Sam Dimon

LEEANN LANDS: The way I’d like to start is to have you introduce yourself, and then you can launch right into your history at Emmaus House.

SAMUEL DIMON: Okay. How did I hear about Emmaus House? I was not religiously observant at all until the time I was — I was raised in a Methodist church, skipped church as soon as I was able to skip church, by subterfuge. Made a habit of skipping assembly at Westminster, where I went to high school, and was not at all religiously inclined until I was about twenty, when I became very interested, after a little bit of searching, in Christian life and faith. This would have been my third year at Harvard. I took a year off. I started in ’70 and graduated in ’75. And one of the things that became very important in my life was going to the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery, which is down on the Charles River, not so far from Harvard Square. Still there. A little-known fact, that the Episcopal Church does have monastic orders.

I thought, at different points in my life around that time, of becoming a monk. I thought of religious vocation. None of that kind did I pursue, but I did have a good friend who was the son of an Episcopal priest out West, who had started taking me to the monastery and with whom I shared my thoughts and dreams with. I had initially the idea that when I left college, I would go work with a monastic order somewhere, and I think I ended up picking — I was Episcopal, not Catholic, but I may have even picked a Catholic order, working in Haiti, just because I was persuaded by reading the Gospels and by personal experience that the Christian — at least my Christian vocation involved a call to identify as fully as I could with the life of the poor.

My roommate talked me out of the notion of going to Haiti, expressing concern with whether I was really ready for that and suggesting I do something domestically. I think that was a good suggestion. I think [chuckles] in part he was a little concerned that I was perhaps a little bit unbalanced in my religious enthusiasm. Again, there was a fair basis for some concern there. And was concerned that I not go off to a foreign country and experience a complete meltdown.

Now, how did I actually hear about Emmaus House? Well, I know that I had a friend, who had actually been a teacher in high school, who had worked, volunteered at Emmaus House, oh, let’s just say seven or eight years before, so let’s say 1968 or ’69. His name is [James] “Jim” Creech. He’s currently a professor at Miami of Ohio University, in the French Department. So I was familiar with Emmaus House. Somehow it occurred to me that Atlanta, where I had gone to high school and with which I was very familiar, would be a good place to settle after college, and somehow, you know, actually calling and getting myself invited to work as an intern happened. I don’t remember the particulars. I think I had some help, but I’m not sure. I might have simply called or written and said, “I would like to volunteer” and was accepted.

I started in the summer of 1975. I was twenty-three at the time. The permanent staff at Emmaus House at the time were Father [Austin] Ford, Sister Marie (who now goes by Mimi Bodell — she’s still a member of a Roman Catholic order, but she doesn’t go by “Sister” anymore, but for purposes of this narrative, I will refer to her as Sister Marie, since that’s what everybody knew her as at the time).

Columbus Ward was associated with Emmaus House then. I believe he was a paid staffer. I believe he did some driving of busses and other kinds of activities like that, in addition to being sort of a general staffer, which is what I was.

There was also a young man named Oliver [Brown]. I think Columbus is probably my age or maybe a year or two older; I’m not sure. Oliver was a few years younger. He was — I’m trying to remember whether he was — he didn’t have a relationship with his natural father. I think his mother was still alive. He was there quite a bit, if not all the time. He also drove the bus and did other things. He didn’t really have quite the same role. He wasn’t a counselor. I think it was probably in 1982 — I’m not positive — he was working on a car that was on a jack, and it was unstable, and it fell on him, and he was in the hospital for quite a while. I actually did go to see him in the hospital, but he was not really that present. He suffered basically a fatal brain — what eventually was a fatal brain injury.

LANDS: Yes.

DIMON: So then there were staffers, like myself, who were volunteers, and I think when I started, there were — I don’t remember last names. Alex [Kotlowitz] was there, Diane was there, Nina was there. I worked from June, I believe, or possibly the beginning of July until about February of the following year; that is, until February of 1976. There were other staffers who came and went at the time in what I’ll call Emmaus House proper. The Poverty Rights Office, which was next door, I’ll get to in a minute. I don’t remember — there was one young lady who didn’t work out that well, I think was asked to leave, largely had to leave on the grounds that she was relatively unsympathetic to the plight of the people in the neighborhood and felt they should pick themselves up and do something for themselves.

There were a couple — at least one, but I want to say two priests, who were from Nigeria, perhaps. One of them was named Father Jacob.

Gene Ferguson was also there. Gene was not really — his affiliation with Emmaus House was somewhat looser than Columbus’s. I don’t think Gene drove. He hung around. He was there a lot, and he did interact with the — like, there was a youth club. He interacted with them. He ate at Emmaus House not infrequently. He lived in the neighborhood. I knew Gene from having heard about him from my friend, Jim Creech. He’d been hanging around Emmaus House for a long time. And I think he may still live in the neighborhood. I don’t think he’s doing that well right now.

