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.

A few weeks later, in September, Jeanette sat down with her spiritual adviser, a Methodist woman whose words echoed those of her father's so many years before. She told Jeanette to take some time off and listen to God, listen to him speak through prayer, talk through other people and communicate his wishes by what felt right inside. Jeanette then set a date -- the weekend of Nov. 7 -- to make a decision.

During the next several weeks, Jeanette's mind changed daily. She prayed, she listened, she talked, but nothing stayed firm in her heart. As the final weekend approached, she attended a legislative workshop hosted by the United Way. During one of the panel discussions, state Sen. Steve Ehlmann, a conservative Republican from St. Charles, told the audience that a state earned-income tax credit would encourage people to live together rather than marry, because a second income might make the married couple ineligible for the tax credit. That, he said, was like most public assistance which, among other things, led to an increase in the number of "illegitimate children" being born.

Jeanette, fuming in the audience, stood up to ask the senator a question. Only it wasn't a question.

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.

"The sooner the phrase 'illegitimate children' passes out of this society's vocabulary, the better," she said to audience applause. "There are no illegitimate children."

Was her interaction with Ehlmann a sign? Perhaps part of her mission, even if it wasn't to run for office, was to keep people like him engaged in dialogue. Public dialogue.

The next morning, she attended a conference held by the Living Wage Coalition. She was one of the only white people in the room, and as one speaker after another rose to blame white people for the economic conditions of so many people of color, Jeanette found herself nodding her head in agreement. Ten years ago, she realized, she would have felt defensive, would have argued that only some white people were supremacists, but her years at ROWEL had taught her that most white folks were raised to be racists, even if they didn't want to be, and it was a lesson all white people needed to learn. Again the decision wavered in her mind: Even if she didn't decide to run, here was another plank for her mission's platform. "Amen," she heard herself murmur over and over again. "Amen."

In the afternoon, Jeanette went to Pilgrim Congregational Church for the installation of its first African-American senior pastor, the Rev. Dale Susan Edmonds. Giving the sermon was a minister named Yvonne Delk, who at one point described a stagecoach sign she saw once in a museum: "If the coach is stuck in the mud, first-class passengers stay seated, second-class passengers get out, third-class passengers get out and push."

"As we move into the new millennium," Delk said, "our world is stuck in the mud. There's no place for any passenger to stay seated. We've all got to get out and push."

As the reverend sat down, the choir stood and sang "Now Is the Time."

On her way home that night in the car, Jeanette made her decision as the song's last verse swam in her head: "Spirit of faith, rise above our doubting. Spirit of truth, save us from our lies. Spirit of God, walk among your people. Make us your own. Now is the time."

She would run against the governor's son.

The next several weeks were spent in a flurry of activity. She planned intimate fundraisers, called potential supporters and made as many public appearances as her energy could support. Then, late in November, someone handed her a flier announcing Russ Carnahan's kickoff dinner, scheduled for Dec. 7. What struck Jeanette first was that "Gold Sponsors" would pay $500 per couple to get in. Next she noticed that the honorary-host committee list, which took up one whole side of the invitation, included such names as Congressman Dick Gephardt, Mayor Clarence Harmon and Aldermanic President Francis Slay. It was hard to read down the list of names so precisely lined up: St. Louis County Executive George Westfall; the chair of the Missouri House Democratic Caucus, May Scheve; St. Louis Ald. Phyllis Young. There was even a committeeperson named from each of the four wards that made up the district. Although she understood loyalty -- it was an important virtue -- each name on the list represented more clout, more money and more vote appeal than she could ever hope to gain in this election. It was like reading the guest list for her own funeral.

But she couldn't expect Democratic loyalists to turn their backs on their governor's son or suddenly decide he was somehow unqualified or unclean or unproved when he wasn't. Even she liked the idea of Russ Carnahan in the statehouse, so it wasn't as if she didn't understand party sentiments going into this thing.

But she knew there was more than one way to win. If, as a result of running, she could cause some agitation, get candidates talking about workers in poverty, about the unfair tax system, about affordable health care and quality child care, if her potlucks and picnics and lack-of-PAC fundraisers made it any easier for gays, lesbians, single parents, people of color or the physically impaired to step up and demand their fair share, then she would win on their behalf, no matter what the votes said.

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