A Twist of Faith

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

"God," he prayed as she sat there, "I don't understand a lot of this. It's all over my head, but this is my little girl, and I want you to take care of her."

With the failed ordination, her father's accident, her mother's death and visions of the little African-American girl driving her, Jeanette left Eden determined to fight society's intolerance of gays, lesbians, poor people and people of color. But in 1991, when she accepted the position of executive director of the Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL), she learned of another form of prejudice, more insidious because she had never imagined it existed: her own.

Unlike Elizabethtown, where most of the poor people were white, St. Louis' poor were mostly African-American. Her new job at ROWEL, which fought poverty by empowering the people who lived in it, forced her to deal with people she'd so far spent very little time around. The goal was to teach poor people how to become politically active and, in doing so, change federal and state welfare systems that weren't working.

For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

For Jeanette, taking on the job was like plunging into an ice-cold stream to wash off sweat. She began learning about urban poverty by going to public-housing projects, food pantries and the Salvation Army. She read books, attended conferences, studied the laws.

While she immersed herself in understanding how the system operated, she worked to get more low-income people involved in ROWEL, which, up until then, had been run mainly by middle- and upper-income folks. She began recruiting new board members, new public speakers and new organizers who were poor. Jeanette also began lobbying in Jefferson City, where she quickly learned that legislation aimed at helping poor people was looked on with ever-increasing disdain. When she explained, for instance, that in order for people to leave welfare and survive, they needed jobs that paid a living wage, the response was usually a let-them-eat-cake shrug.

As the workings of the world opened up to Jeanette, so too did the meaning of the Bible. Now when she read about the pharaoh requiring the slaves to make bricks out of straw, the story seemed fresh and relevant. It was no different than the current system of welfare. Soon Jeanette and Dorothy joined Epiphany United Church of Christ in Benton Park. Formerly made up of working-class Germans who had moved one by one to the suburbs, the thinning congregation of 50 was now striving to become more racially and economically diverse.

But as her professional and spiritual life came together, Jeanette sensed a growing distance between herself and the people she was trying to help, a span of emotional space filled with questions about whether a white girl from the country could really understand what it meant to be black and to live on an income not high enough to survive on. But the more she tried to close the gap with studying, lobbying and recruiting, the greater the distance seemed to grow.

When she learned the reason, it nearly knocked the spiritual wind out of her. Jeanette organized a ROWEL lobbying day in Jefferson City, and she and a group of African-American women started off for the state Capitol in a rented church van. As the trip progressed from St. Louis to the rural interior of the state, Jeanette noticed that the early-morning enthusiasm of the group was sliding into silence.

"Hey, what's wrong with everybody?" Jeanette asked, assuming the women were nervous about meeting and talking to state legislators.

One of the women, watching the countryside pass by the window, shook her head and frowned: "Whoooeee. There's farmers out here with trucks and guns, and they'll kill you dead."

Jeanette's eyes followed the woman's gaze out the window to the cornfields and the livestock barns and the narrow gravel roads so familiar to her from childhood. What represented security and comfort to her symbolized trouble and danger to these women. And just as she had been told by her family and community that black people in the city were a threat, these women had been taught to stay away from wide open spaces where white people lived.

Discovering the problem was like looking through a long-hidden scrapbook. Every school text she'd ever read was filled with pictures of white explorers, white scientists, white kids just like herself. Even her Sunday School books depicted Jesus as coming from white stock. Her parents told her to stay away from black men and to never bring a black friend home with her from college, because the neighbors would throw a fit.

Then she looked at the women in the van around her. She couldn't remember a lot of their names, because she realized that, out of fear, she never looked them in the eye. Whenever they tried to take on the responsibilities of running the organization, she always jumped in and did things for them, because she figured they weren't capable. It wasn't lack of experience that kept her emotionally distant from these people. It was her own racism.

Then, in 1994, Jeanette got another call from Elizabethtown. Her father had been in a car accident and was in a coma. Soon she and Dorothy found themselves sitting by his bedside, singing old Southern-gospel songs. Four days after the accident, Raymond Oxford died.

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