Then there was the Poverty Rights Office. Nancy — gosh, what was Nancy’s last name? Can you help me? Beishline?

LANDS: Yes, Beishline.

DIMON: Worked there. Dennis, and I’m slipping on his last name, was the lawyer who was there.

LANDS: Goldstein?

DIMON: Yes, Dennis Goldstein was there. I have an idea that Muriel Lokey was around, but I can’t place her as distinctly. We also had volunteers who would come and answer the phone at Emmaus House. So that provides you the basic structure.

I came in the context of the summer program, where my job was, in effect, to be a counselor at the summer program while doing other things. The summer program took children I want to say from five through high school and had an academic program and a sort of sports element to it, pretty informal, and culminated at the end of the year in going to Camp Mikell in northern Georgia. I think they may still continue that.

LANDS: Mm-hm.

DIMON: I was assigned to tutoring a group of young people, mostly girls, I believe, who were about five or six. I can remember some names, but by and large I haven’t kept up with what happened to the people I worked with. In a few cases, I know, but not in a lot of cases. So I was working with — maybe they’d been to first grade, so that would argue for them being six, right?

LANDS: Mm-hm.

DIMON: And we were working on stuff they should have learned in first grade and in some cases had, in some cases hadn’t: basic recognition of the alphabet, basic words, a little bit of basic reading, maybe some simple adding of numbers. We had workbooks and things like that. They were a fun handful. I have always loved working with children. I did it when I was high school. I volunteered to tutor. It wasn’t in Peoplestown; it was one of the communities — I think it might have been in Techwood, which is near Georgia Tech, I believe. But it was a low-income housing project situation.

Again, partly perhaps prompted by [chuckles softly] the notion that Jesus loved little children, but it wasn’t hard for me to love little children as well and work with them and try to motivate them and keep them interested and try to teach something. It was a challenge. They were a handful. I think we had two tutors. I had a helper maybe. And it wasn’t that large a group; it was maybe a dozen kids.

And so we would do that in the mornings. I’m kind of blanking, but I know we did some kind of activities. It might have been we went swimming sometimes or played somewhere. I really remember the tutoring part more than the other part.

I was also associated with — there was a teen club, and I was one of the counselors who worked with them. I don’t think it was a very hard line of demarcation in working with the teen club. I know I did. Maybe all of the counselors did. Maybe some of them did. I’m not quite sure. That was interesting and fun. They were a lively group of kids. And, you know, there were kids all in between.

I remember sometimes — for instance, we went on a hike somewhere. Maybe I’m thinking of Camp Mikell there, but I remember, you know, like, carrying one kid on my back, who got tired or his foot got blistered or something like that. We definitely swam at Camp Mikell, but I think there were other times we went swimming.

The teen club was, as I said, a lively group of teenagers that was fun and challenging to keep up with. There were also a couple of staffers more or less from the neighborhood. Walt and Sylvia, who were kind of boyfriend/girlfriend. I think eventually they got married. I believe they got divorced afterwards. And there were other people from the neighborhood who were very strong presences around the activities of Emmaus House. Some of them were associated with the — gosh, Mrs. [Ethel Mae] Matthews was head of what? Do you remember the name?

LANDS: The Poverty Rights Office?

DIMON: No.

LANDS: Oh, the Welfare Rights Organization in Atlanta.

DIMON: Yes, right, right, because it was not — it was a group effectively comprised of and run by people from the neighborhood, whereas I would say the Poverty Rights office was more run by staffers.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: Mrs. Matthews was in no way a staffer. She was definitely her own person. And so I attended meetings of the Welfare Rights Organization as well. There was also a Golden Age Club, which went places for field trips. I went with them on those. There was a food pantry. I was basically responsible for organizing and handling distributions from the food pantry. I may be blending things I did in the fall and winter with things that went on in the summer program. It’s a little bit hard to — I think all of those activities were going on all the time, but there was more time to do things like the food pantry after the summer program was done, so I may not have started that until after the summer program.

One of my jobs was taking food around to people who needed it. Some of them would come and get things at the House, but some were less able to come. Miss Annie, for instance, was an elderly woman who was blind, I believe, from glaucoma perhaps, and I’d take things to her house.

I seem to have a pattern of calling on different people, and I’m honestly not sure if there were always specific purposes. Like, I think I called on Mrs. Fields, who had a son. I might have carried the groceries over there. Her son was I think mentally handicapped, and so, although he was a grown man, he wasn’t in a position to come and get stuff and bring them back, and she was quite elderly.

I think everyone in the program decided, with very good cause, that I was kind of, shall we say charitably, a “special case”?

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

DIMON: Other words, like a space cadet —

LANDS: [Chuckles softly.]

DIMON: — might come to mind. I was — I tended to be absent minded. I tended to be somewhat preoccupied. I tended to be — I think most people, in fact, kind of liked me in kind of the indulgent way that you like people — not that I was mentally handicapped, but, you know, in the way you like people who are sort of special categories?

