Part IV of That Coffee House of Grace – One Spirit to Drink

by Tom Wolpert on February 3, 2018

Part IV of that Coffee House of Grace – One Spirit to Drink

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body-whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given one Spirit to drink. – The Apostle Paul

Music to open the Coffee House. White Rabbit, by Jefferson Airplane. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, by the Beatles. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, by The Grateful Dead. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Harry McClintock. Sitting by my Window, by Moby Grape.

Past recollections of youthful folly risk sounding moralistic, censorious. The implied question lurks – if it was so wrong and so foolish, why are you narrating it now? Since I’m a lawyer, the parallel directive is ‘never volunteer anything, ever.’ Any criminal defense lawyer will tell you that. I have spent nearly fifty years not talking about certain things – at this point, many of life’s battles over profession and family have been won, or at least fought to a draw, and I am tired of my own silence.

Repentance is never amiss, but if I had not done those things, if we had not coalesced and congregated, a children’s crusade, into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District in 1967, for conduct unwise, immature and illegal – would we have been any less children of grey unbelief? We might have stayed at home and played on or cheered for the football team, but our gathering made a statement to the world, however naïve or doomed to failure. If I had taken my draft deferment and my SAT scores to an ivy league college two years later after more ordinary events, the end thereof would not be closer to God. A man is more than a squirrel, even a clever one who knows to keep a discreet silence, and God is much more than a set of rules – even wise rules. “Sin boldly” said Martin Luther (I got that part down early in life), “and believe more boldly still.” (I’m still working on that).

My reticence on topics that have been discreetly veiled for many years arose while I pursued the avocations of believer, congregant, suitor, husband, father, freelance writer, technical editor and writer, pro se litigant, mid-life law student, lawyer now for 25 years, citizen, elected official, and volunteer in many capacities. To be a grown man now means to bring back and speak of some childish things. Apart from the illegality of it, describing how I used drugs is embarrassing. Sobriety matters in my world, and I do not think life offers any special rewards for being shocking, rebellious or outrageous. But details also matter, how faith came to me and I came to faith, because the grace of God was operative for a long time in my life, bouncing around as I was, before I knew there was a direction to it at all.


So we crashed at Dunbar’s second-floor flat in the Mission District of San Francisco in the Summer of Love in 1967. The place probably rented for about $100-125 a month. At the time, minimum wage was $1.25 an hour, so that was about 80-100 hours of work. The Mission District was a series of interlocking working class neighborhoods, composed of many Spanish heritage people, but many others beside. In addition to Dunbar, who apparently had no full-time job, the other tenants were Jim, Steve and Leo, all young men, and all with full-time jobs. Jim was probably about 20, with longish red hair; Steve was probably the same age, with shorter blonde hair, and Leo was in his early 20’s, with curly hair and a decided Kentucky accent. Jim and Steve were both sincere leftist-progressive-socialist-communist-idealist-revolutionary young men.

Steve was given to wearing blue jeans and white t-shirts. There was a quiet simplicity about him, almost a purity – it would be easy to imagine that he came from some midwestern religious background, a Mennonite from Wisconsin or something like that, who left his faith perhaps for political commitment, but not the manner of his culture and customs. One of the great features of the flat was that Steve baked whole grain bread regularly and did it well, two loaves at a time. The bread was put out on the kitchen table for anyone to eat, as much as they wanted, and there was always honey to flavor it with. Steve would simply pull it out of the oven and plunk it on the kitchen table without much comment. There were people coming and going all the time in the flat, so regretfully, I did not engage him more in conversation, nor often hear him in conversations with others.

Jim wore a flannel workshirt, like a lumberjack from Idaho. He conversation included the class-conscious political language and symbols of the youthful, 1960s revolutionary vanguard. There was never any suggestion that he actually did anything overtly political, except work a regular job and subsidize Dunbar’s vision of a shelter for the wayward and youthful. Jim complimented me once on being “progressive” –because I absorbed and parroted back his specialized and coded political language. He assumed I accepted his opinions when I repeated back his ultra-left jargon. There was an alphabet soup of various groupings in the 1960s, with their jealously-distinguished SDS or Trotskyite or Leninist or Maoist or Che Guevaraist or Progressive Labor or Spartacist or orthodox Communist or Stalinist ideologies, but not every leftist felt the need to self-identify so narrowly. My tendency was to sponge up and restate influences, trying on whatever ideas were around as if they were shirts.

(As for left-wing jargon, this can be amusing: use all the following words in a sentence that begins with the phrase “Vanguard Party” which incorporates the phrase “creating the conditions of class consciousness for the proletariat” and ends with “the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda.’” Extra credit is awarded if you can work in the words “bourgeois,” or “dialectical materialism” as well.)

I stretched out Steve and Jim’s hyphenated political descriptions because I wasn’t aware of their exact placement on the spectrum of the political left. Generally, the leftism of San Francisco in the mid 1960s was much more labor-oriented than anything similar is today. California had experienced in the 1940s a formal (as in Communist Party – Soviet Union influenced) infiltration of some areas of the labor market, like the dockworkers. In 1967 the old models about the working class and labor strife (and the Wobblies and the older socialist ideals) were still part of that intellectual outlook; but all now coupled with hippies and smoking pot and tuning in, turning on and dropping out. The proletariat was, unfortunately from their viewpoint, probably getting high – but then, so were they. These were days when there was still an actual Communist Party, that to the hippies, looked as old and square as anything found on Wall Street. This was before the violent events of 1968 at the Democratic National Convention or the burgeoning violence between the police and the Black Panther Party.

Whether hippie or revolutionary, in the summer of 1967 all most people I met wanted to do was sit around in a circle, smoke pot, drink wine and socialize with the opposite sex, while waxing political or visionary as the case may be. By 1969, when I entered San Francisco State College (after a lengthy student strike there in 1968), leftists were angry, prone to violence and advocacy for violence, and in my 18-year-old estimation, delusional. They were people I avoided. By 1969, many leftists were supporters of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and Weathermen or sympathizers with their methods, who held hippies like me in unconcealed contempt; they thought robbing banks and shooting security guards was an act ‘for the people.’ But In 1967, we had a member of the SDS stay with us at Dunbar’s flat, and he was as mild and peaceable as anyone else, although I daresay his political views were probably more exacting.

