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Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

July 4, 2011 1 comment

If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.

 

 

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North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

 

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Church is universally the tie that binds and the salve that heals. Its significance in the black community is even more profound given African Americans’ historical disenfranchisement.

“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.

“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”

He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.

With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.

The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.

Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.


Apostle Vanessa Ward
, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.

“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.

©photo by Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Star

 

 

An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.

“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.

“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”

She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.

A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.

“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”

She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.

“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.

She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.

“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”

She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.

“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.

“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”

For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.

There’s much to emulate. Her leadership’s helped make the area’s Central Park Neighborhood Association a proactive force for positive change.

Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.

Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.

It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”

Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.

“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”

If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.

Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”


Rev. Portia Cavitt
, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.

When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.

 

 

Pastor Portia Cavitt

 

 

She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.

Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.

She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”

For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.

Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.

“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.

“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”

 

 

Clair Memorial United Methodist Church

 

 

If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved  — if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”

The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”

Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”

Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some  — making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”

The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”

The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”


Rev. Jeremiah McGhee
, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.

Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.

“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.

 

Rev. Jeremiah McGhee

 

 

 

For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants. “We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. par

Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.

Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”

He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.

“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”

McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.

All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.

He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”

Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.

“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”

In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.

“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.

He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.

“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”

He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.

“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.

All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”

“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”

He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.

“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”


Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church
, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.

The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.

 

 

Morning Star Baptist Church

 

 

Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions  — poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.

Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.

“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”

Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.

As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.

He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.

He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”

An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.

This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”

Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.

 

 

Pastor LeRoy Adams with wife Traci

 

 

The black church is also a model for other faith groups.

“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.

Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.

“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”

Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”


Selwyn Bachus
, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.

Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.

 

 

Pastor Selwyn Bachus

 

 

He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.

“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.

Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.

That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.

Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.

Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.

The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.

“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”

The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”

He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.

“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”

 

 

Salem Baptist Church

 

 

Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”

Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.

The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par

“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”

He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key  indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.

Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”

If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.

More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause

©by Leo Adam Biga

Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.

African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.

After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.

“It has not come back since then,” he says.

After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.

 

 

A service at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church

 

 

His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.

“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”

He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.

An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.

For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.


Fr. Tom Fangman
, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.

The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.

Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.

Sacred Heart Church

The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.

“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”

Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”

The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”


Rev. Johnice Orduna
, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.

Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.

As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.

Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.

Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.

“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”

 

 

New Life Presbyterian Church

 

 

She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”

In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.

“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.

“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”

Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

July 4, 2011 44 comments

With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.

 

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.

Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.

The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.

Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.

Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.

Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.

Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.

“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”

 

Felecia Webster

 

 

What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.

Nate Goldston III  left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.

“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.

He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.

“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.

He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”

New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”

Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”

He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”

 

 


Nate Goldston III

 

 

Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.

“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”

He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.

Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying  employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”

Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.

“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.

 An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.

“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”

Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”

 

 

Cathy Hughes

 

 

Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.

“It has a long ways to go,” she said.

Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.

Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.

“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”

All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.

Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”

Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.

Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.

Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.

Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.

“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.

“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”

Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.

Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.

“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.

 

 


Carleen Brice

 

 

“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”

Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”

Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.

“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”

 

 

Beaufield Berry

 

 

But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”

Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.

“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

photo

Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now and All the Days Gone By

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
photo

photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

Rich Music History Long Untold Revealed and Celebrated at Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

July 2, 2011 26 comments

Six years ago an enthusiastic gentleman by the name of Vaughn Chatman introduced me to his missionary zeal for our shared hometown of Omaha and his mission to bring attention to its rich black music heritage. He founded the Omaha Black Music as a public celebration of the large gallery of black music artists who have come from this place. Soon, the event morphed into honored not only blacks who distinguished themselves in music but in other fields of endeavor as well, and thus the event came to be known as the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. I have interviewed many of the inductees in the Hall, including:

Preston Love Sr.

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Lois “Lady Mac” McDonald

Helen Jones Woods

Cathy Hughes

You’ll find their stories and the stories of other inductees on this blog site. The event took a sabbatical a while back but is returning this year, July 29, at the Slowdown during Native Omaha Days. My story below appeared on the eve of the inaugural Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame .  I hope to write about this year’s event.

Rich Music History Long Untold Revealed and Celebrated at Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The fact that jazz and blues greats often played north Omaha’s live music haunts is well known. What’s not is this inner city’s huge roster of high-caliber musical talents. Enough Omaha artists have impacted the industry to rival the legacy of homies from historical music hotbeds like Kansas City. The contributions of these O-bred and born cats may add up to one of black music’s largest untold stories.

Bringing this weighty heritage to light “before it’s lost” motivated native Omahan Vaughn Chatman to create the new Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which honors 40 artists in an inaugural awards dinner August 4 at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs. The inductees range from such swing era figures as the late Preston Love, big band leader Lloyd Hunter and rock pioneer Wynonie Harris, right on up to such modern artists as percussionist Luigi Waites, jazz guitarist Calvin Keys, songwriter-singer Gene “Booker” McDaniels, drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, sideman/songwriter Arno Lucas and drummer/vocalist/keyboardist Lester Abrams.

