New Work in Newark

New Work in Newark

New Work in Newark. A Memoir by Steve Larson, July 19, 2020.

I was a freshman in college, 52 years ago, at Wheaton College in the spring of 1968. I was sitting in daily chapel, wondering what I was going to do for the summer. I was typical in many ways… I was broke, and I enjoyed friends, music, basketball, girls, and the Lord. I wanted to make a difference somewhere. The chapel speaker that day was a highly respected African-American evangelist named Rev. Tom Skinner. He was very effective, and I hung on his every word. He mentioned a volunteer service opportunity he was promoting, something called “New Work in Newark,” in partnership with Campus Crusade for Christ. Newark had violent and destructive race riots in the summer of ’67, and the city was reeling with the aftereffects. Newark had just been named “the most dangerous city in America” by the President’s Commission on Civil Disorder. Rev. Skinner said that Newark needs to rebuild damaged neighborhoods and businesses, racial harmony needs to be restored, relationships need to be established, and trust needs to be built. The first thought I had was, “This would be quite the adventure.” I had a burden for the inner city, and this experience would certainly meet that need. So I signed up that day after chapel. It turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

The first order of business was to run this idea by my parents. It would mean that I wouldn’t earn any money over the summer. They patiently asked me if this is what I really wanted to do, and I said, Yes. So they relented. But now I had to figure out transportation. How was I to get from Rockford, Illinois, to Newark, New Jersey? I didn’t have a car, my parents didn’t have an extra car sitting around, and I couldn’t afford a plane, bus, or train ticket.

So, I decided to hitchhike to New York City, and then take a little bus ride across the river to Newark from there. The trip took well over 24 hours and was more or less without incident. Except for one eye-opening, heart-stopping moment somewhere in southern New Jersey, I think it was. It was in the middle of the night, and I had been hitchhiking all day and night, and I was exhausted. I was standing on a dark, lonely stretch of highway, and this old rattle-trap truck stopped and a whiskered geezer asked if I wanted a ride. He was an old grizzled man who looked like he was half asleep himself. I didn’t see any  options, so I said okay, and hopped into the truck. We drove for a while in peace, and I had a nice little conversation with this man. At some point I told him I needed to take a little nap. I was in a pretty deep sleep when I had a sense that I’d better wake up pronto. Sure enough, I opened my eyes and saw dead ahead a huge tree, and we were heading straight for it. I immediately jumped over to the driver’s side of the truck and turned the steering wheel sharply to the left, avoiding the tree. It turned out the driver fell asleep while driving, and I’m convinced the Lord tapped me on the shoulder just in time. I woke the driver up and anxiously asked him if he was indeed up to driving. He said he was, he wouldn’t nod off again. So we kept on driving, with my eyes wide open this time. I somehow made it to NYC, took a quick bus trip to Newark, and found my sleeping accommodations.

I was directed to the Goodwill Mission homeless shelter in inner city Newark, and I asked to check in. I was given a bed roll and led to a large dusty room full of single beds. This was my home for several days until the rest of the volunteers arrived. While in that room for a few days, I remember trying to sleep with a symphony of groans, snorts, coughs, and extreme snoring. We volunteers were then given a little room of our own in the shelter to sleep in. The girls were taken to the Salvation Army shelter for their sleeping quarters. We ate all our meals at this shelter, and somehow I didn’t lose weight during the summer. Go figure. I’ll never forget the stale raisin bread and diluted apple juice.

The volunteer group was comprised of white college students from various places around the country. There were about 20-25 of us total, which didn’t seem like much when we considered the task before us. But we were all motivated and high energy, and we all got long very well. The group was evenly split between girls and boys, and there were even a couple of romances that blossomed during the summer. Not with me, unfortunately. One embarrassing moment… The boys’ sleeping room at the shelter doubled as our group meeting place. So we had girls and boys walking in and out of that room all day. One time, I forgot to check to see if there were any girls around, and I started changing clothes. I had my pants down to my ankles, fully exposing my boxer shorts, and I suddenly had the sense that someone was watching me. Sure enough, a group of girls were in the room at the time, and they were all staring at me with my pants down. They laughed, and I quickly pulled my pants back up, and I was humiliated. That was the last time all summer I forgot to check if there was an audience. I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my Micky Mouse boxers at the time.

Upon arriving in Newark, we were soon divided into action groups, led by on-site coordinator Rev. Bill Iverson. He was a pastor who resigned from his church in Newark because he felt he wasn’t reaching the people with the gospel. So he bought a little luncheonette deep in the city and kept it as  place for simple food and conversation, kind of like a coffee house in those days. He called it “Cross Counter.” Bill was a wonderful person who was very experienced in city ministry, particularly in Newark, and he led us well for the whole summer.

