Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, I should have started out with an awareness of people of color: My state of birth was named for a native American people group; the city in which I lived was named for the great Sioux nation of native Americans, as were South Sioux City, the Little Sioux and Big Sioux rivers that bracketed us on the east and west; Indian names of towns, cities and places by the thousands existed in our state and all those surrounding us.
But there were no nearby populations of native Americans, (that I knew of), and I was oblivious of the whole significance on a personal level. In school I read about the French and Indian war, and read about cowboys and Indians in Zane Grey and Hopalong Cassidy novels, but again-no personal experience with Indians in my childhood and youth.
There were African Americans in Sioux City, but almost all of them worked and lived and went to school in Morningside, (name for eastern area of Sioux City). There wasn’t a single black in either my grammar or middle school.
My first personal contact occurred on a train trip, probably when I was in middle school. My Daddy was the Chief Clerk on the Sioux City Division of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. It was during the Great Depression, and since we could travel free on the trains, my folks decided to take a trip to Chicago for our family vacation. Whoopee! I loved the railroad in general, and riding trains in particular, though up till this time I had only made short trips down to my grandparents’ farm near Omaha, riding in a Day Coach. This trip would be a 500 mile overnight to the Big City, riding in a Pullman Sleeping Car! Was I excited!
The train from St. Paul/Minneapolis to Omaha pulled into Sioux City in late evening, and we boarded our Pullman. We were welcomed by a handsome black man in a snappy uniform, who introduced himself as the Pullman Porter, who would be our host all the way to Chicago. The Pullman cars had sections on each side of the aisle, each section contained two bench seats facing each other, on which four people could sit for daytime riding. I asked Daddy where we were going to sleep. He laughed, and told me to watch the Porter, who was about to make up our berths.
I was fascinated. He folded down the bench seats which moved together to make the lower berth bed. Then he pulled down a long wall panel that was hinged just above the windows and extended to the ceiling. When it reached the horizontal it was stopped by a cable at each end, and I could see that there was a mattress on it. Voila, the upper berth was in place. He put the bedclothes on the two beds, and hooked a hammock-like net on the wall. This was to put your clothes in as you switched to pajamas after getting in your berth. He then installed heavy curtains between the sections, and along the aisle. Behold, a cozy little two story bedroom, half railroad car and half tent. Then he went to the next section and so on till every section was ready for the sleepy passengers.
The drill went like this. While the Porter made up our section, we went to the restroom, men on one end of the car, women on the other. We brushed our teeth and went to the toilet, hoping we didn’t have to return during the night. We went back to our section, the Porter put up a ladder so my brother and I could climb up to the upper berth, and Mother and Daddy got into the lower berth. The curtains were closed, we changed to our jammys, which was no easy feat, and were committed for the night. I loved it. What an adventure! I thought that the Porters were the luckiest people on earth, riding the train, helping people enjoy their ride day and night, and getting paid for it! Since all the Porters were black, I figured that I didn’t qualify. How sad!
In the morning, we reversed the process. After we got dressed and hit the restrooms, we headed for the dining car for breakfast. Another adventure which was new to me this trip. We took our seats at a table in the beautifully appointed dining car, looking so very formal. The waiters were all handsome black men, perfectly attired, proper and friendly at the same time. Our waiter came up to take our order, asking me if I wanted some oatmeal for breakfast. I shuddered, and said I didn’t like oatmeal. He said, “Honey-chile, I am going to bring you some oatmeal, and you sure are going to love it.” What could I say? He brought our order and took care of my brother and parents first, then he set down a bowl of oatmeal with melted butter floating on top. He sprinkled it with brown sugar and raisins, and put a little pitcher of cream for me to use as desired. I poured on some cream, and gave it a taste. Yum yum! When I had finished, not a speck of the generous helping was left. When he picked up our plates he gave me a big I-told-you-so smile. He was right. I have loved oatmeal ever since. I was hooked on black people.