Leo, with his black curly hair, dark, darting eyes, Charlie Chaplin mustache and build, and his undisguised Kentucky accent, was a little different. He flirted with some of the girls who drifted in through Dunbar’s efforts, who were a little in awe of him and giggled nervously at his drawl and his teasing. He had a quick penetrating wit and sharp mind that could be intimidating, delivered in an entertaining, sardonic Kentucky drawl. His political opinions that could have easily been flipped to the right end of the political spectrum without much adjustment. He was just plain antagonistic to big government, big business, big labor, big anything. He kept a revolver locked up in his room, and his argument for having it was almost identical to what is presented today from the NRA – having firearms is an individual right, big government wants to take your firearms because they want to suppress and destroy your rights, that’s what big government always wants, a cowed and helpless populace; the way to stop big government from stepping all over your rights is to be armed, self-reliant, and independent. He worked as a machinist, got up to go to work early each morning, and told me he thought machinists were the most important trade in the country. I mentioned surgeons, and his response was that the country could get along without surgeons, but not without machinists.

Leo also was the only resident member of the flat who acknowledged participating in labor violence. Whatever group he was affiliated with, they had marched in support of striking workers in the East Bay. There was confrontation with hired strikebreakers, and Leo described his confrontation with a strikebreaker to me.

“He started to swing at me, and I stepped inside his swing and punched him in the face. He went right down. It was easy. It was as if the whole thing happened in slow motion.” But Leo had no other stories to share about ‘direct action,’ as it is sometimes called – he was no more interested in ‘Big Revolution’ than he was interested in ‘big’ anything else.

Years later, I would meet Leo again, in the Meat Market Coffee House, because he came to play chess there, as I did – the coffee house had a regular clique of chessplayers. By that time he had relaxed his politics, and was already working on one of his serial marriages. His description of meeting women, and why he had marital problems, was typically idiosyncratic, delivered in his staccato-elongated Kentucky twang: “Women are everywhere. No matter where you go. You sit down at a bar. You’re by yourself and the place is empty. Next thing, a woman will show up and sit down next to you.” Apparently the only phrase that had no Kentucky-drawl equivalent for Leo was ‘not-interested.’ But in the summer of 1967, he had not yet started his career of romantic involvements and presented a disciplined hill-country demeanor that was both aloof, and sharply-expressed.

Since I mentioned the bread that Steve baked, I should stop to talk about what I ate as I was hitchhiking and living in San Francisco that summer and fall. The staple meal for me during the day was to go to a corner grocery store, and buy a fresh-baked loose roll, which I recollect cost about eight or ten cents. Bread in San Francisco, wherever you bought it, typically was fresh-baked and scrumptious. I would buy a quart of chocolate milk, which typically cost about 35 to 50 cents at a corner grocery store. That was enough to keep me going during the day. At night, sometimes someone cooked something, and naturally I ate Steve’s bread.

There were two other sources of food in the Haight Ashbury that I recall. One was a provided by a group called the Diggers, who originated out of people associated with the San Francisco Mime Troup and were more on the anarchist side of the political spectrum. They did lots of things without pay and anonymously, and helped make the Haight Ashbury an idea and not just a drug crib – they operated or coordinated a switchboard, free stores, a clinic and crashpads for the oncoming hordes of teenagers, always with volunteers. The Diggers served food in the afternoon in the Panhandle area of Golden Gate Park. I ate their food once or twice, I think it was stew, but I didn’t care for it much. If I met any of the original Diggers today, there would probably be more we differed on than agreed on, so let me take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ and note, as Bob Dylan once sang in ‘Restless Farewell,’ if we disagree now, it’s not personal – “the cause was there, before we came.” In 1967, directly or indirectly, their hands came to my aid.

There was also a fish and chips take-out place called Foghorn at the end of Haight Street, near Stanyan Street and the beginning of Golden Gate park. If you were hungry, you just stood there, and people would share their fish and French fries (chips), drenched with malt vinegar, as they walked out of the store with their order wrapped in a newspaper holder. That was delicious, and people were always willing to share a piece of fish or a handful of fries. Sometimes I had the money for the order, it was probably only a dollar or two, and the orders were generous – I recollect you got with your order four pieces of fried and breaded fish, probably cod, and a big helping of French fries.

On some other personal notes, I had no change of clothes and didn’t bathe much, so I had a definite aroma. I wasn’t shaving regularly yet. Be that as it may, none of the other runaways were changing or bathing frequently either, and everybody constantly had the strong-sweetish smell of marijuana that tends to be overwhelming if it’s being carried on enough clothes, hair, backpacks, etc. Many of the shops along Haight Street burned incense as well and that has a lingering aroma. Hare Krishna acolytes burned incense and they were often in the vicinity of Haight Street. You could smell hippies at a distance.

Shortly after we arrived in Dunbar’s flat, my friend Gary showed me how to get to the Haight-Ashbury, which was some distance from where we were in the Mission District, by using San Francisco’s bus system. Gary was slender of build, with sensitive, intelligent eyes, easy-going, with light brown hair that was not long. He had an off-and-on relationship with a girl in Burlingame, but I don’t recall him ever speaking about his parents or home life otherwise. He must have succeeded in obtaining some sort of permanent draft deferment, because he never talked about or seemed concerned by the Vietnam War. He was decidedly apolitical, but he did have a religious streak or background. When we were meandering about one day in the downtown areas of San Francisco, we climbed a hill where there was a large Episcopal Church, probably St. Peters. As we approached, Gary led me inside to take a look, and he genuflected seriously and kneeled briefly as we approached the altar, with an expression on his face of genuine reverence.

Tagging along with him was easy. We quickly found out what you did for some spending money, which was to sell an underground newspaper, called the Berkeley Barb. It was well-titled – it had barbs to deliver, to anyone who was part of ‘the establishment’ – and reading through the personals, it veered toward the barbarous (secondary meaning of the word, as in indecent). I never saw prostitution in the Haight -Ashbury (perhaps because I was not looking), but personal and commercial services were most definitely available in the Bay Area and the Barb gave the information. The deal for selling newspapers, if I remember correctly, was basically that you left the distributor of the paper something of value, frequently I just used my jacket, to get a stack of newspapers to sell. When you came back at the end of the day, you got to keep half the money for what you sold, returned whatever you had not sold, and picked up your collateral. So Gary and I would hang out on the street, moving around at random to avoid the other newspaper sellers and hawk our Berkeley Barbs.

