How the Human Family Reunion got started

By Ed Chasteen  

Bear with me for a brief discussion of the events leading up to the morning of May 5, 1976–the day of the first Human Family Reunion. The events of this day had three beginnings: one in the 1950’s, one in the 1960’s, and one in the 1970’s. In the early 1950’s, I was in high school in Huntsville, Texas. Chief among my many beautiful memories from that period of my life is going to school every day and speaking to every single person I met. I was not conscious of cliques. It never occurred to me that I should pick my friends based on what part of town they lived in or whom their fathers worked for.

Looking back now on that time many years ago, I’m a little embarrassed to admit how eager I was to get to school every morning. (Males are not supposed to feel this way. And if they do, they are supposed to act as if they don’t.) The entire day was heavenly. I really did like all those people, so much so that the memory of it even now makes my scalp tingle, creating in me euphoria beyond the power of any drug to induce.

I close my eyes and hundreds of youthful faces parade quickly across my mind. But there is a cloud on that memory: There are no black faces in my parade. Our town had hundreds of black citizens, but my school had no black students. How I wish my memories were not all white. But they are, and nothing I can do will change that fact. Maybe I can change somebody’s future memory. Thus was planted the seed from which the Human Family Reunion would grow.

In the mid-1960’s, I came to the college in Missouri where I I taught for years. I had moved from Texas to Oklahoma in the fall of 1961 when the opportunity came to teach in a college there. I fell in love with college teaching and two years later my family and I moved to Missouri so I could do my doctoral work. By the fall of 1965, I had gotten by Ph.D., and I joined the faculty of William Jewell College.

I had planned to return to western Oklahoma to teach, but the moment I saw the Jewell campus, I knew I was home. The hilly terrain was much like my hometown in Texas. And Jewell, like the college I went to in my hometown, sat atop the highest hill, affording a magnificent view of the town and the surrounding countryside.

I didn’t even realize until I saw the Jewell campus that I carried in my mind a picture of the ideal campus, an image of what a college should look like. As I gazed across the football-size quadrangle which all the buildings faced, seeing at once the white circular columns fronting all the buildings, the fire-red bricks of which the buildings were made, the dark-green ivy clinging to the north wall of Jewell Hall and shimmering like wet diamonds in the sun, with the skyline of Kansas City faintly visible to the southwest and east–as I took all this in, I knew for the first time that I carried in my head that image of an ideal college campus.

Instantly I understood why other campuses I had visited, many of them magnificent, had never seemed entirely right. Such a blending of natural and manufactured beauty, my mind had been telling me, was possible. Until I stood for the first time on the Jewell campus, though, ideal and reality had never merged. When in that instant they did, such a feeling engulfed me that were I Shakespeare, I could not do it justice: a feeling of peace, and contentment, and excitement, and rightness. A feeling I had not before or have not subsequently experienced. A feeling, the memory of which now is but a ghost of the real thing, but which in its reality was so powerful that the memory is still sufficient to transport me to a dimension of life I wonder if most people ever visit.

Looking back, I must have known as I stood on the campus that day that I would spend all of my teaching career in this place. For every time an opportunity later came to leave, I could not do it. Over the years I would dream that I had left Jewell. And I would wake up in a cold sweat.

Much of my doctoral work had dealt with problems of racism and prejudice in our society and with programs that had been advocated as solutions. I began at Jewell to teach the things I had been taught.

From my teachers, I had learned that prejudice can inflict great damage, causing people to harm each other for irrational reasons. I learned, also, that those theorists who study prejudice have not been able to isolate the precise mechanism by which prejudice spreads.

Prejudice seems basically to proceed from ignorance, from the fact that one group of people has little direct and intimate acquaintance with another and, therefore, must simply attribute motives to the other group’s behavior, motives which inevitably are more base than their own.

This explanation without a doubt explains much of that behavior prompted by prejudice. It doesn’t explain everything, though. Psychologists, for example, talk about scapegoating, a need that they say prompts many individuals and all societies to cast their own shortcomings and weaknesses on outsiders, thus relieving whatever pressure they might otherwise feel to modify their behavior.

If, indeed, scapegoating does serve a need in society, then it would more than likely occur even if all groups in a society were fully informed about each other. To this extent, then, we do not eliminate prejudice by eliminating ignorance.