“When you look at the overall picture, Omaha’s influenced all kinds of music and still does. Half the inductees are still out there playing and influencing the world,” Chatman said. “Buddy Miles came out of Omaha and went on to play with Jimi Hendrix (not to mention Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and a host of other legends). Lalomie Washburn started with Rufus and hooked up with Chaka Khan.”

The “awesome” Keys has played with everybody from Earl “Father” Hines to Ray Charles to Ahmad Jamal. McDaniels has written standards for many top artists, including the mega-hit Feel Like Makin’ Love for Roberta Flack. Lucas has collaborated with Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, et cetera. Abrams headed the Omaha-based grand funk group L.A. Carnival. Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris has shared the stage and earned accolades from the likes of B.B. King.

“If Omaha’s looking for something to be known for, this is what we should be known for. That we’ve turned out a number of artists who’ve achieved recognition everywhere in this country and all over the world. There was an era when this was a great place for musicians. They all influenced each other,” Chatman said.

Miles, co-founder of the legendary Band of Gypsies with Hendrix, said he and his contemporaries earned their chops “doing a lot of jamming.” He and many of the other inductees were peers on the burgeoning music scene here. “Everybody was into music. We all shared ideas and information. Any type of musical adventure or experience that presented itself, we went for it,” Keys said. Mentors abounded, too. Keys recalled how jazz master Ed ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson “lived in Omaha for awhile. He used to come down on the scene, too. He taught everybody. He was the guru. There was another guitar player here named Luther ‘Guitar’ Woodruff. We called him Papa. He was a big influence.”

 

 

Alesia Rae

 

 

Keys and company were schooled, too, by former Count Basie sideman Preston Love. “He helped a lot of us,” Keys said. Visiting artists infused more inspiration. “Every time Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, would come through town, he had stories we would listen to and he had some new chords he had learned. That made us hungry to work. Omaha was a melting pot. We were right in the center of everything and we were a window for a lot of stuff going on.”

Chatman, a musician-turned-attorney living in Fair Oaks, Calif., was among the young bloods learning from the hepcats, including his late older brother Percy, an inductee. Back in the day, music was everywhere. It was in the streets, the projects, the churches, the bars, the barbershops, the theaters and the nightclubs — the Dreamland and Carnation Ballrooms, the Showcase Lounge, the Elks Club, the Off-Beat Supper Club . These spots were proving grounds, launching pads, classrooms and stages where innovative chord changes, oh-so-sweet riffs and hot new licks tickled the night.

While some of Omaha’s brightest talents remained, most, like Keys, left to chart music careers — in jazz, blues, R & B, soul and funk — in a myriad of back rooms, studios, concert halls and stadiums, both here and abroad. Whether on stage or in sessions, on the road or back home, the artists took a piece of Omaha with them.

 

 

Calvin Keys

 

 

“Contrary to popular belief, Omaha was not just about jazz or Preston Love. A lot of genres thrived here. A lot of music developed here. A lot of remarkable talent trained here. Cats like Buddy Miles and Lester Abrams created a unique Omaha sound, a big bass sound, that they introduced wherever they went,” Chatman said.

The Hall of Fame awards dinner, which costs $35 a plate, is reuniting O-artists separated by years of touring and recording. McDaniels and fellow inductee Richetta Wilson, who perfomed with Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, are to do a duet that night. Coinciding with Native Omaha Days, the biennial African-American homecoming, the banquet promises a nostalgic celebration of the city’s fat music times. Proceeds are to fund music scholarships for minority youths. Chatman, whose event is slated every two years during the Days, is working with local educators in the hope that a curriculum will be designed to teach Omaha’s rich black music history in the public schools.

The local talent pool runs so deep there’s no end of potential future inductees. Among the leading contenders are sax man Buddy Tate and bass fiddle player Alvin “Junior” Raglin, who went on to fame with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, respectively. “The list goes on and on, A whole lot of talent has come out of Omaha,” Keys said. “Yeah, Omaha was a mecca to be reckoned with,” Miles added.

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’

July 2, 2011 10 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.

 


 

 

Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

June 22, 2011 9 comments

I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style.  This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny.  You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog.  I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.

 

 

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”

Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.

As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.

She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”

Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.

As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”

 

 

 

 

The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.

While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.

At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.

“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”

The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”

Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.

The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”

 

 

 

 

Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.

Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.

Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”

Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”

One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.


Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

June 22, 2011 5 comments

Mike Whitner is one of several small business owners fighting the good fight by trying to inject some new commerce into the economically depressed northeast Omaha community. His Chef’s Mike Community Cafe is the type of going concern the district desperately needs but is woefully lacking. As with anybody, he has a story. Specifically, there’s a story behind how and why he became a chef and located his business in the heart of an area with great, though as yet unrealized promise, a situation that’s defined the area since its decline in the 1960s and ’70s. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after Chef Mike opened his place. The good news is he’s still in business and the area is targeted for massive redevelopment. The bad news is that much of that development is still some years away. But every little anchor and magnet business like his can make a difference, especially if there becomes a critical mass of them.

 

 

 

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.threader.com)

“I’m doing a rebirth,” said Mike Whitner, a.k.a. Chef Mike, as he pointed to the colorful sidewalk/window signs outside his Community Cafe in the Family Housing Advisory Services building at 24th and Lake in north Omaha. “I’m taking what I learned from my roots and putting it in like a nouvelle style kind of soul food. I keep it traditional, but I add the new wave in it, like using a lot of smoked turkey in my greens (instead of ham hocks), where it’s going to be healthy for you.”

A solid block of a man who brightens his white chef’s smock with Pollock splattered pants and jaunty berets, Whitner grew up in a rough section of far northeast Omaha’s “Flatlands.” He ran with a gang. He learned to defend himself. As the youngest of seven siblings he spent a lot of time watching his mother cook. He paid close attention. He’ll tell you the secret to soul food is made-from-scratch cooking whose deeply imbued flavors build in stages, over time.

“It’s a process,” he said. One that can’t be rushed. No shortcuts please.

Another “mentor” is Charles Hall, owner/head cook of the now defunct Fair Deal Cafe on North 24th Street. Whitner’s smothered pork steak is a homage to Hall’s classic smothered pork chop.

“I slow cook it like he used to,” Whitner said. “I cook it in its juices with peppers and onions. When you do it right, it just melts in your mouth, baby.”

As a kid Whitner earned extra money making sandwiches/dinners and hawking them to working men on the north side. Before becoming a chef though, he had some living to do. He played college and semi-pro football, bounced at clubs, provided personal security to clients and collected for others. Once, a guy pulled a gun and shot him. A bullet grazed his head. He still managed to break the shooter’s wrist down, wrest the gun away and beat him with it.

Incidents like these convinced him “it was time to grow up and get away from all that and stop taking care of other people’s business. My mother slept better.”

He got a taste of the restaurant game working at Boston Sea Party and L and N Seafood Grill. A move to Denver in the early 1990s launched him on his career. He learned the trade at the famed Wynkoop Brewing Company, which sponsored his training in the Chefs de Cuisine Association. Working chef’s license in hand, he helped Wynkoop become an anchor of the Mile High City’s trendy LoDo district.

Back home by the mid ‘90s, he entered the Omaha catering scene. He was on the team that opened Rick’s Boatyard Cafe. A parting of the ways found him catering again, this time out of trucks doing a tidy trade on the streets. When the spot he’s in now came open, he went after it.

“One of the promises I made when I became a chef,” he said, “was to bring everything I learned back to the Flatlands. I wanted to be here.”

His fusion of soul with gourmet adds new twists to old favs: sauteed baby bay shrimp with collard greens; roast beef with a demi-glace or mirepoix-based sauce; and jalapeno cheddar corn bread. Every day he does theme dishes — from blackened beef or fish to pasta to tacos to soul food staples to whole catfish filets. He has his signature Black Angus dogs, reubens, gyros and Philly steak and cheese. Some items, like his sweet potatoes, are from his own garden. He buys from local growers.

 

 

 

 

Open weekdays for breakfast, when you can get grits and biscuits, and lunch, most meals there run well under $6. The one day he’s open late, Fridays, he offers a prime rib or salmon dinner for $13, with live jazz by Hopie Bronson. The cafe’s “transformed” then into an intimate club with low lights, linen table cloths, votive candles. There’s free parking in an adjacent lighted lot.

For Whitner, who still has his own catering biz, his place is a symbol of what he sees as North 24th’s rebirth.

“This area was rich in jazz and blues. In those days businesses were booming. Everybody was coming down here enjoying 24th Street. That’s what I want again,” he said.

It’s why his menu is a melange of old and new.

“I want to represent where I come from,” he said of his soul food roots. But, he added, “you gotta mix it up. It’s an area that’s been heavy with soul food places. You can’t eat soul food every day. It’s not good for you. You gotta give this area food it’s never had before…that’s different. Folks love being able to have that kind of cuisine down here.”

Business isn’t as brisk as he’d like, but he’s set on staying to help spark a renaissance.

“Eventually this area is going to be the educational, arts, music district” of north Omaha, he said. “That’s where’s it’s going. You can feel it. When you get the jazz and blues down here you can feel it coming. It’s coming for sure.”

The Community Cafe, 2401 Lake St., is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Breakfast from 7:30 to 11 a.m. and lunch then on. Friday dinners with live jazz from 7 to 11 p.m. For details and take out orders, call 964-2037.

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