We were only in San Francisco for a few days or a week when Gary decided we ought to go to Los Angeles for a visit. Whatever his reasons were, they were vague. Apparently there was someone there he knew or wanted to see. I had come up from Los Angeles only a short time before on the Greyhound bus, but I was hanging around with Gary and relying on his senior 19-year-old wisdom and guidance. Plus, when everything is new, it really doesn’t matter – it was all California, the place I wanted to be. So without much ceremony, or much of a reason, off we went hitchhiking to Los Angeles. Jack Kerouc would have approved.

Gary decided we were going to hitchhike down Route 1, which is a much longer way to get to Los Angeles, because it is the route that follows immediately along the coast. In many parts, it is one of the most breathtaking and scenic automobile routes anywhere. Route 1 traveled along hairpin curves cut into the sides of steep California cliffs, overlooking beaches hundreds of feet below, semi-circles of sand touching protected areas of blue Pacific ocean, decorated and surrounded by rock formations, cascading along the shoreline, daubed in by some giant of an impressionistic painter. The catalogue the highway runs through is an A-list of some of the most beautiful places in the country: Pacifica, Moss Beach, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, Monterey, Point Lobos, Carmel, Big Sur, Pismo Beach, and Santa Barbara, to name a few. It wasn’t difficult for us to get rides, and if I had done nothing else at all in California, but hitch-hike Coastal Route 1, it would have been worth the trip. Like, wow, man. California. Too much.

Eventually we reached Big Sur, where one of our rides dropped us off. The highway along Route 1 in the area of Big Sur was packed with hippies; they were coming, they were going, they were camping, they were hitchhiking north and south, single, in pairs, in groups, from up and down and on both sides of the highway. Blue jeans, backpacks, floppy hats, the smell of marijuana, was everywhere. Times have changed perhaps, but not everyone in Big Sur was happy about cultural change in 1967. One small sign was posted near the door of a small country-style store along the highway: “No hippies or beatniks allowed.”

Almost immediately above us soared the high hills of Big Sur, blanketed with dense woods composed of Redwoods, multitudes of pine trees and the quickly-rising cliffs of the Santa Lucia mountain range of Big Sur on one side. On the other side was the broad-horizon spreading blue Pacific Ocean, shamelessly naked to the sun, hundreds of feet down from clifftops, unselfconsciously majestic, just out of our range of vision as we hitchhiked. Between these two living monuments to natural beauty was narrow little highway 1, dotted with small cabins and campgrounds like sparse beads on a winding string. For want of descriptive words to capture the scope of Big Sur’s beauty, I will lapse again into 60’s hippie all-purpose idiom, equally useful for those too beatified to speak and those too stoned to speak: like, wow, man. Good Karma. Dig it. Heavy. A celebratory (and more articulate) poem by Gary Snyder, another beat poet, called Pine Tree Tops, is in order:

in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots.
rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.

Here’s another, by Craig Steiger, called Big Sur:

Behold the blue sea-swell
That lifts itself a glass morning
Out of the sea’s heaving breast:
The open ocean wave
That draws itself across the rock reef
Cresting toward the fine pitch
That exhilarates the very air
With a perfect arc of spray

Since we were hanging around on the highway, at one point I began a conversation with a hippy, probably about 18 or 20, who was sitting motionless by the highway, staring up toward the mountain with his back towards the Pacific. I suppose I was expecting something like my interaction with the hippy in Buena Vista Park, but this went somewhat differently. I asked some question about where he stayed, and his terse reply was “Up on the mountain.” Curious soul that I was, I asked a few more questions about where he stayed, or how he lived or with who. If he answered me at all, it was only to repeat his first answer “On the mountain” in a tone so low and aloof as to be barely audible. He would not turn to look at me and hardly acknowledged my existence. After half a dozen of my questions, his displeasure with me, an obvious chipmunk in comparison to his vast reservoir of high-country hipness, was made abundantly clear. His silence prevailed and I gave up asking questions.

Gary and I had talked about what we would do if we were stopped by any police, in view of my age. Gary had acquired some forms of phony ID, and he gave me one, purporting to show I was 18 years old. We briefly rehearsed a cover story that either one of us would tell. As we traveled further down the coast, we reached areas where Route 1 straightens out somewhat and is routed further inland. About dusk a driver pulled over for us, who was going all the way into Los Angeles and had been driving for some time. I remember him only vaguely as a dark-haired young man of about 25 or 30. But people were more relaxed about such things in those days, and we offered to take over driving for him, which he accepted. I liked driving and so I took the wheel at some point.

For whatever reason, we were pulled over by a policeman while driving on a two-lane highway. It was probably because of some headlight or taillight infraction; I wasn’t speeding or driving erratically. The officer asked me to step out of the car and show my identification. Middle-class child that I was, I had no courage at all for the cover story Gary and I worked out. I was terrified that I was going to be sent back immediately to Pennsylvania, but I told him who I was and where I was from, and handed him my PA driver’s license. I explained to him that I was traveling with my friend Gary, and probably told him that Gary knew where we were going. So the officer called Gary out of the car and talked to him at the tail end of the vehicle, while I stood near the headlights. Gary and the officer had quite a conversation, maybe 20 minutes or more. Even though I couldn’t hear them, I could see Gary doing a fair amount of talking. After it was all over, the officer allowed Gary to get back in the car, handed my Pennsylvania driver’s license back, and directed me back into the driver’s seat. He gave whatever warning was appropriate concerning the vehicle without writing a ticket, and simply let us leave.

As we drove off, I was flabbergasted. I asked Gary what they talked about, and he explained that he had first delivered the entire cover story we had agreed upon. Since the officer had my driver’s license in hand and my truthful self-identification in his ear, Gary had to give up on the cover story; apparently though, not without giving it the old college try. What was amazing to me was, after all that, the officer just bid us adieu. All I can say in retrospect is that it was the 1960s, and things were different then.

When we arrived at Los Angeles, we found whatever address Gary had and crashed there, ‘crashed’ as in sleeping on whatever sofa or carpeting was available. Gary’s arrival at wherever didn’t seem to signal much on the part of the host, whoever he or she was. There were a few people milling in and out of the apartment, but the spirit of ‘whatever’ that initiated the trip was still active at our arrival. I think we may have spent a day there, and it was my first time in any area of Los Angeles where you could walk around and see palm trees and experience the southern California climate, but it was uneventful otherwise. That night we went to the Sunset Strip, and the place was mobbed with teenagers and young people. Perhaps Gary wanted to come because he had heard about the riots on Sunset Strip which had happened the previous year, and wanted to get in on the action – it still had a reputation as the place to be. Wherever we were, the sidewalks were so crowded you could hardly move around on them. We didn’t go inside anywhere, and didn’t do much other than walk around the Strip. There were lots of people, but not much more that happened when we were there.