My next interaction with an African-American was in high-school. All through grammar and middle school I had an exclusive friend by the name of Neil Bohner. We did everything together, and since he lived only two doors away from me, that meant all the time, at school or at home. But when we got to high-school, Neil dropped me like I was a poison-ivy plant. I never did find out why. But I was friendless in a 2,300 student high-school, and being exceedingly shy, I didn’t know how to make any friends.
I was in the Central High band all three years I was there, doing a mediocre job of playing the clarinet. There was a black student in the band who played the trombone. His name was James Cabell and as far as I know, he was the only black student in the whole school. Everybody was friendly enough with him to call him by his nick-name, Cowbell, but that seemed to be as far as it went. I had a positive bias towards blacks from my above mentioned contacts, so I wondered if I could get him to be my friend. Cowbell was a wonderful, friendly young man, always smiling, and we hit it off immediately. And guess what? His father was a Pullman Porter on my Daddy’s railroad! I didn’t live near enough to him to make it another Neil Bohner setup, but we were pals around school and were together at all band functions, and we would sometimes get together on Saturday afternoon to go to a movie and eat a pound of cheap chocolates between us. I love every memory of you, Cowbell!
My next blessing from an African-American was during my army days. I was on a train going from one base to another. When luncheon was announced, I headed for the diner. As I entered the car, all tables were occupied, but one table for four had only one person at it. He was a large, very handsome and very well dressed black man, who looked vaguely familiar to me. A black waiter, the usual fine specimen, asked me if I would like to share the table with the lone black instead of waiting. I told him, “With pleasure!” So he seated me. I was in uniform, so the gentleman asked me where I was going. We exchanged a few words, and a waiter showed up with a huge, beautiful salad for my tablemate. I asked him what they called that salad, as I sure wanted to order the same thing. He laughed and said it was not on the menu. He was a movie star and the doting dining car staff made it up for him special. H called a waiter and told him the salad was way more than he could eat, and asked him to bring another plate. When the plate arrived, my tablemate divided the salad with me, and we indeed both had enough to satisfy our appetites. I enjoyed his company while we ate, and I thanked him profusely for letting me in on his great deal.
What a gracious gentleman!
Early in our days at the Chapel, we became acquainted with a beautiful black couple who headed up the Youth For Christ ministry in a nearby city. Their last name was Washington. They were gifted musicians, she being a graduate of the Julliard School of Music in piano and organ. We were planning an inter-church youth event and booked the Old Oak Christian Campground for the event. I contacted the Washingtons and asked them if they would come and lead the extended worship time we were planning, to which they assented. I asked her which she would prefer, the old upright piano at the camp, or the Chapel’s spinet Hammond organ. She wanted the organ, so we hauled it out when we went to set up. At the event, he led the singing and she played the organ. Glory, we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Never had music like that come out of that organ, before or since. I felt like moving to their city and sitting under their ministry. What a blessing they were everywhere they went!
Our daughter, Janet, was isolated with Alva as care-giver in Stanford Hospital’s facilities after her bone-marrow transplant, the last hope in the treatment of her lymphoma. I was across the Bay at a home in Fremont, and would visit every day, but had to go back to Fremont every night. One Sunday I needed to go to church, and decided to attend a Baptist church I had noticed in driving between Palo Alto and Fremont. I had stopped to read their sign and found out when the services started. On Sunday morning, I showed up a little early and turned into their campus. As I got closer, I noticed the few people in sight were black. Not to worry, besides, it was probably an integrated church. I parked and entered the sanctuary as the service was about to start. As I looked around, I was the only non-black. A lady greeted me, I explained my situation briefly and sat down. It was an excellent service, with great music and sermon. After the benediction, a matronly lady nearby approached with a big smile and greeted me, so I offered my hand in reply. She stopped, ignoring my hand, and said reprovingly, “I was expecting a hug!” I quickly obliged and got a warm hug. I thanked her and told her that’s what we do at our church. They not only didn’t kick me out, they treated me as one of their own. I was greatly blessed at a time when I needed such a blessing. I could tell more black stories, but you get the picture.
