John L. Summers arrives at the community clean up of a vacant lot in St. Louis and looks to get to work. He grabs a pair of loppers and starts clipping away at the vines and weedy trees that have threaded themselves through the chain-link fence.
The last of ten children, he says he’s always had a strong work ethic. “When the sun came up all 10 of us got to work because he was already working,” Summers says of his father.
The 69-year-old pastor of Brooklyn Christian Faith Center across the river in Illinois attended the University of Missouri, studying journalism in the early 1970s. But he eventually withdrew before graduating because of the racial climate. We talk some about how it hasn’t changed there as much as he’d hope over four decades, about the protests in 2015, and how the football players could still play a prominent role just as they did when he was there.
Colleges could be doing more to help St. Louis, he says. Leadership is too often the problem, he argues. Making tough calls regarding the future may end up making a president vulnerable in the short-term. “You don’t mold anything out of dry clay,” he says. “It’s got to be pulverized, watered, and then built back up.”
He continues lopping branches stuck to the fence — all the while preaching. He’s spent years, he says, trying to encourage clergy to get out of the pulpit and get out into the community. Colleges could be doing more of that as well, and that starts by talking about the problems.
“As the saying goes, sometimes silence is golden.” He pauses. “But sometimes, it’s just yellow.”
Yet, Summers remains hopeful. Starting small is always possible.
He gestures to the blue sky across the street. “You never see a bird flying with a tree in its beak,” he says. “But it can carry a seed.”
The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.