In the next day or two we started hitchhiking back to San Francisco. Gary decided we were going to hitchhike Route 101, which was not on the coast and was considerably faster and more direct. Because we were hitchhiking at the entrance ramps to a freeway, we wound up hitchhiking with others in small groups, a squad of hippies. At some point, possibly on the first day of hitchhiking (hitchhiking out of a big city could be slow – lots of cars, few wanting to stop) we were near an airport and it became so late at night that the likelihood of further rides was slim. So as a group we made our way over to a large vacant lot near the airstrip and spent the night there, sleeping out within some shrubs and low trees. Although it was summer and we were in southern California, I remember that it got pretty cool, especially laying on the ground, and I wrapped my jacket around as far as it would go. The airport was not LAX, it was some regional airstrip or airport, and I could see the lights and planes through the underbrush as the night worked its way to dawn.

Once we got out of the vicinity of Los Angeles, our rides on Highway 101 would often be in the open back of pickup trucks, where the truck driver would pull over, everyone would scramble onto the truckbed, and never even talk to the driver and front seat passengers. When the truck reached whatever exit ramp represented its destination, it would pull over, everyone would hop out, and we would make our way to the next entrance ramp, to wait however long it took, whether thirty minutes or three hours, for the next ride. When we arrived back in San Francisco, we made our way to Dunbar’s flat, which was never locked, and resumed our tenancy-by-the-unplanned-and-adrift. I probably ate some of Steve’s bread when we returned.

Soon thereafter, Gary agreed or we decided or I asked, that it was time for me to be initiated into the psychedelic drug culture and take my first trip on Lucy (I just can’t stand writing out the actual name of the chemical substance, so humor me). “Drop a thousand” was common advice to teenage runaways to the Haight-Ashbury, referring to a drug dosage that if taken literally, would have been astronomically hallucinatory. My recollection is that Gary gathered up some money from two other people staying at Dunbar’s, to make a collective purchase. Gary knew where to conduct the necessary transaction. I didn’t think about it at the time, but for him to know that, he had to have been making regular trips into San Francisco, prior to the time he showed up at the church free supper where we met.

The place to transact was the Blue Unicorn Coffee House on Hayes Street, just across Panhandle Park from the Haight Ashbury District. The seller was an anonymous woman who either worked there or hung out there regularly, whom Gary described as a kind of gypsy who might have been a witch; he supplied no name for her. When Gary provided his description, he looked serious, making a long face, and I accepted his words at face value. Momentarily Gary was visibly uneasy, not his general disposition. When we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, she was there at the back, and Gary began a negotiation with her which lasted several minutes. They conveyed a furtive impression, with their two heads leaning together, talking in a low voice. The woman was sitting with her back to me as she discussed matters with Gary in the low light at the back of the coffee house. She was dressed in clothes that could be described as gypsy-ish, with a darkish long skirt, perhaps an embroidered vest, thick, curly shoulder length hair and wearing nothing that could be described as a bright pastel or psychedelic color. Gary paid her first, then she got up to leave the contraband in the bathroom (there was only one). Gary came back to sit with me in the front, where we waited for her to conclude making her drop. After her exit from the bathroom, Gary went in to acquire our pills, and we promptly began making our way back to Dunbar’s flat.

After dinner (possibly somebody cooked spaghetti that night), Gary took out the pills. He was concerned that taking a whole dose might be too strong for me, as a first experience. Solicitous that my ‘head didn’t explode’ (and experienced enough to know that the effective dose of any street drug purchase is a toss of the dice), he cut the pill for me into halves with a razor blade, and then half again, and gave me a quarter pill to take. I believe he did the same for himself and the others who composed our group. Then we simply waited. The four of us waited, and waited, at least for an hour, perhaps more. Nothing was happening and I felt some disappointment. Gary checked the time to see how long it had been. Again, cautious and concerned, Gary gave me the other quarter to take and I think did the same for everyone. We waited again, probably close to an hour, and still nothing was happening. At that point each of us took the second half of his pill, and we waited again.

Probably about 45 minutes after taking the second half, I began to feel some effects. The first thing I noticed was the edge of the interior paneling of a door, the mullion, simple attracted and held my attention. My orientation as to visual perspective was changing. Ordinary elements of the flat, things like window casings or door panels, or the frame of a door at the top left and right corners, became fascinating, as if they were vibrating. I looked up at the ceiling, which was a stucco type composition which had small embedded crystals, probably tiny slivers of ground glass, and noticed them, as if they were twinkling. I made my way over to the room that overlooked Potrero street, and looked out the window. The street was vivid under the streetlights. As I leaned with my head against the glass, it felt as if my head was partially sliding through the glass effortlessly. I was conscious of the spatial relationships on the street below, almost as if I were viewing a Dali painting, studying the precise juxtaposition between the parked cars and the sidewalk. I observed the quality of light that the neon streetlamps generated, and the shading of the light into darkness. None of these impressions were especially intense and none were threatening. It was all very interesting – the remembered image in my mind could be given a title as if it were a painting: ‘Summer Night on Potrero Street’ – I daresay few have taken more careful notice of mundane Potrero Street than I did, for some period of time, with my head leaning gently against the window glass, giving the sensation I was floating over the street.

I left that room and walked into the living room, and noticed my hands and legs. Normally one has the sense that your hands and legs are close by, are part of your sense of your unified physical being. Now it seemed as if my hands were at a distance from me. I sat down on a one-inch thick mat, with my back to a wall and window overlooking the street, and looked at my legs. My legs seemed long, and also, like my hands, at an unfamiliar distance. I was wearing black levi jeans, and I stared at them. I may have stayed in that position for hours. I was conscious of the fact of my age, of being younger than people around me, and conscious that I was taking this ‘trip.’ I had mild emotions of apprehensiveness, curiosity in the experience itself, the satisfaction of doing something I had read about, of asserting myself and being in California. I experienced renewed attention and curiosity in my immediate surroundings, which were plain white walls and minimal furniture, but now were rather intriguing. There was a gods-eye craft ornament hanging on one of the walls. I was curious about my limbs, a distant, lengthy, pair of legs, just laying there stretched out in black rough coverings, on the mat beneath my eyes. I had moccasins on my feet. I viewed my legs, ankles and feet more or less the way a fisherman might view twin fishing rods that he had lowered into the water.