Our action groups were: sports camps; a musical group, more like a soft rock group, that drew crowds in the parks and neighborhoods; a clean-up crew mostly helping out with gutted stores and damaged property from the riots; street evangelism; door-to-door conversations; and a couple of volunteers who contacted local businesses to raise some money for our ministry.

We all helped put together several block parties, with food, music and lots of conversation. We held one block party in the infamous Central Ward, which was a focal point during the riots, and notorious for its drug activity. We asked the police to hang out with us during the party, just to make sure everything stayed safe. For some reason, the police decided not to attend. Anyway, the party was a rousing success. We fed and entertained and talked with over 300 residents. We were able to have wonderful conversations with many of the teenagers, which was difficult to do. We were thrilled with this block party, and there was no incident whatsoever.

I was the sole member of the sports camp action group, and so I decided to  contact the athletic director of nearby Rutgers University. I wanted to talk with him about using a basketball court and baseball field at the university. He surprisingly agreed to do so. For many weeks, then, I led sports camps for the younger people. It was hard work but fun. I was able to raise some money for baseball gloves, but they were quickly stolen, so we stuck to playing basketball.

Everyone in the volunteer group was often involved in door-to-door conversations. A key part of our group purpose was to reconnect the whites and the blacks, to restore some measure of racial harmony after all that dramatic racial unrest. We did meet with a little resistance, but for the most part our conversations were fruitful and interesting and meaningful. I remember sitting on a front porch in the blazing heat with an older gentleman for a long time, just chatting about his long history in the city. He really appreciated our talk, and so did I. I remember one time I knocked on the door of a young man who seemed to worship Jimi Hendrix. His afro was identical to Jimi’s, as was his tie-dyed shirt. He had his amp cranked way up high, and you could hear him playing his guitar down the street. He was a nice guy, we chatted for  a while, and then he went back to his guitar. I remember trying to cheer up a middle-aged man whose eyes kept tearing up. He was sad about his life and what it was like living in Newark. I left him praying that our conversation gave him a little hope and encouragement. I also remember a young black man, very intense, who challenged me to a basketball game. After I beat him, he refused to talk to me. Our one-on-one game was evidently very important to him, and I was sorry he cut off communication. He was more of an exception, because usually every person had a story to tell, if we listened and treated the residents with respect.

At some point during the summer, a local benefactor came by our group meeting and announced that he had some free tickets to a concert starring Diana Ross and the Supremes. My hand immediately went up, of course. I love Motown music, and the Supremes were at the top of the charts. So I went with a small group of volunteers. The only problem was transportation. None of us had a car, of course. Somebody came to the rescue and loaned us an old bread truck. It seemed to be running okay, so we went for it. Unfortunately, this bread truck had a sliding door on the side, and it was broken in the open position. I offered to sit in the passenger seat nearest to the open door for the trip, which produced a share of anxiety for me and everyone else. I desperately held onto a handhold above the open door, and I was privileged to get a look at the passing traffic, up close and personal, as we puttered down the highway. Remember, this was before there were seat belts. However we escaped the trip without incident, and the Supremes were fantastic. This concert experience made some memories, for sure.

During the summer as it winded down, there were memorable experiences every day, mostly contained in countless conversations, “sing-ins” in the local parks, Bible studies, and walking the streets asking how we could be of help. One time, though, I decided to take a little side trip to NYC. I wanted to play some basketball on some of their famous outdoor courts and compete against the renowned street players of New York. So I did that, and played well enough. At least I didn’t embarrass myself. That was really, really fun.

The ministry ended in mid-August, and we were all sad to say good-bye. Three of us decided to do a crazy thing… We took a “Driveaway” car (a business that asks you to transport a car across the country for free) and drove from Newark to Los Angeles, to attend a Campus Crusade for Christ training session. We drove and drove and drove, and we finally got to San Bernardino, exhausted and hungry. Remember, we didn’t get paid all summer, so there wasn’t much money for food. I don’t remember the first thing about the training session, but it was fun to be in southern California.

For the life of me, I can’t remember how I made it back to Rockford from LA. Did I take a bus? A train? I know I didn’t hitchhike, and I didn’t have the money to fly. How did I do this? This was 52 years ago, and the return trip is a fog. Thank the Lord, I did make it home safely, and I rested up to return to Wheaton College at the end of August. The summer in Newark was an unforgettable adventure. I still think about it now and then, and I am so pleased to have made even a little difference there. There were some aspects I wouldn’t recommend, and I’ll chalk it up to my foolhardiness and naivete….. hitchhiking; walking alone at night in the Central Ward; sitting in a moving vehicle with the door open; and driving cross-country with no money. But I was guarded by a battalion of angels and the mercy of the Lord, and I’ll never forget or regret my summer of 1968.