Life has never been easy for Charles McNeil, yet his is a story of achievements. In his journey, he has transformed considerable adversity and challenge into a life where creativity is the vehicle to build a more just and equal society. In this essay, Reverend Charles McNeil takes a look at where it all began. He is associate Pastor at the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Philadelphia and Executive Director for Church Partnerships at Eastern University.
I was born the third child, middle boy of four children in a South Philadelphia rowhome. My neighborhood was both beautiful and brutal. For me then, race was not a primary concern, survival was. Most of my teachers were white. I watched Blondie, the Little Rascals, and the Three Stooges. Rarely did I communicate with white people unless I walked to 9th Street Italian Market only to be chased back across 10th Street, or when the white insurance man came to collect his monthly payments. All I knew then were black people: old, young, light, dark... poor, and simply trying each day to survive. I didn't know it then, but my family was also poor, yet we ate each day.
My mother dropped out of school in the ninth grade to care for her younger brother and sisters when her mother became sick. Eventually she got married, had two children, broke up, met my father, had me, broke up, met another man, had my younger brother, broke up, and raised us all by herself. To survive, she worked in bars, cleaned homes, collected food stamps, and eventually got a job that she retired from a few years ago after over 30 years employed there. Although she never graduated from any school, she taught me the rewards of hard work and determination.
During my childhood, most of the heroes in the neighborhood were corner boys, gangsters, pimps, number runners, drug dealers, or anybody who drove a purple Cadillac Eldorado with the... diamonds in the back, sunroof top, diggin' the scene, with the gangster lean, ooh... ooh... ooh!
Like most of my young fatherless friends, we all thought our destiny would eventually be like those we saw everyday. In 1973, my father was killed. Some saw their father every now and then, drunk, lying on the front steps. But I could make up any story because my father was dead. So I'd brag that my father was tall, rich and smart, but the reality was he was a short, drug dealer who dropped out of high school. I'd brag that he was killed at war fighting for his country, but he was killed in his apartment by a hired assassin connected to one of South Philadelphia's black drug gangs.
Third grade proved to be my time of self-awakening. My teacher had assigned me to do a report on George Washington Carver (the Peanut Man), and it awakened me to a world of black greatness I hadn't known before. After living in a neighborhood where only the worse was on display, I learned of black people who had made significant advances in this world. From then on, much of my time was spent examining life through the stories, struggles and the successes of black people. "Saying it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" become more than a chant or even words from a song.
My first real experience with white people came when I attended an integrated high school. I soon realized each of us were in a similar search for identity, and not only was I poor, but many of my classmates, black and white were also. Somehow, there seemed to be more commonality in us than our cultural differences suggested.
I spend my time now seeking ways to be helpful to those, who like me, are met with personal and cultural challenges. I am dedicated to erasing stereotypes and encouraging people to be the best they can be, because God wills it for us.
I know it was God's will for me to be the first in my family to finish high school with honors; the first to go to college on academic scholarship; the first to by a car; the first to buy a home; the first to have a successful and sustained marriage; the first to enter pulpit ministry; the first to enter and finish grad school; and the first to receive a doctorate; simply because I've learned to accept and love myself for who I am and how God made me.
I've find it easier to love others because I love myself. Now each day, my people inspire me to try a little harder... read a little more... go a little farther... and think a little bolder... because I believe that with God's help, there really is nothing we can't accomplish in life.