That was pretty much it, for most of the night – I was preoccupied with the changed perspectives and sensations of my mind and body parts. My psychological space of “I” shrank considerably, so that attachments of my limbs were beyond the new, reduced boundaries of – “I.” As the Jefferson Airplane sang in White Rabbitone pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. It was new, new, new – and at that point in my life, nothing more was required. As this narrative continues, the problems with a mild first experience with drugs will become self-evident – ‘gee, what’s the big deal, let’s do that again.’

Some time toward the morning the effect of the drug wore off, and I fell asleep on my magic carpet. No one had come to talk to me during the experience. To my knowledge, none of my fellow tripsters had any type of negative or overwhelming experience themselves – since the dosage was mild, and it wasn’t cut or adulterated with any other type of drug, I surmise that my fellow voyagers had equally typical experiences, lost in their own thoughts and perceptions. It never occurred to me to compare or ask them about their experiences. It is a measure of the general degree of laissez faire which was operating in the flat and in those times, that as far as I know no one staying at the flat or the four original tenants themselves commented about me sitting for hours, almost all night long, on a mat in the living room staring fixedly at my legs. No one felt any reason to come talk to me or ask me then or later what I was doing or why. It required no conversation with Gary either, and we probably left the next day to go sell our newspapers in the Haight-Ashbury without further analysis or reflection.


Time to break for some poetry! I don’t know what you think about the Kingdom of God, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a place for lots of poetry, blossoming everywhere. Since I was talking earlier about Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, permit me to excerpt a brief few various lines and images from this lengthy poem. Admittedly, mere excerpts struggle to do justice to the impact of the whole. The poem has a broad, expansive scope, addresses itself to a whole nation from a very different perspective, and demonstrates a purpose from which both saint and sinner can derive image and insight. Let’s set a mood with some music (there’s only so much of White Rabbit anybody can listen to) – the opening bars from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, re-asserting itself at intervals, and Thelonious Monk’s Mysterioso.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving

hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the

starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the

supernatural darkness of cold water flats floating across the tops of

cities contemplating jazz . . .

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kinking light of

mind . . .

who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall, . . .

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels

who were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural

ecstasy . . .

who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America

and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa, . . .

who reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets . . .

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow

of the band and flew the suffering of American’s naked mind for love

into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio.

. . . in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway

Across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night . . .

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jail-

House and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg-

ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern-


Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running

money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast

is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Allen Ginsburg’s poem Howl was written in San Francisco in 1955-1956. I am floored, I am stunned when I read it now. He wrote a Footnote to Howl in Berkeley, in 1955. The last line reads:

Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

What does one do, with such a poem? Comment on it? Make an offering of my own poetry? Say that things aren’t that bad? Say that things aren’t that good? America, human experience, life, events, people, faces, memories, sins, confessions, revelations, miracles, failures, vagrancies, doubts, intoxications, hangovers, retreats, redemptions, institutionalizations, heartbreaks, can be so stark, so overpowering, that we should all make poetry to describe it if we can, like Allen Ginsburg. His poetry roars that life is not dropping back and punting. Like a highwayman making the binary demand of your money or your life, his poetry demands that life is not hedging your bets. His poetry throws itself into life headlong and suicidal. He casts his images to the those very winds held back by angels. Underneath his poetry are the desperate adventures of many lives, angelheaded hipsters, where more is risked than poetry, but sanity itself. I feel it, I feel it, I know brother suicide myself. Yet Jesus redeemed me from many things, not the least of which is a temptation to self-destructive and reckless passion – because patient faith will achieve all this also, and more. Did not God make this universe? Does He not know our headstrong and reckless passions? Now that I am 66 years old and no child, I will wait for that passion that Christ ordains. I both have, and need, a Savior.


And now, we will turn our roller-coaster in another direction. I want to talk about my baptism in 1980. For music (like poetry, I know there will be acres of music in the Kingdom of God), let’s put on Tad Benoit’s cover of I Put a Spell on You. At some point, we should hear Alison Krause’s Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray. The final piece might be Judy Collins’ Amazing Grace.

After my meeting with Dr. Munz in November 1980, I began attending the church he pastored in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, nestled on top of Hares Hill Road and Cold Stream Road. The ceremony of my baptism was scheduled about three weeks or so later. I wore my light-colored beige-bone-cream suit. At the age of 29, I was still thin, with long arms and my wrists showing slightly. I was exhilarated and excited; I was getting new life for old.

The cover page of the bulletin recorded the dialogue on the cross, found in Luke concerning the two thieves who were crucified with Christ:

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


When my turn came in the worship service, the Pastor motioned me forward. The church was small, intended only for a hundred or so congregants at most, and generally attendance was more on the order of forty or fifty. Four or five extended families were the mainstay of the church, and had been for many years. With its thick, whitewashed walls, and stone walls outside, in appearance it could have served as a Quaker meeting house. Pastor James Munz had arranged for me to have sponsors. Since I was new to the church, and the baptism itself was new to me and remarkable (I know of no other adjective ), I can’t remember who my sponsors were, although possibly they were Wally and Gloria Smiley. They also came forward. Pastor Jim began as follows:

“In Holy Baptism our gracious heavenly Father liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; in the water of Baptism we are reborn children of God and inheritors of eternal life. By water and the Holy Spirit we are made members of the Church which is the body of Christ. As we live with him and with his people, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.”

“We present Thomas Wolpert to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” said the sponsors.

“Thomas, do you desire to be baptized?” Pastor Munz asked.

“I do,” I answered.

Pastor Munz addressed the sponsors, me and the congregation. “In Christian love you have presented Thomas for Holy Baptism. You should, therefor, faithfully care for him and guide him in every way as God gives you opportunity; that he may bear witness to the faith we profess, and that, living in the covenant of his Baptism and in communion with the Church, he may lead a godly life until the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Do you promise to fulfill these obligations?” He asked.

“We do,” Sponsors and congregation replied.

“Lord, in your mercy,” Pastor Jim commenced the liturgy of baptism.

“Hear our prayer,” the congregation responded.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you,”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

“Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father: We give you thanks, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and you created heaven and earth. By the gift of water you nourish and sustain us and all living things,” Pastor Munz knew the liturgy well.