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

DIMON: Because I wasn’t mean, and I did pay close attention to people when I was speaking to them and kind of remembered things about them. But for when I was, as I mentioned before, fairly involved in my own religious life, including prayer, and I think I — and I wasn’t Catholic, so I couldn’t receive communion — I seem to recall that I went to mass every day anyway at some convent down the road, just to sort of be part of the service. I think to a lot of people I was sort of a religious nut, but one that they didn’t think badly of.

To skip ahead on that point, I remember with vivid clarity the fact that I did go to Camp Mikell in north Georgia, and I think I vaguely heard something there about keys to the house, did anybody have the keys to the house. I didn’t respond. It didn’t make any impression on me. I came home from Camp Mikell and gathered up my laundry to do my — I did laundry every few weeks, and gathered up my laundry, and there the keys to the house were, —

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

DIMON: — in my jeans pocket. And, you know, being a person of tender conscience, I couldn’t — I realized that they had in fact replaced all the locks on the house, —

LANDS: [Laughs.]

DIMON: — so I went to Father Ford and made an immediate confession, and I still remember vividly him putting his hands akimbo, on his hips, and looking at me and saying something like, “Sammy, some day you will grow up, and you will have a secretary, and she will take care of things for you. And you will be fine then. But until then, you have to learn to do better.” And I wholeheartedly agreed with him. [Laughter.] Which didn’t help with the bill for the — I didn’t have — I had virtually no means. I made I think maybe sixty or ninety dollars a month or something like that so that I could cover living expenses, but I lived and ate there, and I wasn’t being supported by my parents, so I didn’t have a lot I could chip in to pay for the lock renewal. But I was forgiven.

Mrs. Matthews I think took — Mrs. Matthews, who could be a fairly intimidating woman — I think I kind of touched a soft spot in her heart, and it may have been because I had a recorder, and she caught me playing a couple of songs. One of them was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” I don’t know if you know the tune.

LANDS: No.

DIMON: But it — let’s see. Oh, and the other was “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Now, my mother was in fact alive, but I was playing it, and I think it was that one that she asked me — she asked me what the name of those songs were. And I said — now, Mrs. Matthews had lost her mother, I would hazard to guess, a number of years ago, but she was I think close to her mother in life and told me that being a motherless child was a really hard thing to be and did I know that, and I said, “I can only imagine,” but, yes, I thought it must be a very hard thing to be. And I think she decided I was all right and that maybe I was in some way someone who needed some mothering. And, although she didn’t actually try to mother me that much, I think she still took a — you know, let’s put it this way: I was never the object of her fierce determination or admonitions.

I also lobbied hard and won the right to take two hours off in the middle of the day for reading the Bible, prayer and meditation. This was not easily accepted, but I think it was a discussion largely with Sister Marie, and, you know, being a member of an order, herself, I don’t think she could totally be opposed to this, but she did inquire closely into why I wanted to do this. I told her that in order to have the energy to really give everything I wanted to give from a schedule that was basically, you know, seven to ten or seven to ten thirty or something at night, I needed this time to myself. And she accepted that.

One of the things I did, and I think it was probably — some of it was in the summer; some of it was in the fall. They were connected with the Poverty Rights Office and with community organizing. I did go on some demonstrations to the — like, down to the state capitol. The amounts that were paid to women and their children who were on welfare was something you couldn’t live on even in Peoplestown. I think maybe it was a hundred and twenty a month, which you really couldn’t make ends meet on, so it sort of in effect was forcing people to be more or less dishonest, which I did think was quite wrong.

I’m not sure that — I mean, it was kind of assumed, I think, that you would come if you were there, but I actually had a sort of reflected agreement with — upon reflection, that is — agreement with the points that were being made, although sometimes the language was a little bit extreme for me, although I understood, you know, people were angry and were shouting things, not in a — there was no — you know, these were relatively orderly marches, but people would sometimes break out in saying things about the governor or the legislature or so forth that troubled my then tender conscience a little bit. Even though I understood why one would say that, I sort of thought it wasn’t good for the sayers to say that. But I participated.

There was also — there was a fair bit of money available for families who were being displaced, partly, I believe, by the — had been displaced, were being displaced. Some of it had to do with the expressway, but there were other reasons that land was being condemned, and when the land was condemned, people who inhabited the property were entitled to a relocation payment. Of course, if we hadn’t done anything, none of the people would have known that, so one of my jobs was to go around and tell people that and work with them to try to get their information, get an application submitted, and see to it that they actually got help with a relocation. Which I did.

