From the Great Depression to present day: reflections and discussion on religion and the making of a progressive political consciousness.
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On the Sidewalks of New York is a memoir by Richard Paul Poethig, who was born in 1925 into a working-class, German-American family in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. It tells the story of Richard’s journey from an “old law” tenement on 80th Street, to Good Will Sunday School (Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church’s mission on the East Side), to the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1945 before the end of World War II, to Union Theological Seminary in New York where he met his wife and graduated with an Masters of Divinity. Richard Paul Poethig reads his memoir in 26 chapters.
This Sunday, June 9th, thousands of high school students from across the country will be gathering in Maryland for the National History Day contest. I became aware of this event when my sister’s granddaughter Marissa Galardi suddenly appeared in a photo with our daughter Margaret, a resident of the D.C. area at a Metra station. Marissa is a finalist from Nebraska among hundreds of other students chosen because of their history research and topic. Marissa’s study is on the horrendous nature of the meat industry, awakened by Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle ” in the early 1900s, and the federal creation of the Food and Drug Administration .
The reality of this National History Day, centering on the past history of our nation, brought me great delight, not only for the fact that history is my own field, but because we have often despaired at the lack of historical consciousness among the U.S. populace. Running down the topics which the high school students have chosen for their research and presentation, many from the field of racial equality and the development of democratic government where justice is a central issue, awakens a hope that we are raising a new generation equipped to bring greater equity to our country and the world.
Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.
As seniors at Union, Richard and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), a romance begins that in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, becomes an engagement.
Jim McNaughton (left) and Richard in 1951 at Stony Point Center, New York.
Richard decides he needs a change of pace for his second summer field assignment and signs up to work amidst the lakes and falls and trees in Upstate New York. He and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, team up for a project in the Adirondacks larger parish. But first, during their second year at Union, Richard and Jim liven up Union Seminary politics, and Richard gives his first sermon in the wreckage of a violent wind and thunder storm that whips through the New Jersey Palisades community where he is doing his church field work. In the Adirondacks, Richard and Jim divide up the Sunday preaching responsibilities of a four-point parish, centered at the Syracuse University School of Forestry in Wanakena. Richard gets his fill of fresh air and sunshine as he and Jim spend the weekdays saving White Pine trees from weevil damage in the forests planted during the New Deal. They returned to Union with much preaching and even more “weeviling” under their belts.
“Workers pour molten metal into castings, circa 1950s,” Teaching & Learning Cleveland, accessed October 6, 2012, http://csudigitalhumanities.org/
Beyond their jobs in the steel mills, Richard and the other the Ministers-in-Industry participants take part in evening discussions and study visits to deepen their understanding of the church’s responsibility with industrial workers. At work, they continue to shield their identities as seminarians to keep the situation real. The seminar discussions are alive with the retelling of the day’s events and the culture of factory life, as the seminarians become more engrossed with the lives of their co-workers. Study visits to United Steel Worker offices and the U.S. Steel headquarters, and to the rectory of Father Charles Rice, a prominent “labor priest” in the Roman Catholic Church, round out the program. Over the summer, the seminarians go through a sea change in their perspective on the effects of industry on working people, and the direction of Richard’s ministry is now more clearly in focus.
In the summer of 1950 Richard goes to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The job was both necessary to help pay the tuition at Union Seminary, and also part of his theological education. Through Richard’s first “field work” experience with the youth at Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, he puts together a program exploring world religions that includes a field trip to a Black Muslim mosque in Newark. Ultimately, Richard decides that the suburban environment is not for him. He accepts an invitation to join eighteen seminarians in the Ministers-in-Industry project organized by the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations (PIIR), a program for which Richard was later to serve as the last dean. Posing as regular college students, the seminarians get jobs in the steel industry in Pittsburgh and engage in seminar discussions after work about the role of the church in the lives of working people. On the splice bar line at the Braddock Works of U.S. Steel, Richard learns about hard physical labor and worker solidarity.
At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr. In his first semester, Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Reinhold Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.” The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Niebuhr shows his humility by bringing in outside speakers: overseas people, missionaries, and those with expertise in international affairs. During these years Niebuhr is invited by George Kennan to take part in State Department policy deliberations in Washington, D.C. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of John Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight into human sin as the pride in power, and to Niebuhr’s humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”
As he enters Union Theological Seminary, Richard looks forward to his studies under Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most challenging theological thinkers of his generation. In his last summer at the Dress Joint Board of the ILGWU, he discovers Niebuhr’s name is well known among the garment worker officers. Educational Director Will Herberg, a former Communist, has been converted back to his Jewish faith by Niebuhr’s theology. Richard soon learns that he is part of the “Golden Age” of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. Beginning at the beginning in Genesis, Jim Muilenburg’s dramatic teaching style fires up the seminarians for three years of prophetic learning. Richard’s excitement is heightened by the critical view of preaching by George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Richard gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.
Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 Fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. His loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, who has just published his best seller on Gandhi.