Church-rebuilding teaches students to break down walls

McWilson halted, mid-sentence, and shot back, "You snap your fingers for a dog, not at me."

The thespian was the last person Potash expected to see at Hillel, where Latino, Asian-Pacific, African-American and Jewish groups had gathered to plan a mission. They would travel to Alabama during their spring break to help rebuild a burned-out black church.

It wasn't that McWilson looked out of place in a Jewish house of worship. At least, no more so than the others.

It was just that the sight of McWilson set Potash on edge, creating reservations about how the actor would fit in. Yet, by the time the voyage to the Deep South got under way, it was questionable whether anyone really fit in.

Together, the young idealists planned to rebuild an African-American house of worship called the Rising Star. More importantly, they wanted to be shining examples of how well a group of multicultural strangers could harmonize when social justice called.

It wouldn't be an easy journey.

The red-eye flight from Oakland to Birmingham was self-segregated, Potash recalled. Not until the 23 students arrived at the Quaker work camp in Greensboro did the student groups begin talking.

"We had to communicate to arrange our sleeping cots, or how to carry two-by-fours from here to there," Potash joked.

McWilson added, "You can only talk about superficial things for so long."

Two Quakers by the name of Ed and Harold ran the work camp. They were a no-nonsense pair and lectured the group on following the rules — early to rise, work 9 to 4, 10 p.m. quiet time and lights out at 10:30 p.m.

"We were adults, and they had established a bedtime for us," Potash said. "They showed us a video on the half-hour morning circle for meditation. Some students wondered if the Quakers were trying to shove something down their throat."

The students attended the circle anyway and scribbled silently in their journals. Some meditated under headphones.

"We all knew it was intended as a sharing time, but no one wanted to take a step in that direction," Potash said.

Harold, on the other hand, shared metaphors with the group that hinted at what was wrong with them — if a potter goes about making a pot and the clay is not centered on the wheel, one side will be thin and the other thick, and the pot will disintegrate — or something like that.

The church-building got under way on the first day. In eight days, the workers would raise the frame and nail up Sheetrock walls. All the days were long, hot and humid, and the white students burned. But then, everyone turned red from the dust that lifted off the baked clay ground and found its way inside sleeping bags and duffels.

To the foreman's chagrin, the students took frequent breaks to film themselves on a camcorder. Potash interviewed McWilson. On film, he asked race questions he didn't dare ask otherwise. It was for the documentary.

Local children were fascinated by the camcorder. Potash and his filming buddies showed them how to use it. "They were from households where video equipment was rare. It was fun for us, and they showed no fear about our difference."

The Greensboro community — which was predominantly black — seemed to appreciate the students.

They invited them to a church service and treated them to an old-fashioned Southern feast. No one could complain about the hearty soul food, except Yossi Hets-Ohana — fried catfish and pork patties were too far from his kosher diet.

While the students made fast friends with the community, tensions within the group simmered. The simmer broke into a rolling boil on the day they visited a local historic mansion.

Hidden behind a grove of leafy, oversized magnolias, the Magnolia Grove manor wasn't a plantation in the formal sense, but its former owners were a family of above-average means. Besides priceless paintings and crystal chandeliers, they had owned 11 African-American slaves.

The black students whispered among themselves during the entire tour.

"Several were sitting on the antique furniture and didn't give a hoot who owned it," Potash recalled. "One African-American woman said, `I want to burn this house.' She jumped on the beds.

"Everyone was wondering about the slave houses. We had to ask to see them."

The former slave houses were small, shabby buildings behind the manor. They appeared to be under construction and the students asked about it.

One of the Jewish students became upset that the slave houses were being restored. He said it was like gussying up a concentration camp for tourists. He asked the tour guide to repeat the renovation tale on the camcorder.

On the way back to the camp, the students argued. The black students were particularly steamed.

"Eleven slaves lived on the premises of a family of nine whites," Potash explained. "If the tour was supposed to be representative of the people who lived there, it was expected that more attention would be given to the slaves. [The tour guides] assumed that the lives of blacks weren't worth much."

Matt, a white high school student who had joined the group, felt uncomfortable about the ordeal and later tried to defend the tour, which spurred even more bickering.

Matt began to yell, "Look, I didn't look to be part of this multicultural experience!"

McWilson, who was showing a couple of guitar chords to Potash, laughed and shook his head. He called across the bus that Matt was sheltered. And mayhem broke out. The black studies, political science and rhetoric students clung fast to their own worldviews.

La Raza leader José Arrias finally silenced the yammering.

We are all sheltered in some way, he told the students. "You should always agree to be a green fruit because if you're not a green fruit anymore, then you are ripe and the only thing you have to look forward to is rotting. A green fruit has his eyes open to receive new world experiences."

By then, the bus had pulled in to the work camp. But no one got off. They sat in the bus in silence.

"No one could get up because everyone was so riled up with tension," Potash said. "We had all come to share the experience [of rebuilding the church], not split over how a manor is portrayed."

Yet somehow, the manor tour knocked down a few walls that stood between each student group. In the remaining days, the students would continue to breach their walls while raising new ones for the Rising Star in Greensboro. They began to share songs, prayers and other personal experiences.

The Jewish students held a Shabbat service for the group. They formed a human circle at the altar of the new church and taught everyone the words to Jewish songs and prayers such as "Lecha Dodi," the welcoming of the Shabbat bride, and Hamotzi, the blessing over the bread.

McWilson later taught the group a Spike Lee-inspired military rap, "Roll Call," in which everyone sings on cue two lines about themselves.

"He was pushing one of his black friends to do some rap on the spot. The guy was resisting," Potash said.

"After a while, I said, `I'll do it,'" and chanted a ditty about their trip, work and rest. "When he saw me tapping into his culture that way it created a bond."

For the others too, whatever hard words flew during the week appeared to have vanished with the ashes of the old church.

"It's hard to mistrust someone after you've broken bread and held hands in prayer," McWilson said. "If we had been at Cal, where no one leaves their cliques or comfort zone, we wouldn't have gotten to know each other."

Potash agreed. "There was a sense for all of us that we had just had a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

On the plane home, the students tuned in to the same taped music. Wearing airplane headphones, they danced in the aisles to Al Green's "Love and Happiness." The flight attendants managed to ignore even the pillow fight. After all, it was just a war of feathers, not words.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.