When asked at what point he became aware of civil rights issues, Meissner replies, “In Cincinnati, I had a lot of freedom as a kid, and my family didn’t worry about things. I was able to ride the streetcar when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was able to take a streetcar downtown. As I went on that streetcar, we went through what was called ‘The West End,’ and that included almost all the black community or folks from southern Appalachia. Cincinnati was the first urban point on the Great Migration from south to north. So we got both South Appalachian and Blacks coming.”
He saw as a kid the houses where people in the West End lived. “Some of them still had outhouses. This was in a city of 500,000. Some of them kept raccoons because they would eat them. That’s where the derogatory ‘coon’ comes from.” Even as a kid, he was troubled by what he saw.
At about that same time, for his Confirmation, Meissner was given a small book of devotional literature that helped to shape and inform his worldview. It “spent a lot of time talking about Christian heroes, like Dorothea Dix, the Labor movement, Gandhi. Folks like that were lifted up and I was reading about them in my meditations.”
One day, Meissner invited his friend Benny to play with him. “Benny was black and lived on a street below me in that same community. We had a great time—no race consciousness or anything like that. After that, my father simply said to me, ‘We don’t invite or meet with those kind of people.’”
In high school, Meissner became an advisor to a youth group in Newport, Kentucky. “Kentucky adjoins Ohio. The Ohio River runs between the two states. I had always thought the river belonged to Ohio, but it doesn’t. The river belongs to Kentucky. I was riding this bus. I’d grown up in Cincinnati, gone to school with blacks. Supposedly we were interracial. Ten foot out from the shore, the bus stops, and the bus driver says, ‘All the colored people move to the back of the bus.’ And they all got up and moved to the back of the bus. I never forgot that.”
Later, in 1952-1955, Edens seminary was pushing for integration. “We studied the Brown vs. the Board of Education, and of course we had interracial activity in St. Louis. We had two community centers. We were going there as part of our seminary training to serve in those community centers. Meissner explains, “We had like a Jane Addams Hull House in St. Louis, which was a community service. As part of my field work, I was the adult leader of the first integrated club in that area. I had high school blacks and whites forced to meet together who didn’t want to meet together.” On one occasion, the teens brought strangers to the meeting: The white kids brought along a “huge guy, about 6 foot tall,” and the black kids had a “roly-poly guy who was built like a bear.” Meissner chuckles at the memory. “I was, like, ‘Uh-oh’! Tonight’s the night!” Thankfully, confrontation was avoided and the kids were able to get beyond it.
But the next thing that happened throughout the year was the club formed a baseball team—with shirts that said “Fellowship Center.” For the kids, those shirts were a very big deal.
It was a mixed club playing a suburban club, all whites. Meissner recalls, “It was first base or third base, I guess, and we were in the field. The white guy coming off the plate came in high, with his spikes up. Immediately my bench cleared. The players were going out, everybody grabbed a bat. Both benches cleared. When the opposing team saw the blacks coming, they saw the whites coming, too. So the leaders of both teams quickly formed a fence and sent the white team and the mixed team to the showers. You see, it became different when it was your team. They were spiking our black team members! That was one little step that was made.”
Meissner graduated from seminary and was assigned to serve three churches collectively in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, but after five years, it was about time to move. “I had a petition initially from the Huber Memorial Church in Baltimore, and I turned it down because at that point, I just didn’t feel that was right for me, but the conference minister kept after me. He said, ‘Bob, I haven’t seen a situation where a pastor and a church could make such a good marriage as this. You really ought to consider this.’” Meissner put it off until finally he did accept the call, but before he accepted, the denomination had done a study of Baltimore in terms of race relations, what later came to be called civil rights. “And the area where Huber was, it was determined that it would be, initially, a cross-over community, and might eventually go black. This was a good social science study that was done, and it was a good study. I was, at this point, young, idealistic, and angry, and I was sick and tired of the church of Jesus Christ running, moving out to the suburbs. White Flight--that church members would leave the Church.”
Meissner explains, “The church needs to be in the community to serve the people. The whole theory about church at that time was Neighborhood. We didn’t express the options that we have today in terms of where we go. It was your neighborhood; you supported your neighborhood. I went, then, to Huber church knowing—I thought—that the church would be integrated. That was my goal, that the people there and the people who were members would merge, and we would have a nice church. In those days, down the pike, you worked on the theory later that the closer the church came to 51%, it would become a black church, and White Flight would accelerate. That’s literally what happened.”