There were some terrible, terrible apartments where people lived, between Emmaus House and the freeway. A lot of them were boarded up. They probably, I’m just going to guess, were something like low-income housing projects that somebody probably put money in for tax credits. I think the credit kind of programs were available. But just let them go to wrack and ruin. So you’d find people, families living in largely boarded-up apartment buildings without even necessarily utilities, who were being given notices of eviction. They were just tacked up on the boarded-over windows, and so I’d go and try to sign up people like that, which certainly was something I felt good about doing, although I didn’t feel good about their lives in general.

There were a large group of teenagers or near teenagers in the neighborhood, and it was kind of sadly clear how things were kind of falling out in that there were a few who were going to be okay, which generally meant they were going to leave the neighborhood, and a large majority were not going to be okay, meaning that they would not have steady work. They would live in the neighborhood, they would in many cases get into trouble, and I have heard over the years — Sister Marie would tell me, and, oh, there was one set of brothers. The younger brother was named — everybody called him Hurt, H-u-r-t. Marie will probably remember his real name. I think it was he who got into an argument with his brother and killed him.

LANDS: Hmm.

DIMON: So he went to prison I believe for life. There were lots of other people I would ask about later and hear, “Oh, you know, Ricky’s in prison now.” Usually for, you know, something between theft and robbery kind of charges, or maybe violence-related charges. It was kind of sad to see, but there were the Pace brothers, who were clearly going to get out. Terry and — gosh, Terry was the older brother; I’m trying to remember his younger brother’s name. Again, Sister Marie will probably remember. Columbus Ward will know.

Terry I want to say — he was ROTC, so he may have joined the Army, or maybe it was his younger brother who ended up joining the Army, but I think they both, after high school, in one way or another found work outside the neighborhood.

Walt and Sylvia were clearly going to be okay. I think Walt may have eventually ended up working as a policeman. Don’t know about Sylvia.

But there was a large group of boys and girls, teenagers, who you could kind of begin to see the writing on the wall for, and, you know, it would be, “Okay, well, [so and so] had a baby” or something this or something that. I mean, that typically was how things seemed to shake out for a lot of the girls, not all of them. Eventually they may have had babies without having had sort of a husband who was there on a regular basis, or maybe not married at all, or maybe married shortly and then not, or — you know, it was situations that tended to be unstable. And I eventually ended up not actually caring for those girls’ babies, but I moved over after I worked at Emmaus House to a daycare center which was about a block away. Worked there for about, mmm, six months, and then I moved to a different daycare center, which was nearer to where I lived at the time, after I left Emmaus House, which was near Little Five Points.

That’s not Emmaus House. I won’t go into that. But, again, it was pretty amazing and pretty heartbreaking at the same time, how it’s always true, it’s been my experience all through my life, that whenever a man who’s not a father shows attention to young children, they respond well to it because they’re not used to it. That’s certainly true in underprivileged communities like the Peoplestown community, where there were all too few men present at all who had any kind of nurturing or responsible role. There certainly were some, but at the same time, it was also painful, but not a pain from which I wished to heal myself, to see that you can make a difference while you’re there, but then also, in effect, your ability to make a difference fades pretty quickly.

Actually, there’s a wonderful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s called something like “The Lantern out of Doors,” which kind of speaks — that I could quote it, but I don’t think that you really need that as part of your oral history of the Emmaus House. It in effect is the poet’s recognition that much as people enlighten and enliven his life, as he says,

…be in at the end

I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

which he concludes with sort of a religious theme. He was a Jesuit.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend

[There,] eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,

Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.”

Which I actually still believe. And if I didn’t, work like I did at Emmaus House would drive me to despair, but it didn’t. And I’m not in — I don’t live in Atlanta; I do contribute to Emmaus House, and I actually understand that the neighborhood demographic has shifted considerably. I think it’s getting somewhat gentrified, although I’m not sure, since I haven’t been there to check it out for twenty years. Twenty years ago, it was better than it had been thirty-four years ago, but it was still far from being gentrified. But I think it’s, you know, kind of — in effect, the poor are pushed further to the outskirts at this juncture.

Dennis [Goldstein] was a great lawyer, as far as I could judge very energetic, very thoughtful, very busy. I’m a lawyer now, but I wasn’t even remotely interested in being a lawyer at the time. But I did enjoy his friendship.

Oh, I should have mentioned, too, there was a woman from Germany named Inge who was there. She was a bit older than the other volunteers. We were twenty-two or –three. She might have been twenty-five or –six or something like that. She was there for three to six months as well. Kind of an itinerant, as best I could tell. As we all were in some fashion or another. Like, I wasn’t on a career path at the time. I only much later in my life came to having a profession.

LANDS: Were you at Emmaus for one year? What was your actual stint?

DIMON: It was either June, late June of ’05 or early July of ’05 to I want to say the end of February ’06, so that’s —

LANDS: You mean ’75 to ’76, right.

DIMON: Yes, but it’s not a year.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: It’s seven months, probably, seven or eight months. I think — yes, probably eight, but don’t hold me to it.

I’m trying to remember if there are other things that come back.

