Field Work and the Black Panthers

By Roberta Corson, MDiv 1969 

PSR field work in 1966: I remember it well. I was assigned to the North Oakland Christian Parish with a group of other students, and our work was to help the area churches become involved in community development and justice. Within a few days, however, Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church made known its need for youth workers, so Larry Kamakawiwolle and I were transferred into this ministry.
Little did we know what we were getting into. I was 23 years old, after all, and the world was my parish.

Shattuck Avenue UMC was a formerly white church in a now predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. The youth fellowship consisted of a group of kids, with whom Bob Olmstead, the pastor, barely out of PSR himself, had made friends. He had met them at the court where they and their buddies were on trial for stealing Oakland Raiders’ uniforms. They all lived in the neighborhood, so Bob opened the church’s gym to them, and they flocked there to play basketball. To get them back on Sunday evenings, the church began a youth fellowship that featured speakers on black awareness and pride. The speakers happened to be Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, who were fairly unknown at the time. They were just beginning to develop the headquarters for the Black Panther Party across the street from the church.

So that’s what I came into as youth leader: a group of African American street kids learning to respect themselves, under the tutelage of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Larry and I were always part of these Sunday night events, because they were the youth fellowship meetings, and because we thought that sometime soon we would be doing other programs. What we discovered was that there was no end in sight of these speakers and their message.
Bobby Seale had no car at that time, so I always drove him home to his apartment in West Oakland, and during the drive we would process the evening together. His day job was as a security guard, and he usually came to the church right after work. One night as he talked to the kids, he became agitated, and as the tension in the group steadily mounted, he pulled from under his jacket his security-guard gun, waved it in the air, and shouted, “Someday we will have to use this on Whitey!” My co-leader, Larry, an unflappable Hawaiian, with dark skin and curly black hair, sat quietly in the back of the room, unnoticeable. But I felt that I stood out in that volatile group.
After that meeting, as usual, I drove Bobby Seale home. In the midst of our debriefing—as my white knuckles clutched the steering wheel—he asked me, ”Do you think I was too rough on them tonight?” I have no idea now what I answered, but I was thinking, “On them?” If one can feel fear and tenderness at the same time, that’s what happened at that moment. My heart softened   as I realized then that he considered me one of his own, a leader in the ‘hood. We sat together in my car not as black and white, but as colleagues, as people who both cared about these kids.

Sometime after that evening, I made an appointment to meet Bob in his pastoral office. He had a fish tank there, which he claimed took him into another world when he just needed to disappear. Together we looked into that fish tank for a long time, and finally I confessed that I didn’t think I could handle working with the youth group any more. He understood.
I had lasted there for seven months, but what I learned from those seven months has lasted over 42 years. I no longer idealize urban ministry: it is just plain hard work with results that occur when they are least expected, and sometimes with no recognizable results at all. I have never condoned violence, but I have learned to distinguish between the complexity of a person and the flatness of an ideology or movement. I remember how quickly even small crowds can be ignited into irrational fervor. I accept that I cannot do every ministry, even when I’m committed to it. I grieve Huey’s death by violence and drugs and celebrate Bobby’s barbeque books. I appreciate that struggles for justice and love can take a lifetime. And I believe that fish tanks are essential for every pastor’s life.