“By the waters of the flood you condemned the wicked and saved those whom you had chosen, Noah and his family. You led Israel by the pillar of cloud and fire through the sea, out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land. In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. By the baptism of his own death and resurrection your beloved Son has set us free from the bondage to sin and death, and has opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life. He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth. In obedience to his command, we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Pour out your Holy Spirit, so that Thomas who is here baptized may be given new life. Wash away the sin of all those who are cleansed by this water and bring them forth as inheritors of your glorious kingdom.

To you be given praise and honor and worship through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever,” He concluded the initial invocations.

“Amen,” the congregation responded.

“Thomas, I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the Church, the faith in which we baptize.” Pastor Jim said.

“Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” Pastor Jim asked me.

“I do,” I answered.

“Do you believe in God the Father?” Jim asked me.

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” I answered, along with the congregation.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

“I believe in Jesus Christ,” I answered, along with the congregation,

“his only Son, our Lord.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit

and born of the virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died and was buried.

He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again.

He ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

“Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” Dr. Munz asked me.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit,” I answered, as did the congregation.

“The holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting,” I replied in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, along with the congregation. “Amen.”

Then Pastor James Munz baptized me.

“Thomas, I baptize you in the name of the Father,”

Water was poured on my head as I leaned over the bowl

and of the Son,”

Water was poured on my head a second time

“and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Jim concluded,

And I leaned over as water was poured on my head a third time.

“The Lord be with you,” Pastor said.

“And also with you,” we, the congregation, the saints assembled, replied.

“God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks for freeing your son from the power of sin and for raising him up to a new life through this holy sacrament. Pour your Holy Spirit upon Thomas: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.”

“Amen,” we replied.

Jim made the sign of the cross on my forehead, using oil. He was very deliberate and purposeful about it. He did it with very distinct strokes, one down my forehead, and one across.

“Thomas, child of God, you have sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

One of the sponsors then said, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

“Amen,” we replied.

Pastor Jim addressed the congregation. “Through Baptism God has made this new brother Thomas a member of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus, that we may proclaim the praise of God and bear his creative and redeeming Word to all the world.”

Then the congregation spoke to me collectively in unison. “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as fellow members of the body of Christ, children of the same heavenly Father, and workers with us in the kingdom of God.”

Then Jim extended his hand to me. “Peace be with you,’ he said. “Peace be with you,” I replied. The congregation also passed the peace among each other. Then I took my seat in the pews with our congregation, my congregation.


By the way, that was an invitation for you, too. If you have never been invited, you are invited now, to become a Christian. Baptism has enormous significance, but you may not be in a place or in circumstances where baptism is possible. God sees your circumstances. I include here the invitation from Billy Graham’s ministry made available on The song may be the one used by Billy Graham for so many years, Just as I Am. Then, the music might be Aaron Neville’s I know I’ve Been Changed. Here is basic Christianity, 101.

Where are you?

Will you receive Jesus Christ right now?

Here is how you can receive Christ:

1.Admit your need (I am a sinner).
2.Be willing to turn from your sins (repent).
3.Believe that Jesus Christ died for you on the Cross and rose from the grave.
4.Through prayer, invite Jesus Christ to come in and control your life through the Holy Spirit. (Receive Him as Lord and Savior.)

How to Pray:

Dear Lord Jesus,

I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as Lord and Savior.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

God’s Assurance: His Word

If you prayed this prayer,

The Bible says…

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13

Did you sincerely ask Jesus Christ to come into your life? Where is He right now? What has He given you?

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9

“He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:12-13

Receiving Christ, we are born into God’s family through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer. This is called regeneration, or the “new birth.”

[If you prayed this prayer, send me an email.  Tell me about it.]


Let’s take a little expedition from our coffee house. For music, let’s start with Robert Johnson’s Down at the Crossroads, then Leadbelly’s Gallows Pole. Then to the Allman Brothers’ Come on in my Kitchen, and finally, the men of Holmesburg Prison, singing, ‘This Little Light of Mine’ with the refrain:

‘Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want.

Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want.

Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want.

You just call him up, and tell him what you want.’

In 1986, I became acquainted with Chuck Colson’s organization, Prison Fellowship. I began by reading some of his newsletters. I remembered him for his role in the Watergate conspiracy and criminal indictments, although I was not a lawyer at the time (I graduated from Widener Law School in 1993). I engaged with the organization and began a pen-pal relationship with an inmate in Texas. That was a positive experience, and later that year I engaged with the Philadelphia office of Prison Fellowship to become an active visitor to inmates.

There was a training program that Prison Fellowship required for anyone who wanted to do in-prison ministry, which I attended. The head of the Philadelphia office was a pleasant, intelligent man, and I remember attending some sessions there – typically, of a dozen or so volunteers being trained at that time, I was the only Caucasian. It turned out that at that time, Prison Fellowship had no regular in-prison ministry in Philadelphia, other organizations, often much smaller, having dominated the field for a number of years. After training, we did meet at a few locations in West Philadelphia, where we intended to offer support as a group for ex-offenders. One meeting place was in a small church on a block that itself was a modest, working class type of neighborhood. But if you walked a block or two away, the neighborhood was stark, burned-out looking, with abandoned homes, boarded windows, graffiti, ghastly overhead fluorescent street lights, broken curbs and empty, trash-filled lots lining the street.

One conversation I had with some other volunteers in our support group (they were drawn from a larger group than those I had trained with), was a couple who were in their fifties at the time, I would guess. They were originally from Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Romania?), who were devoted Christians, and had been incarcerated by the Communists in Eastern Europe in the 1970s or 1980s. I thought that being a Christian, incarcerated in one of the Eastern Europe countries by Communists, would be about the toughest, most difficult kind of incarceration there was. But the man corrected my impression:

“No, it wasn’t too bad at all,” he explained, calmly. “All the best people were in prison.”

Through Prison Fellowship, I was put in touch with local pastors or religious leaders who were involved with in-prison ministries. Ultimately, I reached Bishop William Kinning by telephone, leader of a Philadelphia in-prison ministry group, Overcoming Church of Deliverance. I’m not sure where or whether the church had regular Sunday services, but Bishop Kinning was a chaplain for Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Overcoming was an African-American Pentecostal small church style of ministry. People involved included Alvin Walker, Josephine Barnes, and Jeanine – all African-American, all serious about their faith and prison ministry. Bishop Kinning, a man about 50 years old, 5’8” and mild in appearance and manner, with short hair and a solid build, would regularly conduct services in Holmesburg Prison, typically on a Thursday evening. Sometimes it would just be the Overcoming Group, but he often coordinated to bring other groups in with him, which were often larger. One such group was a Prison Fellowship Group, but other groups or churches around the city of Philadelphia would coordinate with him, to gain access to Holmesburg. One group that frequently came was from a group I believe was called Deliverance Evangelistic Church, based in North Philadelphia.