Father Ford was an interesting and sort of unique figure. Very well loved in the community, I believe, very well respected. He’d been there quite a while and earned the trust of the people who were there. I didn’t feel — I felt in some ways that I got to know him pretty well, and in other ways not. There was a certain private side to his life that I didn’t intrude on. You know, he was in charge, and I worked there. But I still felt he was a nice and, to me, affectionate person, and affectionate to the people in the neighborhood, and I respected him and liked him. He could be a little bit wilting sometimes if you, say, lost the keys, but he was actually a very gentle soul, by and large.

Oh, Gail was there, too, Sister Gail, who — you can find out about her from other folks who may well know about her, but I knew her when she was still a sister. She left the order I think after I left Emmaus House and eventually got married to a person she met visiting in prison and had a child. She’s no longer married to him. Marie or somebody else can tell you about Gail, although it probably would be a good idea to talk to her if you have not otherwise done so.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: Gosh — and her last name was — it was either — it’s [Mayhan, Mayhen? 47:39], something like that, I think.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: But her last name may also have changed. I don’t remember.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: Partly because I don’t — like Sister Marie Bodell. I don’t remember if Marie Bodell is entirely an assumed name. I think it may be, as opposed to Bodell having been her family name, but I can’t follow those practices. I mean, I’m just not aware of them. But anyway, Marie can tell you about Gail.

LANDS: Okay. Can you tell me about the Poverty Rights Office? Did it — it operated separately from Emmaus House, or it was in relationship with?

DIMON: Yes. Clearly in relationship with, but it was a separate — yes, I think it had a separate — I’m not sure that Emmaus House at the time had a board. It certainly does now. I just don’t remember hearing about a board. The Poverty Rights Office may have been, and I believe it probably was separately incorporated. Emmaus House was, in effect, under a church umbrella. You know, it was a church umbrella organization. It was a mission house. So, for instance — I won’t swear to this, but I believe that at least at the time, if you made a donation to Emmaus House — I’m not sure that it had a separate tax-exempt status rather than one that was derivative of its being a church outreach house.

I think the Poverty Rights Office was separately incorporated as a 501(c)(3), meaning a charity that is recognized as a charitable organization, although I won’t — I won’t swear to whether it was a 401(c)(3) or –(c)(4). It probably still exists — they can probably tell you that information. But it was distinct. It was a distinct building. It was sort of — Emmaus House is on what’s now — is it Martin Luther King Boulevard?

LANDS: Hank Aaron.

DIMON: Hank Aaron, that’s right, that’s right. It used to be Capitol Avenue, and so if you were going south on Capitol Avenue from the stadium and took a right right after Emmaus House, the Poverty Rights Office was the next building on the right, sort of behind Emmaus House but facing on that other street. I don’t know what their arrangement is now.

I did know something at the time about the caseload that Dennis was working on, but I honestly couldn’t give you a lot of detail on that.

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: I think it’ll be kind of a mixed bag of cases. I really wouldn’t be the right person to narrate on that.

LANDS: That’s okay. Okay. Can you describe the Peoplestown neighborhood for me? And imagine here that someone reading your transcript has never seen the neighborhood before, so I want to hear what it looked like, and what do you think the demographics were in ’75, ’76?

DIMON: Sure. Yes, I can describe it almost like a walk through the neighborhood, in a way.

LANDS: That would be great.

DIMON: So let me orient myself by saying that Emmaus House faces east on what was then Capital Avenue. I think it was 1017 Capital Avenue. It has grown over the years, so it was smaller. We did have a chapel as an adjunct, but it was very significantly upgraded from what it is now. It was a decent house. If I were facing Emmaus House while standing on Capitol Avenue, in fact facing west, where everyone entered, generally, was on the left. I think that’s probably still the case. To the right was where the interns lived. And somewhere on the right, too, there was a chapel, which was pretty modest.

Emmaus House was in decent repair. Father Ford was an ardent gardener, so there were plenty of nice flowers around. Poverty Rights Office was in good shape. Looking to the right, in other words, looking north on the same side of the street as Emmaus House was several houses that were in decent but not great shape, and that’s always a relative term. They had the basics of running water and heat. I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and, for instance, the woman who took care of me lived in a house with no utilities at all. I stayed at her house sometimes. So by that standard, these were decent houses, but they were certainly relatively run down, relatively unpainted and not in good repair, just not in terrible repair.

There’s one house I’m not sure about. Mrs. Matthews lived maybe three down, and it was either two or four down was where Mr. Render and his wife lived. Mrs. Matthews’ house was pretty good. You know, she took pride in having, you know, a house she felt okay about, but she didn’t have a lot of means, so she certainly — and I’m pretty confident she didn’t own it, although I won’t swear to it, so she wasn’t out there painting the house or something like that, but it seemed, in its own way — had a homey feel to it.

