KBOO 4 February 1988
Once you had met John Coleman, you didn’t forget him in a hurry. His graphic turn of phrase, his cheery disposition, his somewhat overweight frame, were tribute to a black man who had allowed his deep Christian commitment to override the poverty, the bitterness and, as he would freely admit, the drunkenness of his past.
People in Portland remember well his visit here a few years back, and his challenging words. ‘White folk,’ he told us, ‘are walking around with a social disease of guilt, and black folk are walking around with a social disease of bitterness. The white man has got to repent, but the black man has got to forgive.’
John Coleman, of Richmond, Virginia, died of a heart attack a couple of months back, and it is perhaps appropriate at this start of black history month to say a word about a man who was described by the ‘Richmond Times-Dispatch’ as ‘a black community activist whose life’s work was to heal relationships, particularly those between the races.’
The fact that more than a thousand people including a Catholic bishop, three Episcopal bishops and a representative of the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, attended his funeral service is a measure of the loss to the community. He is the first black to be buried in what had been the city’s exclusively white Hollywood cemetery, and the words which he asked to be inscribed on his tombstone: ‘Here lies a man who gave his coat and a loaf of bread to a man who needed it.’
John grew up in a segregated city, was a high-school drop-out, worked as a sailor and a postal clerk, and studied sociology. Along the way he developed into an embittered alcoholic. But after a remarkable turn around, which included getting a Masters degree, without an undergraduate degree, and teaching for four years at the University of Richmond, he became a spokesman for Christian community and in the words of Virginia Bishop Peter Lee ‘embodied reconciliation.’ ‘If you seek his memorial, look around you today,’ said Lee, ‘He fought racism, but he did it with love. He fought poverty, yet he engendered hope. He lived to make this a place of many mansions, with room for anyone.’
Coleman was a deeply spiritual being. ‘I sit at the feet of the Lord a total surrender of my incomplete life,’ he once wrote when asked to describe his spiritual journey. ‘I pray often. Sometimes I keep quiet and listen to the Lord. In a quiet moment’ I heard him say, that ‘before I can minister in his name I must walk his walk. I must take on his ways – and be led by his spirit.’
His ‘wilderness experience,’ as he put it, was a time in which Jesus did some surgery on him cutting away some of his weeds. ‘It was a time for getting rid of excess baggage and modifying my will to the will of God. It was a time of deductions, dedication, determination, and even death.’ He was also intensely practical, particularly in dealing with the pressures from all who come to him for help. His job, he said, was to respond to the need presented to him, not to be a judge of character, a mind reader, or a trade-off master. But sometimes he had to say no. ‘Giving a can of beans, a worn coat or two dollars is easy, when they are available. My greatest struggle during these encounters is to keep myself together, so that I will be around to feed the next herd of sheep.’ A fellow seminarian said of Coleman, ‘He taught me to take the bus, not the plane, to stay at the YMCA, not the Hilton, to sit on the wall of the seminary and talk to those going by.’
The black social worker faced criticism with a light touch. He recalled speaking at an affluent white church. When he had finished, a man came up to him, feeling his three-piece blue-striped suit, said, ‘This doesn’t look like poverty to me, John.’ ‘What else did I speak about besides poverty,’ responded Coleman. ‘The goodness of God.’ ‘Well,’ said Coleman, ‘this suit is an example of God’s goodness to one of his servants.’
In a book of his sayings, ‘My Soul is a Strange Companion’ Coleman wrote, ‘It’s difficult to shift gears from feeling like a victim, to taking some responsibility for my own life. I have discovered that I am a valuable human being. Now I refuse the role of being worthless. A failure is a failure – and that’s not good – but my self-worth is not any less because I fail sometimes. Reality is not always kind to me. When I am forced to face it, I sometimes find out I have something inside of me, I didn’t know I had.’
A recent video ‘The Courage to Change’ about the work of Richmond citizens to break down barriers in the community featured John Coleman’s work as Director of the Peter Paul Development Center in one of the city’s most deprived areas, a haven for the young and the elderly, where he tried to instill a sense of self-respect and of belonging to a community of all God’ s people. In the video he says, ‘If you want to be a bridge, you have to be prepared to be walked on.’
The manner of John Coleman’s death was a commentary on his life’s work. He had just been talking to young people and their parents at the historic Grace Church. He was on his way to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church where he was to give the sermon to his fellow parishioners. He died in the middle of the Martin Luther King Bridge, which connects the thriving business center to his own depressed East End, a connection he strove to develop.
‘All I am trying to do, ‘ he once said in his modest way, ‘is to plant a seed and hope when John Coleman’s not around, somebody will sprinkle a little water on it.’