It was a small, struggling congregation. No money. Lots of problems with the building. High un/under employment rate. High immigrant population. Grinding poverty. Not a lot of resources. In a neighborhood with a sky high rate of violent crimes and domestic abuse.
Ah, but there was a Very Big Spirit in that Little Church.
One of the very big spirits in the congregation was Ms. Eula Jefferson, now numbered among the saints. Eula was a feisty African American woman who had lived in the neighborhood most of her life. She had been "a domestic" - cleaning the once lovely but now rundown old Victorian houses in the neighborhood which had been the exclusive address in the then affluent "Roseville" section of Newark.
Ms. Jefferson used to love to tell the story of how she used to pass by St. Barnabas whenever she was on her way to catch a bus into The City. One day, at the the end of a long day, she found herself especially weary. "Past the bone and into the soul weary," she said. She thought she'd stop by for a little rest and some quiet time in prayer with Jesus. It was the early to mid 1960s.
As she walked into the church, she realized that some sort of service was going on. She was Baptist in those days, she said, and had no nevermind about joining the service. She just wanted a place to rest her weary bones for a few minutes before continuing her travels and say some things to Jesus that were on her heart.
You know how the rest of this story goes - or, at least, you can hazard a good guess.
She was, of course, stopped at the door by a member of the church - "a fellow who was a long drink of white milk" she said - and very politely told that the service was "for members only."
She said she smiled at the man, said she understood, and asked if she might just sit in the back pew for a bit, just to catch her breath and say a few prayers.
"This church," she was told, "is for members only."
Mind you, this was The Episcopal Church. In the early to mid 1960s.
"What did you do?" I asked, marveling at her calm, at least in the retelling of the story.
"Well," she said, "I just looked right past that man in front of me and looked at the man hanging from the cross that was over the altar."
"I said - right out loud - 'Mr. Jesus, sir, you'll excuse me if I can't visit with you here right now. This gentleman here says you'll only hear the prayers of people who are members of this church. Now, you and I know that ain't right, but I ain't gonna mess with him. You know where that will get me. So, we'll just have to wait until I get into The City and find a church where we can continue this conversation.'"
"'But, one day, Mr. Jesus, sir, I'll be talking to you from inside this church. You know that's right. I ain't never made a promise to you I knew I couldn't keep, and I ain't making one I can't keep now. And, I'm making it to you now, in front of this man who tells me I can't. Thank you.'"
And then, she said, she turned around and left "my head held high, on my own steam and with Jesus in my heart."
And that, she said, was both part of the cause of the 1967 Newark Riots - coming up right quick on the 42nd anniversary in about two weeks - and the reason she eventually became a member of St. Barnabas, Newark.
The priest at St. Barnabas at the time of The Riots opened the church doors as a 'sanctuary' (imagine that!) of safety against the dangers of walking the streets of that neighborhood. Provided them with food. A place to gather to organize the community. A place to rest from the weariness of the world. A place to have a few words with "Mr. Jesus."
I asked her how she managed against the adversity, the violence, the poverty.
She smiled and said something I'll never forget:
I've held onto that brilliant piece of philosophical wisdom and take it out from time to time to be inspired by it all over again.
The things that look like obstacles may actually be the very thing you need to put your foot or your hand on so you can lift yourself higher.
Sometimes, you have to look beyond what is standing in your way to see straight through to "Mr. Jesus" who will come into your heart, help you raise your head and move forward on your own steam.
I know. I get tired of climbing metaphorical mountains in my life, too. Sometimes, I just wish Jesus would come so "every mountain would be made low, every valley lifted up, every crooked place made straight, every rough place made smooth."
Then I begin to realize how quickly that would become boring. And I'm grateful for the life I have. And the rough mountains that sometimes appear in my path.
You'll excuse me now. I've got a few mountains to climb.
And, I don't make promises to Jesus I know I can't keep.