Mr. Render and his wife were quite a pair. I could go on at length about them, but I think you’re after the neighborhood right now, but their house was sparser, sketchy on the furnishings, much less like a home, really.

The houses — if you kept going north and went off to the right, so you went — I can’t honestly tell you how far, a number of blocks north and off to the right I think was where May Helen lived, May Helen Johnson, whom you should talk if you don’t have her name. That was a somewhat nicer neighborhood. The houses were basically well painted, and I think that the people who lived in them — certainly a number of them owned the house, although I think Mr. — oh, what was his name? Clarence — gosh, he owned a lot of houses in the neighborhood. He lived there, but a number of them were rentals, as well, I think.

The other side of Emmaus House — like, if I stood on the porch of Emmaus House and looked across the street, there were a number of quite run-down houses. One of them was occupied by a woman — if you ask Sister Marie who Coco’s mother was —

LANDS: Okay.

DIMON: Coco’s real name was Quo Vadis, which somebody must have had an ironic sense of humor in naming her Quo Vadis, which means “where are you going?” Could have referred to the father, could have referred to — more likely referred to the novel. Could have been a question about Coco’s life. She was about thirteen at the time. But this woman was — I want to say had six or seven children living with her. Mrs. Matthews had — people were there, like her grandson, who I remember as Sweet Pea, who was maybe fourteen of the time, was there a lot, but I don’t think he lived there.

So across the street they were more run-down, and there were larger groups of people living there. There is a family relationship. I visited a number of houses where my students lived, the people I had charge of during the summer, and talked to their parents, you know, basically trying to interest their parents in — you know, telling them what we were doing, how they were doing, so not a written report card but I’d just sort of go by and give a report and, you know, try to do it in a way that was encouraging and gave them something to praise their children for and something to encourage them in in a positive way.

Those were generally also pretty bleak houses, by and large, pretty run down. One characteristic of Emmaus House that would, say, differentiate it from— or the Emmaus House neighborhood, Peoplestown, that would differentiate it from some of the very low-income neighborhoods in Columbus — Columbus had a lot of shotgun houses, and it had a lot of houses that were near the mill, and it also had a lot of houses, like I mentioned, where my caretaker, the woman who took care of me, Mahaly lived. Peoplestown had a run-down feel to it. These were bigger houses that had been probably relatively nice at one point, so it would sort of indicate, I think but I do not know, that the neighborhood had gone from being a white neighborhood to a black neighborhood?

But the sense was these were probably — it was not a shotgun house; it was not a house on bricks; it was, say, in some cases, a two-story house or a house with a big porch, some of which were probably built as duplexes and some of which not, but they were, like, completely poorly maintained. And a lot of times, there would be some effort, I think, to see what one could get a landlord to do, but that was not usually — there weren’t good tenant protection laws.

Facing Emmaus House again, coming back to that sort of focal point, further south, in others words, across from the Poverty Rights Office, was a park. It was pretty unkempt, not well maintained. It had a little bit of — maybe a sandlot; maybe there was something that could have passed as the backstop for a pitch — you know, where a catcher could be there and catch a ball for a ballgame. It was not well maintained.

There was a place called Vic’s, which was on Capitol Avenue south of that street that was directly south of Emmaus House, on which the Poverty Rights Office faced.

LANDS: Haygood?

DIMON: Hmm?

LANDS: Haygood is the street, I think?

DIMON: Yes, yes, thank you. It was just south of Haygood. And Vic’s was a grocery store. There was always a guy with a pistol there, an armed guard. He was black. Vic was Jewish. Vic wasn’t, I think, well loved in the neighborhood. There were not infrequent — I mean, I think there had been robberies. He charged pretty high prices.

There was a Holiness Church maybe further down the block. I went there once or twice, and I don’t know if it — there were a number of very religiously observant people, mostly ladies, associated with Emmaus House. I think most of the people associated with Emmaus House would have told you that they were basically — would have said either, “I am a Christian” or “I’m gonna be a Christian. I believe it’s all true. I just need a bit of time. I’m not ready to change my ways just yet.”

But there were different traditions, and I don’t know if you know them or not. It may not be of great interest to you. But the Holiness tradition is quite distinct from the Pentecostal tradition. In the Holiness Church, you have a sort of style of preaching which you probably — in part it’s call and response, or loud amens and so forth. There’s not speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, which is associated with the Pentecostal churches. I know all of this because I went to all of them. But there is testifying and there’s falling out. Falling out, a Pentecostal would call being slain in the spirit. In this neighborhood, it was just falling out, which is kind of go into a trance and fall on the floor.

So I went there a time or two and, you know, felt welcomed and included. I did sort of stand out. I stood out in the neighborhood generally because the demographics was — besides the people at Emmaus House, it was an all-black neighborhood. And besides Vic, who came into work at Vic’s. I think it was Vic, the guy who was there, who owned it. He was white.