In order for me to enter Holmesburg Prison and conduct any ministry activities there, I had to gain that access through Bishop Kinning. We made arrangements to meet for dinner on an Thursday evening when he was scheduled to be responsible for the inmate evening services; responsibility might include him conducting the services, or coordinating the activities of another group. The place he suggested was the Franklin Diner, somewhere (I think) in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. I’m not sure it’s still there, at least by that name, but it was a fairly standard diner with the usual menu.

Bishop Kinning came with Alvin Walker, built like a short middle-linebacker, who was quiet during our dinner, although the time would come when I would hear Alvin Walker preach himself. He proved himself to be a preacher, at least in the gymnasium of Holmesburg Prison, where services were held and where he had done time, unlike any other. When Alvin preached inside Holmesburg Prison, he would invade the chairs of the resident congregation, get face to face with his audience, jump up and down, tear open his own heart, and walk into mine. He knew his audience, knew and felt the Good News, the bad news, all the news of the human condition – a plumber by trade, someone up close and personal with the grit of life. Later on we would trade stories. When he was incarcerated in Holmesburg, his wife would come to visit him, angry that he had put himself there, and dressed and perfumed to show him what he was missing. He concluded that story with a long, low growl or moan.

Our conversation over dinner revolved around the respective role and entrée that Bishop Kinning had in the Philadelphia prison system as an authorized or recognized outside chaplain, in comparison to the role that Prison Fellowship, new to the area, could assume. I remember the young waitress giving us a quizzical look, whether because she overhead snippets of our conversation, or because we made an odd grouping, two African-American men and a younger Caucasian man, talking in a business-like way, but not in a way that looked like a drug deal. However she read us and our faces, it was probably evident to her our purposes were neither ordinary business, or ordinary crime.

When dinner concluded around 8:30 or so, apparently Bishop Kinning was satisfied with me. He made a telephone call at a pay phone inside the restaurant near the front door, then returned and said emphatically, “We’re going in,” referring to Holmesburg. Since I had never been to Holmesburg Prison and had driven to the Franklin Diner in my car, I followed Bishop Kinning. As I followed him, it became clear his attitude toward traffic law was somewhat like Jesus’ attitude toward dietary laws or doing work on a Sabbath. He ran every single red light on our way to Holmesburg Prison, and not just by a few seconds. I think we were traveling generally on Torresdale Avenue – but, wherever, it didn’t matter what color the traffic lights were, or when. Philadelphia’s traffic signals held no power over Bishop William Kinning.

Holmesburg Prison appeared at the front entrance to be a dark, built of stone, cold, musty, forbidding, doleful, half-castle half-dungeon of an old Philadelphia maximum-security prison, with walls stretching up and down on either side along Torresdale Avenue. If there had been anything to see, the lighting was inadequate and sparse. Behind the entry building and the walls facing Torresdale Avenue there was a hub and spoke structure where the prisoners were housed in their cells on the spokes, with the central guard structure at the hub. Holmesburg was built in 1896, and in 1987 was nearing the end of its useful life, if it ever had one.

Over extended periods of time, prisoners were subject to dreadful medical or experimental trials in Holmesburg, which they were manipulated into by payments of small sums of money to get them to volunteer. The testing included exposure to microwave radiation, sulfuric acid, carbonic acid, Hong Kong flu, poison ivy, poison oak, acutely toxic chemical compounds related to testing of chemical warfare compounds, incapacitating agents, dioxin, and various chemical agents. Payments for the medical experiments would be used for bail, which was the carrot that made the prisoners so willing to be volunteers. The practice of ‘voluntary medical trials’ had ended (but not until 1974) by the time I was involved, but the general atomosphere of the place was as grim as a medieval torture chamber. Holmesburg Prison was completely non-automated, contrary to modern prison design, which loves long hallways, glass everywhere, and duplicate or triplicate sliding doors operated remotely by the hands of watching guards separated from the prisoners by multiple walls of shatter-proof safety glass.

Once permission was granted to enter in at the front gate (they were always checking lists of names on various papers at the front gate entrance – being with Bishop Kinning avoided that on my first visit.) Then there was a wait at another guard station. If you were permitted to go further, there was a desk area (on one later visit I saw a cockroach the size of a mouse, sitting brazenly on a computer terminal in this area), with a security pass-through point. The keys to go through to the next area were lowered down from a second-story terrace or walkway, by a string, to the guards on the first level below. There were supervisory corrections officers, guards, visitors, volunteers, and others milling around in the desk area.

As it happened, my entrance into Holmesburg Prison, roughly around Lincoln’s Birthday in February, 1987, perhaps February 12, with Bishop Kinning and Alvin Walker was a large group event, because a large contingent of volunteers, including a pastor, was coming in also as guests of Bishop Kinning. I believe the group was from Deliverance Evangelistic Church; in any event, the number of visiting ministry guests they assembled was probably about 12 or 15 including one of their associate pastors. Once we passed through the security checkpoint, then the way into the prison passed through an open courtyard, passing between two of the spokes where the cells were, and from there through a stone vestibule, with its own interior stone walls on either side, into the area of the hub where the interior guard tower, behind glass walls, was situated. Our group was passing through the hub, being led by a corrections officer. The prisoners in all blue prison garb were walking around and through the open area of the hub. It was more free-form than I would have expected in a maximum security prison.

We were being led to the gymnasium where the evening inmate services were held. As we walked, I could see down one of the spikes to the prisoners, standing in the very long low hall outside their cells, congregated in small groups, or in pairs or single, staring back at us. My first view down one of the spokes, to the faces of those men, was one of the most intimidating sights I have ever experienced. Their lives, their misdeeds and crimes, their anger, their envy, their curiosity about us, a platoon of visitors, their suffering, the atmosphere of a prison with its suppressed violence, whispered conspiracies and desperation, were written in hard lines on their faces – faces knotted up in small groups down the long, low, narrow deteriorating hall, with the doors of the individual cells visibly spaced along it. Most of the men wandering around in the hub were African-American, but not all – as I looked down the opening into first spoke we passed, only African-American faces looked back.

