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.