But occasionally, like — there was one woman who lived in a project away from Emmaus House, and she wanted me to come visit her, which I did, and she was very religious. You know, I was religious, so she wanted to talk to me about things of faith, and that was fine and good. She had a habit of falling out at marches, which wasn’t a big deal, but, you know, she would — you’d have some singing, some singing of spirituals. She might testify, as she would say, and then she’d fall out, and then she’d be okay. But I digress.

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

DIMON: If you continued on Haygood all the way to where you stop at — or maybe one street short of stopping at the fence where the expressway was?

LANDS: Mm-hm.

DIMON: Actually, I think it probably was the one right on the expressway. Terrible, terrible, boarded-up apartments. Brick, so, you know, like, somebody put some money into them at some point, I’m guessing probably it’s low-income housing with low-income housing tax credits being the reason for the investment to start with, not maintained whatsoever. There were some people in the neighborhood who were more or less derelict and didn’t really have a permanent home, who might stay in some of the apartment that were essentially gutted.

It tended to get better as you went [east] towards Grant Park, and I think that has always been the case. It’s matters of degree, but those weren’t flourishing neighborhoods at the time. They tended — I think at the time over to Grant Park was largely, though perhaps not exclusively, black. But Peoplestown was definitely all black.

Other parts of the neighborhood. There was a convent which was over near the expressway, which may be a quarter mile or so north, on an avenue that was close to the expressway. That was modern. And the houses there were nicer. So essentially — I’m trying to remember south of Emmaus House, and I don’t know why, but I tend to — I’m much more familiar with what was just north of Emmaus House than what was south of the park. The daycare center was past the park, off of Haygood. There was another street that went to it. But further south, say, on Capital Avenue, I have very little memory, and that probably means I didn’t go there a lot to — you know, that people who were coming to Emmaus House or Poverty Rights weren’t there. They tended to be north of Emmaus House. But I honestly just can’t conjure up a memory of what that neighborhood was like.

LANDS: Okay. I think south of there tends to be heading towards the railroad tracks, and there’s a railroad junction there, so there’s not much housing in that area.

DIMON: Yes, that vaguely sounds familiar, but I can’t actually picture — I can picture a lot of things pretty clearly about the neighborhood, but I can’t, like, picture walking to the railroad. I know I did, but I can’t, like, picture the path to it or something like that.

LANDS: What have we missed about Emmaus House that you think I should know?

DIMON: Oh, let’s see, besides some people I’m remembering. Margie Brown was there, and Sister Marie has probably kept up with Margie. Oh, and Sue was there, too. These were, again, volunteers. They may have volunteered more at the Poverty Rights Office.

LANDS: Would Sue be Sue Taylor?

DIMON: No. In fact, as I said, I knew I got it wrong, it was Sandy. Sandy and Margie. Margie was definitely Margie Brown. Sandy — again, Sister Marie is better with names than I am. I called everybody by first name.

But Sunday services were a gathering of different parts, both of that community and other communities. Some people who were associated with Poverty Rights Office would come. I think one or two people who might have known about it through St. [Bartholomew’s], which is where Father Ford had come from, might come. And people like Johnnie Brown came. I think she played the piano. You probably have met her, will interview her daughter.

LANDS: Right.

DIMON: And maybe you interviewed Johnnie. Her daughter is Jeanne? Is that right?

LANDS: Jeanne [pronounced juh-ANY]?

DIMON: Jeanne, yes, Jeanne. So I think Johnnie usually played the piano or organ. I don’t know where Johnnie lived. I don’t think it was proximate to Emmaus House, but I couldn’t tell you where it was. But she definitely came. And so, like, I worked on Sunday school, but it was actually the — gosh, at the time, where were we? I think Father Ford probably was using Rite I. In ’76 was when the new prayer book came in, so we were using the ‘29 [1929] Prayer Book in ‘75. And it was Episcopal style order of worship, with communion, and he preached every Sunday for fifteen minutes or so. Took about an hour over all. Maybe it was Sunday school afterwards or something like that. I enjoyed the services a lot. I think a lot of people did. The singing was heartfelt and pretty good. Mine wasn’t pretty good, but it was heartfelt.

Let’s see, one other memory. My room was broken into, which I took no offense at. I know pretty well who did it and kind of why, even. It was a young man of about eighteen, in the neighborhood, whom I had — you know, I said something kind of — along the “that doesn’t cut it” line, some behavior or other he was doing around Emmaus House, and I said, “Cut it out.” So he broke into my room, or I strongly suspect it was he. The good thing —

[Lost connection. Disruption in conversation.]