We were led down another spoke that did not have cells along it, and the atmosphere resembled a Hollywood movie rendition of entering hell. Whatever covering was placed on the walls, which looked like they were original to the 19th century, was peeling off in large pieces. The heating system of the prison was apparently some type of forced steam – as we walked, steam emerged from vents in small clouds. As soon as our entire group passed into the spoke, the sliding steel door was slammed shut behind us. The ceiling was low and the walls were close and although I am not subject to claustrophobia, I could not help but feel it. We arrived at the entrance to the gym; another sliding steel door was opened and after we entered, slammed shut behind us. We in the middle of a large open area, the size of a high-school basketball court, with a much higher ceiling, concrete floor and I think masonry block walls. The gymnasium was not new, but it was newer than the part of the prison we had just walked through.

There were already musical instruments and a small amplifier set up in the front of the gym – for purposes of the church service, the ‘front’ was at the other end from the entrance; as in any church, we had come in at the rear of the nave. People were milling about, Bishop Kinning and Alvin Walker made their way to inmates who were well-known to them, and the volunteer group I was with, none of whom I knew, congregated with each other. The only two guards around were an African-American woman of about 40 years of age, not visibly wearing any weapon of any kind, who was about 5’1 and weighed perhaps 140 pounds. She was talking to an African-American man of about 60 years of age, who was about 5’5, and probably also weighed about 140 pounds. He also was not wearing any visible weapon of any kind. They were casually chatting near the entrance door, which was, in our new ‘church orientation’ in the space, at our rear. I was standing by myself.

It is uncomfortable to be a new person in any new place where you know few people and no one is talking to you. It wasn’t only that my skin color was a different shade than almost everyone there – nor did I feel any sense of threat – it was just the ordinary social awkwardness and embarrassment of standing entirely alone when everyone else is socializing. No one was talking to me, and I was conspicuous for that reason. After a couple of minutes that stretched for me like a very long time, an inmate came over and started up a conversation with me. His name was (and is) Darryl Blackwell, and my gratitude to him for coming over and talking to me was not small. Darryl was about 5’10”, maybe 160 pounds, African-American, with curly hair and an alert, interested kind of demeanor. Eventually he would become an inmate associate pastor, then inmate pastor for the Church Behind the Wall, as his incarceration at Holmesburg stretched out to two years, before he entered his plea as a result of a plea bargain and was transferred to a state correctional institution. As it would happen, I developed a lifetime friendship with Darryl, represented him in a legal appeal when I became a lawyer years later, and correspond with him often to this day and visit him from time to time where he is currently incarcerated in the state correctional facility at Mahanoy. In the next installment of this narrative, the reasons for his incarceration will appear.

There were folding chairs, maybe about 100, set up in the gymnasium, and a about 15 or 20 were brought over so we, the visitors to the service who would also conduct the service on behalf of Bishop Kinning, could be seated. Our seating was approximately similar to how a choir would be seated, on one side of the podium, more less facing the congregation. On the other side of the podium was the five or so inmate musicians who were providing the music. Bishop Kinning had his own seat near the podium, as did Alvin Walker and the associate pastor from Deliverance. The congregation was composed of about 60 or so men, mostly African American but not all. All were dressed in loose-fitting Holmesburg blue, that were fitted and looked almost like pajamas for outdoor wear (that have recently become fashionable). Their faces and their expressions were not as hard as the men I had seen as I looked down one of the spokes – whatever their individual stories were, they didn’t look as angry. When Bishop Kinning commenced the service, Darryl, who was still relatively new, took his seat with the congregation.

As we were sitting there, and the first opening remarks were being made, the Holmesburg depression caught up with me. ‘How did I get here?’ I was asking myself. ‘What course of events, or beliefs, led me to being here?’ The fear of never getting out – whether what held me there was an actual prison sentence, or a religious commitment that could never be escaped – the net result seemed almost the same. I was in a shut-in place, and the depression of it settled in on me. Volunteer or inmate, the sound of someone slamming a steel door behind you, when its meaning is ‘there you are, trapped in’ – is potent and somber. Because of my depression, some time elapsed before I was listening to much of anything, and it wasn’t until we started the music that I began to perk up.

The music was extraordinary. The voices were extraordinary, the musicians were excellent, but the most extraordinary part was the reverberation that the concrete floors, masonry block walls, high ceiling and steel doors and barred high windows created. There is a powerful haunting echo to live prison music – it is harsh, it is melodic, it is soulful. The men sang and clapped in unison to ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ singing all sorts of refrains and lyrics, including the ones set down at the beginning of this piece of writing – ‘Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want – you just call him up and tell him what you want.’ All of us stood and clapped and sang in unison, to the simple words and tough masculine vocals of men in prison. The reverberating echo and repeating refrains went on and on.

We had women volunteers with us, and one of them had a trained voice. I don’t know which song we were singing, nor could I even see the woman from where I was seated, but she took over the soprano part of one song altogether and started to improvise. She would have had a strong voice anywhere, but in the concrete gym of Holmesburg Prison, she had the volume of a choir of angels. She must have relocated her seat, from the volunteer area to the area where the resident prisoners were sitting, possibly because she wanted to sit with her son, nephew, brother or other male relative. She started hitting high notes, and then higher notes still. The rest of us, inmates, musicians, volunteers, were repeating choruses, and she was winging it all on her own, without words, just notes, climbing higher and higher. At one point, she hit a note that was so high and so shrill, and so beautiful it was heart-stopping, and then she just held that note. She just held it – second after second after second – without the slightest waver or modulation – whether it was a note of screaming or singing or both – and that voice and that note started to capture everything: the cruelty and tragedy of prison, the suffering of the men, the crimes of the men, the pain of the prisoners and their victims and their families and the community, the hardships of long term incarceration, the meanness and horror of Holmesburg, the unstoppable joy of the gospel, the power of the human spirit, the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ , the undying faith and resilience of the African-American community in the inner city of North Philadelphia – everything was packed into that note that woman sang and held. It was screaming and singing and praying and weeping and shouting hallelujah all together at once, and it reverberated and echoed all across that gym, through those slammed steel doors and down that spoke into the hub of Holmesburg Prison, I ‘m sure. It has never stopped reverberating in my heart.

That note and that singing ended my depression. Bishop Kinning and the associate pastor conducted their service and preached their sermons in good African-American Pentecostal, congregation-responding-with-shouts-back-and-many-amens style. It was emotional, it was defiant, it was reverent before God. We shook hands and hugged at the end of the evening, and the volunteers were led back out by the elderly guard who had stayed at the back during the entire service. Even though I was living in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania at the time, a pretty good drive from Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, I found the drive home to be no problem at all.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: