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Altars in the Street | Books

A Passage:


Our block committee had outgrown the pizza place, and I thought maybe more people would come if we met right in the neighborhood. I noticed that the South Berkeley Community Church a few blocks away on Fairview Street had started offering a free lunch to hungry people twice a week, and the city's HIV-testing truck parked there on those days. A sign in front of the church announced a new minister's name: REVEREND CLARA MILLS, PASTOR. If we could meet there, I hoped, the drug dealers might think we were a church group, and people could feel safe.

I went inside on one of the free-lunch days. A dozen long tables were crowded with people eating spaghetti and salad on paper plates. They were mostly men, some of whom looked homeless, but quite a few women were also eating, most of them mothers with young children. The door to the minister's study was open, and when I knocked, she stood up behind her desk and offered a slim, manicured hand and a firm handshake.

Reverend Clara Mills was not what I expected in an African-American minister - or any minister. She looked more like a fashion model or a news anchor. She wore expert makeup, and her hair was turned up in a soft, shoulder-length curl. She wore a clerical collar with an impeccably tailored suit, shoes with heels, and a gold cross on a chain around her neck. On her desk were photos of her children: a little girl about eight, and a handsome young man in a soldier uniform.

When I explained our committee and asked her if we could meet at the church hall, she welcomed us. "Please call me Reverend Clara, " she said. "Now, look here, look out this window. This is affecting our attendance at church, because they are out there even on Sunday mornings."

From her desk, Reverend Clara had a perfect view of the corner, occupied as we spoke by several young men loitering, waiting t offer drugs to the people eating lunch when they left the church. We sat together for awhile and saw several transactions, the furtive hand movements, the buyer rapidly walking away.

"How do you feel about people eating a free lunch and then buying crack? I asked her.

"I don't like it," she said, "but I know most of them would still buy the crack, but they wouldn't eat. It would be easier for me to minister to a congregation where I never saw people who were sick and poor and despised. But these are the people Jesus talked about.

"We must find something better for these young men to do," Reverend Clara said, looking out the window. "I know it's hard to resist or recover if drugs are on every corner. But we are suffering mainly from poverty of the spirit. The only real answer lies with God."



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