There is also an economic element to prejudice. Given the fact that there are not enough jobs, housing, dollars, college degrees, and so on to go around, prejudice and its accompanying discrimination tend to rationalize and justify the prevailing unequal distribution. Prejudice makes us all believe that people get what they deserve.

We may not, therefore, completely rid our society of prejudice when we rid it of ignorance. Having now tried for years to reduce prejudice through education, I have come at last to the conclusion that changing what we teach will not by itself rid our collective body of its social cancer. Simultaneous efforts on several fronts are called for.

Having said all this, though, I come back now to make a basic point: Learning is the one thing each of us can do in order to escape the prejudicial atmosphere in which we live, the thing we must do if we would ever attempt other changes.

I had arrived at this basic conclusion by the mid-1960’s, though it was with me then more a feeling to which I was attracted then the bedrock conviction it has since become.

I could not have put into words in 1966 the rationale which prompted me to join with several like-minded people to begin the decade-long series of meetings we would call The Fellowship House Seminars. I could only have tried to describe for you the sensations of delight and purpose which gripped me each time I met with these people to plan a seminar and the even stronger feeling of being exactly right with the world each time a seminar actually came to pass.

I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in the early summer of 1964. My purpose in doing so was to study the civil rights movement as it was developing in Kansas City and, thereby, to complete my doctoral dissertation. In the midst of doing all this, I discovered Fellowship House.

Forty years earlier, Paseo had been the most beautiful and fashionable boulevard in all of Kansas City. By the time I first saw it in 1964, the street had lost much of its charm, and the big, old homes could no longer be supported in their accustomed style.

One such house sat at 3340 Paseo. An elegant red brick with white shutters and trim, massive concrete steps and porch, this was now Fellowship House. I had first seen the name in the newspaper, in a story about an inter-racial, inter-religious dinner held by the members. I had come to the house to find out more.

I visited Fellowship House often over the next several months, intrigued by their open and enthusiastic acceptance of all races and creeds. They were not a flamboyant group. They did not march or demonstrate or do anything purposely to call attention to themselves.

At that time in Kansas City there was only one restaurant where an inter-racial group could eat together. So on one morning a week, Fellowship House members would go there to eat. These breakfasts were soon a topic of conversation all across Kansas City.

Fellowship House also had a doll program. These dolls were fashioned in the image of such well-known world figures as Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and some two dozen others, all people who tried to bring people together. Fellowship House members would take these dolls to schools, churches, synagogues, clubs and private homes and simply tell the story of the people these dolls represented.

While at a Fellowship House dinner one evening, someone mentioned a wish to see area college students more involved. Several of us in following up on that wish devised a format for which we basically followed for the next 10 years, during which time we brought hundreds of college students into Kansas City and into Fellowship House.

Twice a year–fall and spring–we would pick a topic, some urgent issue that needed to be addressed and would attract students from area college campuses. “Black Power” was one of our earliest and most popular topics. “Understanding the City,” “Welfare Rights,” “Conversations in Black and White,” “An Urban Plunge”–these were the kinds of topics we designed our seminars around.

To our seminars we invited faculty and students from all the colleges and universities within a 150 mile radius. The larger universities did not respond very energetically. But it was obvious that we had touched a nerve on the more than 20 smaller campuses we contacted. From Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri they regularly came, augmented now and then by someone from Nebraska or Oklahoma or Arkansas who had heard of our program.

They would arrive usually on a Friday afternoon, some 40 to 50 of them from a dozen different campuses. They brought their bed rolls and slept for two nights on cots borrowed from the Red Cross. Each of them was assigned to a work detail. They were expected to help prepare meals, set the table, clear the table, take out the garbage, sweep the floor and in general to make themselves useful.

Of course the work needed to be done, but the bigger reason we had them do it was so they would get to know the people they worked with. It worked. Beautifully. People learn a lot when they don’t know they are supposed to.

As speakers for our seminars we invited community people, persons expressing widely divergent views but all wanting to share their way of looking at life and their own unique personality.

We also took the students out into the city. We visited the city market, flop-houses, rescue missions, jails, churches, public housing projects, employment offices, alcohol rehabilitation programs, and dozens of other places where we thought we might get to know interesting people.

By the mid 1970’s, the Fellowship House Seminars were losing some of their sparkle. It was harder to get people to come. And my own interest was waning. The importance of what the seminars were designed to accomplish seemed to me more important than ever. But I could no longer generate the enthusiasm necessary to make the seminars work. The poor response to our 1975 seminar convinced us that it was time to lay that program in its grave.

