Death of former Black Panther takes me back to butterflies and bulldozers
Recently, I received word that my old comrade/antagonist Bill “Pee Wee” Winston had died. Winston, a former Black Panther, later became a youth minister with Young Life, Inc. (YL), a nondenominational Christian youth organization. He was a good man with whom, at times, I had disagreements. But upon reflection, I conclude our debates and discourse in the past revealed much about race, religion, and a revolution that has yet to come.
It was June of 1973 when Marvin Gaye released his sensuous hit, “Let’s Get it On.” Jack Carpenter, John David Borgman, A.G. Miller and I loaded enough clothing into a van for a short week and headed up north to Montreal, Canada, a 6-hour drive from Stamford, CT. When we reached the border, the patrol superficially checked out our bags. Zip, we were through without hassle. We could have been going there to escape the U.S. military draft, to start a revolution, or to run weapons. The border scene was different then than now. Today, our president speaks crazily about building alligator and snaked-filled moats and shooting migrants in the legs.
Upon our arrival in Montreal, I recall a clean and vibrant city as we entered a bar where race relations seemed relaxed. A short, dark-skinned singer with a lisp belted out, “Mit-is- Mit-is, Jones . . . We got a thang goin’ on.” As we drank our beer we found humor in this diminutive singer’s inability to pronounce, “Mrs.” At this point in our lives, we were a touch immature and less forgiving of those navigating verbal disabilities.
We were there for less than an hour before other brothers and sisters from across the U.S. came filing in. I remember getting into a serious conversation with one young woman from New York City who explained to me that “Let’s get it on” was about making a real commitment to love, not just sex. I was pleased to be talking to her about anything in that every guy there competed for her attention.
The occasion was a YL strategy meeting of white and black staff members who had come together to decide whether or not to have racially mixed and balanced summer camps for high school students. As previously mentioned, YL is a nondenominational Christian youth organization whose goal is to introduce youth to the love of Jesus and to try to have his presence make a difference in their lives.
Layered on top of YL’s mission is its urban work in inner-cities like New York, Chicago, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and elsewhere. Bill Milliken, co founder of Communities in Schools, chronicled his Christian work with inner-city gang members on New York’s Lower Eastside in his book, Tough Love. Of course, dealing with the underlying causes of poverty and racism had to be addressed on some level before youth ministers like, A.G., Nisha, Bo Nixon, Pee Wee, or myself could every get an inner city kid to listen to us talk about a sandal wearing dude who was projected by white society to have long blonde hair, blue eyes, and no wealth. For sure, given the part of the continent where the historic Jesus came from, he could not have looked like the portrait of him hanging in many churches today, including African American sanctuaries.
Many African Americans in attendance, liberally influenced by the Black Power movement, had argued within YL for years that urban work must be distinct, and part of that difference had to be a redefinition of who Jesus actual was. To us, he was a revolutionary leader who came to liberate the oppressed. His death to us was a political assassination. His spirit was alive in the movements back then concerned with black power, women’s rights, peace, the salvation of our planet, among others. We reminded conservative Christians that before Jesus gave his flock the gospel, he fed them fish and bread.
Submerged beneath the surface in all discussions about whether the timing was right to bring urban and suburban youth together (who had only attended largely segregated schools) was the fear of how white youth would react to a hip talk about a revolutionary Jesus that despised much of what these rich kids’ parents stood for—wealth, power, and class domination.
This was where Winston, Bud Ipema, and my wife to be, Nisha, and others like Bo Nixon entered the picture. As we debated whether to integrate YL’s camps, two sides emerged: I represented a faction for bringing the kids together (I had just graduated from college, myself); and Pee Wee and Bud did not believe the time was right. I remember at times the discussion became quite heated as Bud, a white man, told me to my face that he did not like me because I was like a “butterfly.” “I am a bulldozer, and I don’t like butterflies,” he proclaimed.
Further, rejecting my suggestion that there just might be a tint of racism beneath his reaction to me, he responded in such a defensive manner that almost caused me not to get together with my wife. Bud said, “Nisha agrees with me and she is very ‘black’.” At this point, I had not met my wife-to-be who worked with Ipema in Chicago, but I had heard of her and had been eyeing her from a distance. “Oh my, God, Nisha condones this behavior and attitude,” I thought to myself. Once we connected, she assured me that she did not endorse many of Bud’s views on race or his aggressive behavior.
By the end of the Montreal retreat, we had not won over Bud and Pee Wee, but we had won over enough white and black staff members to schedule YL’s first fully integrated camp at Saranac Village in Upstate New York the following summer. Ironically, they selected Pee Wee, along with Urban Director, Joe White, to alternatively share the nightly keynote speaker slots. For this same camp, they tapped Nisha to be the lead counselor and the first woman to deliver a camp “sermon.” She recalls speaking on the subject of “Superman,” challenging campers to take off their masks . . . to really be able to fly!
In 1973, I first met Nisha briefly during this historic camp when I arrived to direct a play with an integrated cast selected from attendees. I selected a play I had written named, The Other Side of the Wheel, a play adapted from the verse, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and treating the theme that in time all will be made right. The participants and audience loved the play, and the camp was an overall success despite a few hiccups and a few kids having to be sent home for consuming or distributing drugs.
A little more than a year later, Nisha and I married, and the second African American Director of Young Life Urban Programs Rev. Dr. Kwame John Porter officiated a private wedding ceremony at the home of Nisha’s parents on Chicago’s Westside. We remain married after more than 40 years.
Pee Wee, Bud, and Rev. Porter all transitioned this year; they died too young and still had much to offer. Bud and I reconciled our relationship from that rocky start in Montreal decades ago. When Nisha and I saw him in Atlanta a few years ago, it struck me how much this bulldozer had metamorphosed into a butterfly.
I saw Brother Pee Wee Winston again only once or twice after the Montreal trip. But upon hearing about his recent passing, Nisha and I read the many marvelous things his legion of students and admirers said about him on social media—and we saw him in a recent photo in a hospital bed wearing a white gown with stripes. He was looking up toward the sky and smiling.
He was at peace.
Old radicals never die. Never die. Never die!