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Published: Monday, 10/28/2013 - Updated: 10 months ago

COMMENTARY

Build up or tear down?

Jack Ford not reaching for the brass ring

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

On Sunday, I had one of the best experiences in my life as a journalist, or as a man. I followed former Mayor Jack Ford to four African-American churches.

Politicians touring the black churches in October is a well-worn ritual. But Mr. Ford went to see old friends. When he was critically ill two years ago, many in these congregations prayed for him.

It’s fun to see Mr. Ford in his element. One man told me, “He’s still my mayor, the only mayor I ever had or ever will have.” But the wonder is the worship in these churches: The care (the white gloves of the ushers and the women and children dressed to the nines). The devotion. And, most of all, the singing.

Imagine a musical culture that produces Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles, so effortlessly. Supposedly Mahalia Jackson once told told Duke Ellington that she knew 50 women who sang better than she did in church on Sundays. (And he wrote a song about it.)

When I was a boy, of maybe 12, growing up in Coshocton, Ohio, my mother took me to a funeral at a ramshackle black church, across from a Carnation Milk processing plant. A little boy in a family we knew had died. I knew nothing of grief or death then, and just as little of gospel music. What I heard that day stunned me. I mean I was unable to speak.

But I knew I’d heard music that made what I thought of as music — the Rolling Stones; Elton John — seem small. I knew I’d seen a visceral and profound religion I’d never before known.

I thought of this when Mr. Ford took me to the New Bethel Church of God in Christ, where his friend Rance Allen, a gospel legend, was presiding on this day. Mr. Allen sang Mr. Ford’s favorite song, “Something About the Name Jesus.”

Mr. Allen is an older, heavyset man. He rises quietly and moves slowly. He begins to sing in a low register. And then this massive sound opens up — like a sonic quake. And you are in its grip. The voice commands you to be still and listen. You are helpless. And even if you can’t sing, and you are not clapping, just watching, drinking it in, you are part of the prayer.

Mr. Ford followed the same simple format at all four churches: He did some reminiscing about the church and its pastor. He asked people to vote for the school levy Nov. 5 and to “give our support to Dr. Durant.” Third, he asked people to vote for him, and his de facto City Council running mate Theresa Gabriel. And, finally, he spoke about the injection of race into the campaign — the whispering campaign that Independent candidate Michael Collins is somehow a racist. Mr. Ford said he knew of no evidence for this. He said: “How you vote is your business. But be wary of October tricks. I have known both men for 30 years. I like them both. I know them both to be honorable men. I know them both to be personally brave men.” Mr. Ford told the assembled to vote their convictions, not their fears.

Politics being what it is, this simple act of decency will be twisted a million ways. But Mr. Ford, at this point in his life, is not reaching for the brass ring. He told these old friends he doubted they would see him again in four years, given his age and health history. He’s hoping to build bridges now, serve, maybe be a truth-teller when one is needed.

Mr. Ford’s gesture was not so much about outcomes in our politics as what our politics have become. Politics, like religion, should be about lifting up, not tearing down.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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