COMMENTARY: A resurrection in Cleveland

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Dick Feagler is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND (RNS)-John Adams High School, my late lamented alma mater, has gone to God.

God got a real bargain. Five thousand dollars down and a balance of $94,000 delivered about a square mile of school building, grounds and attached football field into the hands of God’s agent, the Rev. Eugene Ward Jr., pastor of the Greater Love Baptist Church.

The Rev. Ward’s church is located in a building that used to be a funeral parlor. “Once this address was used to bury the dead,” he said. “Now we use it to raise the dead.”

So successful has the Rev. Ward’s ministry become-in 14 years, his congregation has grown from seven members to 800-that his flock felt growing pains. When he heard that nearby John Adams might be for sale, he started praying for it, lobbing his prayers over the skepticism of some of the church membership.

The night before the auction, Ward couldn’t fall asleep until 3 a.m. But he was up bright and early to pray some more. Then, on the way downtown to enter his bid, he stopped at the derelict school.

“I laid a hand on it and claimed it in the name of God,” he said. “Then I went down with my check for $5,000. The room was pretty crowded and I was nervous that there might be some other bidders. But I was the only one. They wanted $98,000, but I figured I’d offer ninety-nine. And I got it! I let loose a hallelujah and then I called the church board and told them they weren’t going to get their five thousand back.”

When I telephoned the Rev. Ward to congratulate him on his purchase, he was still full of bounce. He has a lot of exciting plans for the old high school. He has inherited two gymnasiums. In my day, these were the boys’ gym and the girls’ gym, the latter as mysterious and forbidden as a harem. They will become the centerpieces of a neighborhood youth center.

“The girl’s washroom actually has marble sinks,” he said. “Can you imagine that? They really knew how to build things in those days.”

If the Rev. Ward’s vision comes true, 40 new houses will be built on what is now the football field. Pre-school and regular classes will be taught in some of the old classrooms. And the main Sunday worship service will be held in the high school auditorium. Where once, as a member of the projection club, I tried to silence unruly noonday movie crowds whose chatter drowned out the dialogue of Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth.

I told Ward I was very happy for him. And I am. I am about 90 percent happy for him, and that’s enough.

I would have rather seen the old school stay open and educate new generations of youngsters the way it educated my mother and me. But that phase of its life is ended. Ward has rescued the school from the wrecking ball. And that is the closest thing to resurrection the present school climate permits.

God certainly does move in mysterious ways. Back in Mr. Brush’s chemistry class, we struggled to master the elements that unlocked the secrets of existence. Mr. Brush was of a philosophical turn of mind. He was not afraid to admit that there are some things we just don’t know-many outcomes that are unpredictable.

Sometimes he would stand at the window and gaze thoughtfully at the neon sign of a saloon that was barely the legal limit away from the school yard.

“Did it ever occur to any of you that the whole world and all that’s in it might merely be an atom flickering in the middle of a great cosmic beer sign?” he would ask.

It never occurred to me at the time, but it’s occurred to me plenty since. Perhaps this is not a philosophy that would happily blend with the doctrine of the Greater Love Baptist Church. But the law of unpredictability is certainly no stranger to its pastor, who awoke one morning with only a check in his pocket and a dream in his heart.

The name will stay on the school. And Ward promises that, whatever else he does, he will keep one room as an alumni room, always ready to welcome visiting graduates like me.

“After we bought the school, I slipped inside and sat in the auditorium balcony for awhile, all by myself,” he said. “Do you remember what’s carved in the stone arch above the stage?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and struggled to read the blur of half-remembered words. The reverend helped me out.

“It says, `Where there is no vision, the people perish,’ he said. “That’s from the book of Proverbs. So you see? You were sitting right under Scripture all along.”

MJP END FEAGLER

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