In the following months I tried to figure out why my own interest in the seminars had waned. I finally decided that they had been too restrictive. By focusing on getting blacks and whites together, the seminars had helped to bring together the two groups most at odds in our society but had not at all addressed the larger question: How to get people together from all races, all religions, and all ages.

Is such a thing possible? The cynic in me said no. Yet I knew that 10 years earlier blacks and whites could not sit together in public in Kansas City, and before 1954 could not eat together in public in most of America. I decided it was possible. We could get unlike people of all kinds together in a situation where they could get to know and learn to like each other.

Thus we now come to the morning of May 5, 1976: the first Human Family Reunion.

Beneath the trees on a grassy hillside, Chebon White Cloud is speaking in his native Otoe. For those of us who speak only English, he translates. But many of our number speak only German; Rosemarie Goos translates. In what must have been the first time ever, the picturesque Otoe Indian tongue, with its earth images and simple dignity, becomes the language of Luther and Nietzsche.

From the small town of Runkel, State of Hessen, Federal Republic of Germany, have come 120 members of our family. From the German-American community of Kansas City have come another 40. From Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas, have come a company of native American dancers drawn from several different tribes. From across the Kansas City Metropolitan area have come scores of ethnic Americans drawn originally from every corner of the globe and every country under the sun.

We are standing now in the sun of an early spring day on the campus of William Jewell College. Four hundred of us. Black and white, red and brown and all shades between. National dress and native costume, blue jeans and street clothes. Indian drums and a German brass band. Alpine yodels and western war cries. Fried chicken and Japanese tea crackers. The day is a smorgasbord of sights and sounds and people.

We are drawn together this day to mark the opening of the Ethnic Activities Center of Mid-America on the Liberty campus of William Jewell College. From 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, we celebrate our coming together. In Greek, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Italian, Navajo, Otoe, Polish, German and English, we recognize our differences, discover our likeness and affirm our ties to the human family.

Gifts are exchanged at our reunion: Rings and hats and pins. Wolfgang gives his hat to White Cloud. There are tears and laughter. Lawrence Yellow Fish dances. Sandra Help sings. Horst Reinhard plays the brass drum. Kurt Hampel leads the band.

The day ends as we all join arms in a massive folk dance. We stand shoulder to shoulder with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins we have never known and might never see again. When the next human-family reunion is held, the place and the participants may be different. Only a part of the family could make it this time. Four hundred were there, but four billion were eligible.

The 1977 Human Family Reunion is indeed in another place, the lovely Tokyo Plaza Restaurant on the far southwest side of Kansas City. We have reserved the entire restaurant for the evening. Amid the delicate paintings on the walls, with subtle aromas wafting our way from beautiful, lacquered bowls, chopsticks at our fingers, and graceful, kimonoed waitresses bringing bewildering arrays of exotic dishes, we sit cross-legged at our tables just a few inches from the floor.

Some of our less pliable family members are sitting at regular, western tables, and we exchange a few good natured barbs. Some of our less adventurous members do not relish a few of the dishes. Some pretend that they have sampled everything; a few actually do. Most everyone seizes on one dish found particularly pleasing, and compliments to the chef fill the air.

Sachi Stroder instructs us in the use of chopsticks, explains to us the importance of beautiful tableware in traditional Japanese dining, shows us how to pour tea and how to wear a kimono.

Two hundred of us have come tonight, drawn from 20 of the 30 or more ethnic communities in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area. Poles, Serbians, Mexicans, Russians, Croatians, Irish, Indians, Welsh, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, German, Slovenian, Japanese, French, Scottish, and Malaysian–all eating sushi and soy sauce and tempura–all talking to each other–and all American.

It is not my intent to describe for you each of the Human Family Reunions from 1976 to the present. I could do it. I have written it all down. And it gives me deep joy to think back on each of them.

But I dare not tell you of each. I might by doing so cause you to think less of them than they deserve. It’s like trying to describe a sunrise: the color, the sense of awe, the joy of being alive and able to see. Perhaps someone knows how to do that justice with words. I don’t.

The next Human Family Reunion is Tuesday, April 24, 6:30 p.m. at William Jewell College. For more information go to: http://www.hatebusters.com/

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