In the Fall of 1966, Elizabeth and I stuffed our suitcases and camping gear into the trunk of our Dodge Dart and headed west to San Francisco. We were off to begin a year long internship with the Glide Foundation of San Francisco.
Many ministers speak of being “called” to their profession. I was feeling no such call. I had serious reservations about entering the ministry and I was hoping this internship would give me more clarity about my vocation. I prayed for guidance and direction.
After a 6-day trip across America we arrived in San Francisco. Glide had assigned me to job with a Methodist church in the western part of the city. We were told to go to the church office and pick up a key for the house where we would be living during my internship.
When we pulled up in front of our small house, we were surprised to see a stocky young man sitting on the front stoop. He stood up and approached us as we parked. He introduced himself as the current intern at the church. He said it was imperative that he speak to us before he departed. We went into the house and looked for a place to sit. The house was sparsely furnished and Elizabeth and I ended up sitting together on a bed. He explained why he wanted to see us.
The minister of the church had been arrested 6 months prior on a morals charge. An undercover vice detective claimed the minister made a pass at him at a men’s urinal in downtown San Francisco (remember, this is 1967!). The minister denied it. The case came down to the policeman’s word against the minister’s word. It went to trial and the result was a hung jury. Nothing had been resolved. The police dropped the matter.
But the church could not drop the matter. The minister never spoke of it. To him it never happened. Church members could only speak of it to one another in private. Nothing was ever openly discussed. A pall hung over the congregation.
As a result, the church splintered into small self-interest groups which had little interaction with one another. It was clear that nothing could heal the congregation until the bishop appointed a new minister. That would not happen for awhile.
This, the current intern told me, was the environment in which I would be working.
My main job was to be a community outreach coordinator to the inter-racial neighborhood around the church. The minister was not involved in any of my work. I would be working on my own.
As the community outreach coordinator, I reported to the Social Outreach Committee. This was a group of church members who were concerned about the inter-racial neighborhood around the church. They feared there would be white flight as more African Americans moved into the neighborhood. They wanted to stabilize the neighborhood and make it a model inter-racial community.
I was the third Glide Intern to fill this role and, I was told, I would be the last. The two interns before me had each started up one or more neighborhood programs. One was an after-school reading program for children with learning difficulties. Another was a forum for minister’s in this part of the city to discuss local concerns impacting them and their congregations. These existing programs took up all my time.
The church desperately needed something to feel good about, and the only place where that could possibly happen was in the community outreach program. The existing programs were old news. What was needed was something new and different, something exciting that the struggling congregation might feel good about.
I soon realized that my steering committee did not fully grasp all that the former interns had been doing. They had been the driving force that kept the existing programs going. For these programs to continue after I was gone, I would have to focus on getting other people in the community to take more leadership in these existing programs..
But the steering committee wanted new programs. They saw no reason why the existing programs could not continue. This was not going happen, at least, not right away. I knew nothing about the neighborhood. It would take time for me to learn about it. I had no knowledge about what was needed or how to do it.
Although it was not intended, I was being set up to fail. If I focused on the existing programs I would have no time to start something new. If I focused on starting something new, the existing programs would falter. Either way, to my steering committee, I would fail.
The current intern filled me in on this. In particular, he wanted to warn me about the woman doctor on the committee. She was very smart and could be highly supportive when she wanted to be. But, he told me, she could also be ruthless and vicious. It was this last bit of information that he particularly wanted me to know before he departed.
I grew up in a family that did not handle conflict well. When it arose, we pushed it down inside ourselves and pretended it did not exist. We did not talk about it. Now I felt completely inadequate to deal with the conflict I was facing. I froze up.
This internship was to help me decide if the ministry was my calling. It was not an auspicious beginning.