DIMON: You asked me further impressions of the neighborhood, and one thing I said was that I thought it was in fact a relatively safe neighborhood. There were some indications, I saw sometimes, that there might have been domestic violence, just from seeing bruises or something like that, but there was no violence on the streets other than fighting between boys sometimes, and that was actually very rare, too. I actually told something — and I don’t know if you were on line — about a fight up at Camp Mikell, which I stopped, which one of the counselors was in fact kind of encouraging a person who was from the neighborhood. I stopped it. But I didn’t feel — and I don’t think — you know, like, wandering around the streets wasn’t — I didn’t have the issue that any woman anywhere on any dark street has to think a little bit more than I do. But I don’t think there was this feeling of personal insecurity on the part of any of the staff that I noticed while I was there.

And in general, relationships between the staff and the people in the neighborhood were warm. You know, some staff members hit it off a little bit better than others, which is only to be expected, but particularly the people who had been there a bit longer — like, Margie Brown would be an example, or Sandy — had quite warm relationships with a lot of the people in the neighborhood, mostly those who came to Emmaus House, because we would have meals where people would come, and it was — I don’t know quite how that worked. You know, people just seemed to sort of drop by and have dinner. Maybe Father Ford invited them, or maybe they just kind of came when they came. There seemed to be some understanding with — gosh, what was the lady who did the cooking? Mrs. Johnson, maybe? Very nice lady, who somehow always managed to serve up about the right amount of food, so I suspect she had some idea, and maybe people were discouraged from coming if they didn’t say by two o’clock they were coming. But it was a warm and nurturing environment, I thought, in a neighborhood that, notwithstanding the physical deterioration of the neighborhood and some dysfunctionality around family units, was a pretty, I’d say, warm neighborhood. It wasn’t anonymous.

There were people who were marginal to the neighborhood because, for instance, they were alcoholics and didn’t generally sort of live at a particular place or fit in very well because they were intoxicated most of the time, but most of the other people knew each other, and I’m not saying they were all best friends because I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but everybody seemed to know everybody, pretty much, and know what was going on, what was transpiring with different people. It wasn’t an anonymous neighborhood is in part what I’m saying. It was a neighborhood that I think for everybody who lived there was populated by human beings who were individuals and who by and large got along with each other, not perfectly but, you know, it was a place I enjoyed being, even though some aspects of what I saw were heartbreaking.

LANDS: Do you mind if I ask why you ultimately decided to leave for another position?

DIMON: No. I felt I was burning out. It really was a job that was pretty much, like, a seven to eleven job, and people kind of came and went in terms of other volunteers, You know, what is seven to eleven? Sixteen hours. And I took two hours out a day, so fourteen-hour days without vacations for eight months is — you get tired.

LANDS: Yes.

DIMON: And I just felt I didn’t — I mean, in effect you had people who had something of lives of their own. Sister Marie — I don’t — I can’t swear to what — I think she lived with a group of sisters, but I cannot tell you any details, but she can. Father Ford had his own separate space, which was, you know, a nice space, and his own friends, even though he was fairly solitary and did things like gardening. But, you know, I was kind of doing a fair bit of the groundwork, and I found it emotionally satisfying but also draining just because there were a lot of things to attend to, and a lot of people whom I felt called to try to give as much attention to as I could in a constructive way, and it was kind of never ending.

I guess you could say in a way I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, because then I started working eight hours a day, only, at a daycare center where there would typically be myself and one other person with twenty-odd children, in the age ranges from two and a half to four and a half to five, which was pretty demanding, too.

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

DIMON: But it was different. I mean, part of it actually was — as I remember, I think it was in the winter that I enrolled — it sort of coincided with enrolling in an early childhood education master’s program at Georgia State University. That more or less coincided. Because I was thinking sort of like, Well, okay, I’ve done this for nine months. I’m sort of running out of energy, and besides which, I probably should think somewhat longer term. So I went to the daycare center and started the master’s program.

I sadly came to the conclusion that if you want to work with underprivileged children in a preschool setting, it is absolutely impossible to make the wage on which you could begin to support a family unless you’re an administrator, which, I can assure you, I have no gifts in, or you could be a college professor, which I had no interest in doing, so I after a while abandoned that course of study and eventually, after spending about a year teaching in daycare, after a brief transition job, went up to take a summer novitiate at a — it’s funny, because I’m in a law firm now, and we have summer associates — so I was a summer novice at a Benedictine monastery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was my next move. And after that, it’s a long and winding road.

But that’s it, basically. I felt I’d given what I had to give in the essentially volunteer capacity, that I had given it, and that, to find a way to make a longer-lasting and I hoped more sustainable contribution to the world, I needed probably some more education, probably a change of jobs, which I explored for quite a while.

LANDS: Well, I appreciate all your time. I’m sorry, we went over an hour, so —

DIMON: That’s all right.

LANDS: Thanks again. Enjoy your evening, and I will be in touch with you by e-mail.

DIMON: Good. Thanks. Bye.


Telephone Interview with: Sam Dimon
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Date: 4 August 2009
Location: by Skype
Transcribed by: Mim Eisenberg/WordCraft
Edited by: LeeAnn Lands
File: WAV


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