After graduating from Harvard Law School Stringfellow eschewed the traditional career path with a Boston law firm and moved to Harlem in the 1960s. Remember this was a time of civil unrest in the US, and Harlem wasn’t, and isn’t, a place of white-picket-fenced WASP respectability. Check out his picture here – this skinny lawyer was no brutha! Nevertheless he built a practice among the marginalised in Harlem because of his passion that if the law didn’t work for the poorest in America, then it didn’t work at all.
I work in inner city Belfast, in one of the most economically and socially deprived communities in the whole of the UK. I’m also undeniably Irish, in a British, Loyalist area. I’m university educated, in a community with one of the worst records of educational attainment. Fitting in would always be a challenge – though the generosity of the community has been wonderful.
Here is Stringfellow’s take on surviving in a place where he was conscious of his difference. I have preserved the original language and designations, though it may sound strange to contemporary ears.
I was promptly and aptly reminded that for me to make a place to live in, in the midst of the Harlem slums, still meant something quite different from what it would be for someone—a Negro or a Puerto Rican—indigenous to these same slums. One symbol of that, in my own experience, is contained in a conversation I had with a Negro from the neighbourhood whom I had come to know and whom I had bumped into on the street one morning. He stopped me and suggested that we have a cup of coffee, which we did. During the conversation he mentioned that he had noticed that I shined my shoes every day—a custom in which I had been indoctrinated five years before while serving with the Second Armoured Division of Germany. He said he knew that this represented the continuation, in my new life in Harlem, of the life I had formerly lived, and he added that he was glad of it, because it meant that I had remained myself and had not contrived to change just because I had moved into a different environment. In order, in other words, as I heard him, to be a person in Harlem, in order that my life and work there should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there. To be accepted by others, I must first of all know myself and accept myself and be myself wherever I happen to be. In that same way, others are freed to be themselves…[Whilst living in Harlem] I crossed a lot of boundaries in the course of a day. That in itself is not so important. What is important is that in crossing boundaries of class and race and education and all the rest, I remain myself’
I like what he says here. In crossing boundaries I must remain myself.
I remember the episode of Rev when the trendy evangelical vicar took over the creaking old congregation and brought with him all the beautiful people. What was most disturbing was how Colin, the hard drinking down and out was ‘befriended’ by one of the woman. She was interested in converting him, but he interpreted her interest as genuine affection, even love, until it all went horribly and predictably wrong. She had no real interest in him as a person or in his plight, only as a convert, and she was false to herself to evangelise him.
I cringe at pious efforts, painfully remembered from my past, when we earnest believers descended on people from our distant churchly eyries, determined to evangelise, making vain efforts to be relevant, often to the point of being false to ourselves whilst internally dying. ‘Hey! Look at us! We’re just like you, but happier, because we have Jesus!’ And I’m not sure I ever really believed it.