Posted by Phil Obermiller

During the 1950s and 1960s Appalachian families moved into Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in great numbers. The people were proud but poor; the poverty was plain ugly. Catholic seminarians set up the Main Street Bible Center to minister to these families with social service advice for the adults, tutorial and recreational programs for the children.

The Bible Center attracted not only priests, seminarians and nuns, but many young adults who wanted to be of service. Most Bible Center volunteers had working- and middle-class backgrounds that didn’t prepare them for the realities they would encounter on the streets of O-T-R. Experienced staff members set up a program for orienting and monitoring this well-intentioned but often unseasoned cadre of street workers. I was one of them.

Among the materials used to familiarize us with the neighborhood was this prose poem, as powerful today as it was the day it was penned.

Reflections on the Inner City

by Ethel Williams

On the first day God made Schlitz and Seagram’s.
On the second day God made neon.
On the third day God made the inner city.
On the fourth day God made needles and syringes.
On the fifth day God made lice.
And then on the sixth day, when all was ready, God made man
and God loved man and placed him in the inner city.
And God said increase and multiply, and fill the bars and brothels.
And on the seventh day God rested and went to Church
and heard a nice sermon about something or other.
The minister talked about sin and suffering and hell
and to keep Christ in Christmas. He talked about lots of things.
It was a good sermon.

And as God was going home from church that evening
he took a wrong turn and wound up in the inner city.
He met a young girl who propositioned him.
And God said haven’t you heard of God and the Sixth Commandment?
And she said shove the sermon, dad, I can do better at the Salvation Army.

And God met a wino, a pusher, and a pimp and then went home
and thought a lot about sending fire or government money or social workers
or something equally clever to destroy the inner city.
He even thought of sending his son but figured no, some cop would see him talking
with a prostitute and run both of them in on a morals charge.
One time was enough. 

And God said I will come and live in the inner city. I will live there till the end of time,
if this should be the need.
I will hide myself in such disguise that they will see only my works,
but not my face: no cross, no cassock.
Together we will do, and then talk of jobs and food and rent and books and dignity.
I will listen to them, talk with them. I will get lice.
Later, perhaps much later, they will say: he loves us, let us make him our God.
Then I will be tempted to drop the disguise, but instead I will keep silent.
Till they demand: show us your God. And I will say to them: he lives in all men.

Do not leave the inner city. Go farther into it. Come, let us look together. We will find him
wherever men suffer, wherever men love.
In deep disguise from far within the inner city I will be their God and they will be my people.


Ethel Jean Williams

5 thoughts on “Reflections on the Inner City

  1. Thank you for this post, Phil, and for all that you’ve done to preserve this history. This poem should be required reading. Pamela

  2. This is so powerful! True about everything. My heart squeezed as I read each word. LPH is the OTR of today. The gentrification of OTR has moved some of the obvious underground. But it is all still there. It makes me so sad to realize things haven’t changed. This piece just reinforced the need to keep up the fight. Thanks Phil.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Phil. Time has not faded its relevance. What’s the story on Ethel Jean Williams? I tried to find more about her but was unsuccessful. She uses a direct and powerful voice in this poem.

    1. Barb,

      I didn’t know Ethel Williams either but, based on your query, this is what I’ve been able to find out about her:

      Ethel Williams was (she died in 2002) a retired school teacher and a leader in the Black community of Paterson, NJ. For over thirty years she was the volunteer head of the Catholic Community Center, a struggling agency very much in the spirit of the Main Street Bible Center.

      “The first floor of Miss Williams’ home was a food pantry for the poor. Her kitchen served as a crisis intervention center. Young mothers sought her advice, the elderly, her compassion, the hungry and poor, her help.”

      She was surprised when Pope John Paul gave her the Lumen Christi Award “because her outspoken beliefs were not always shared by the church. In her words: ‘I don’t think I have ever had a moment when I doubted my faith, but I’ve had serious problems as a woman who is Black in my church. That’s what I’m working on.'”

      Although very much a realist, she never gave up:

      “I got over being overwhelmed very early on. It doesn’t do any good. Commercials with animals or kids make me cry. Pain and bigotry make me angry. In order to survive, I have to know, that regrettably, I can’t change any systems. What I can do is go with Mrs. Smith and speak on her behalf to Social Security. I can go with a mother who’s being harassed by a landlord. I can go with a welfare mother to get food. I can fill out an application. That doesn’t change systems, but it keeps people from starving to death, from bleeding to death, from being kicked around. That’s the best I can do.”

      More at:


      P.S. I love the bedpost quote.

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