My only personal exposure to native Americans occurred in my army days. I was stationed at a Signal Corps overseas replacement depot in Sea Girt, New Jersey. We were living in tents, and I and a huge native American were assigned to the same tent. I don’t remember his name, and don’t recall that he ever told me what tribe he came from. But for all his size, he was a gentle, mellow guy and we got along very well. We seemed to be kidding each other and laughing a lot. He certainly displayed no rancor for what the white man had done to his race.
I did have a problem with him after dark – if I didn’t get soundly asleep before he did, I was a goner. He was a champion at snoring! No matter how tired I was, I could not get to sleep if he was snoring. I discussed the problem with him, and he was sympathetic. I wasn’t the first one who had been troubled by his magnificent repertoire. He told me to throw a shoe at him, which might jolt him awake long enough for me to get to sleep. So I tried it. A direct hit would jolt him awake, sort of. But he would beat me back to sleep. I would finally get to sleep, but the next morning I would have to go over and recover my shoes, canteen, mess-kit, and whatever else I had thrown at him during the night. I departed soon before I could seriously suffer from sleep deprivation, still good friends. Could he have subconsciously been avenging me for what my forefathers did to his forefathers? I am afraid I will never know.
The next exposure to people of color involved Latinos, specifically the light brown of Mexican Americans. After the Chapel was invaded by the Frank Gonzales Evangelistic Association, Alva and I were deluged with and fell in love with Mexican Americans: Frank himself, Lillian and Ruth Roque and their mother, Yolanda Sesma and her family, Gene Valenciana and his parents, and so forth ad infinitum. Lillian, Ruth and Yolanda all ended up being “foster daughters,” Ruth, who lived with us before she married Willard Benning, knew I did a lot of cooking, and made me an apron on which she sewed a brown heart where my heart would be under the apron. I guess the brown heart was in recognition of my love for my new Mexican friends. Many decades later it’s still there and growing.
After black, red and brown, now for a couple of contacts with yellow. Stanley Yu and his wife, Roberta, were born and raised in China. They emigrated to the United States to escape the Communist takeover of China. Their two sons and two daughters were born in America. The parents were saved under the ministry of CMA (Christian Missionary Alliance) in China. CMA recognized Stanley’s giftings and calling, and put him through their Bible College. There they recognized his brilliance, and sent him to the USA to a four year college and three years of seminary. During that seven years, they both became fluent in English, and began raising their family. Stanley couldn’t be a missionary to his fellow Chinese in China, but became an evangelist to the many “China-towns” all over the world. He was filled with the Spirit, and definitely had the gift of Evangelism. Somehow we got connected, I don’t remember just how. The Chapel in general and the Peters in particular meshed beautifully with them from the start. They would stay with us each time they were able to come up, (they lived in the Bay area), and we became fast friends. Stanley would share each time the miracles that God was doing in his ministry to the Chinese diaspora. Stanley teased me about white people being lower on the evolutionary tree than Chinese, who had so much less bodily hair than we did. Indeed, Stanley had almost no facial hair or hair on his arms. What could I say? We were indeed closer to the apes than he. (Of course, neither of us believed in evolution.) He redeemed himself with me a little bit when he told Alva that I was a better cook than she. We were all great friends.
And then there was Eiko Stevens. Her husband, Bill, found her when he was stationed in Japan after the war. I didn’t hear the story of how he captured her and brought her back to the States, but when we became acquainted with them they were both devout Christians, serving with Bridges For Peace in Israel. Eiko got her license from the Israeli government as a tour guide, and was employed by the various tour companies to lead Japanese tour groups. She was able to openly and vigorously evangelize them in their own language and had much success. When the tour group was from a Japanese church, they would speak of her back home and she began to be invited to conduct evangelistic meetings in Japan, also with much success. When she and Bill spoke at the Chapel, or whenever our paths crossed, Eiko’s sparkling personality and love for Jesus charmed us all!
Viva to the people of color. What precious jewels of the Lord you are. How you have blessed me and my family. ‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you! (Philippians 1:3)