UCC DeKalb

Part 4: Neighborhood Leadership

Part 4:  Neighborhood Leadership

In many important respects, Meissner was becoming a community activist. He did a lot of networking. His interest in such work was influenced by the literature that was popular at the time: “It was all in terms of black/white issues. I was heavy into the urbanization of the church, and there were several national gatherings of the denomination that I attended. That was one of the points, too, that our job is to bring forth the leadership, the black leadership.  It has to be their issue. In sitting in some of the community meetings with the leaders, it became apparent that what we needed to do was enable people and support the system, that it ought not be our program.”

Meissner goes on to describe who some of those neighborhood leaders were: “We were fortunate in that the leadership that evolved, the black leadership, was amazing because we had a small core of people who were Southern blacks who had come out of small, Southern black towns, where there were established black communities. They may not have gone to the white Baptist church, but they had their own church.  And they had their own leadership. And we got people, some of those leaders who had had strong middle-class desires and backgrounds. What they wanted was a good family, decent housing, good schools.  We were in a position where we could enable that.”

One of the neighborhood’s key leaders was Walter Brooks. Brooks had served as secretary of CORE (the Council On Racial Equality), and was forced out, politically. “They had a mark on him,” Meissner explains. “They had somebody hired to hit him. He was carrying a weapon at that time.” According to Meissner, “Brooks was one of the best bi-lingual people I knew. Not that he spoke Spanish, but he spoke ‘street.’ He could move from the street to the board room with no effort. You could see his language change.  How he handled himself changed.”

Another leader that Meissner greatly admired was a woman whose name was Clara Moore, who sent her kids to Huber’s Sunday school for a year before she would set foot in the church herself. “She wanted to see how they treated kids before she ventured forth.” She did, however, get caught up in the changes that were happening. “She was in a meeting one time where we were talking about leadership, and that you had to have people who could do this or that and so forth. She said very quietly, ‘I’ve got fifteen people who follow what I say. Does that make me a leader?” Absolutely.

As pastor of Huber Memorial Church, Meissner was, of course, also a minister. “I’d go knock on the doors and say, ‘I’m Pastor Bob Meissner. I’m pastor of the Huber Memorial down on the corner, and we would sure love to have you come,’ and I’d leave a bulletin.” He officiated the worship service, visited the ailing, performed all the duties expected of those in pastoral ministry. But he learned that his job also involved providing resources to the leaders of the community. “What I got was the use of the building. That’s what I needed. I got some money, too, but not much. Yeah, I just kind of emerged when I realized the neighborhood was moving and leaving.” 

Not everyone was happy with Meissner, however. “There was a threat. The annual meeting was coming up and there was a group, one of whom was a former council member, that was organizing to ask for my dismissal. They were going to bring a motion that I be dismissed as pastor.” Their displeasure had to do with “bringing in these people who weren’t attuned to our custom. The neighborhood was going downhill, the building supposedly was being attacked. It wasn’t as clean as they would like it at times.”

Huber’s moderator was at that time a contractor, one of the better contractors in the city, a well-known power person. Very committed as a person who said, ‘Let’s do right!’  He convened the church council in my living room the Thursday night before the annual meeting, and they role-played everything that might be said in a negative way to me.  At that time I was young and ready for a fight, so they knew how I’d react—with anger and with volume.  They role-played everything so that I would not be defensive.”

Prior to the annual meeting, a meal was served in Fellowship Hall. None of Meissner’s opponents got to sit together. Meissner says, “I don’t know if that was by design or by default, but nobody had the guts to put the motion on the floor.”

Meissner admits that he’d get so frustrated that he’d sometimes be on the verge of giving up his ministry altogether. “I had to finally come to people and say, ‘If you’re leaving, go with grace and my prayers. Find a faith community where you can be at home, but don’t stand in our way.”

Brother, you’re the stranger here.
— Anonymous

Some people did leave, but there were others who stayed, “who welcomed people into the church council, who helped the Sunday school teachers.” The community itself, both within and outside of the church, accepted and even felt protective of Meissner and his family. “On one occasion we had a Homestead Montebello Civic Association that was meeting at Huber, and we had a black nationalist who had come from some place else, but he was there to recruit.  He came up and put his finger in my face and said, ‘Brother, you need to get out of here.  This should be an all-black community. Get out, you white honkey!’ Without anything being said, a number of my people who were active in the Civic Association just formed a quiet circle around the black nationalist. They simply said, ‘Brother, you’re the stranger here.’” For Meissner, that action on his behalf meant more than all the awards he was ever to receive during the course of his career. 

By the end of his 14 year tenure at Huber Memorial Church, Meissner and the Homestead Montebello organization had, with the support of the community at large, a renewed sense of community mission.  When asked what our own church and community could learn from what he experienced in Baltimore, Meissner says, “I think the first thing we need to learn is it’s a different time and a different era. What may have worked there may have been unique to Baltimore. But, I think that organization is still the key.”