also very happy and relaxed. It was 1969, years before the phrase “cultural diversity” started showing up in everyone’s vocabulary. My parents were providing culturally diverse experiences long before it was cool.

Glinda Carter’s birthday party was one of the oddest experiences of my childhood, but I am proud of my parents for trying so hard to be what their Church was asking them to be, however clumsily they implemented it. Eventually we lost touch with the Carters, and I do not know what became of Henry or his family. I’m pretty sure my father lost his bail money, but he never complained. I think he was hoping that John XXIII would have been proud of him. I know I was.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Sweet Potato Pie and Social Justice

  1. This brought back many memories of my childhood. My family also attended St. Boniface and marched with Fr. Groppi. We were probably there about the same time as your family but my memories are not as clear as yours. I do remember how lively the mass and the singing was compared to our parish (St Jude’s)

    Liked by 1 person

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