This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
I became the first African-American pastor of the First Congregational Church of Detroit in midlife. I “got the call” after leading the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Greater Detroit. (I now have 48 years of sobriety.)
I soon realized that in the 150-year history of the First Congregational Church, my European-American and African-American congregants were like two different cultures under one roof. It took me seven years to find a way to bring them together, but I found the solution in 2001, on a black history bulletin board. I was ecstatic.
Congregational churches had been strongly antislavery since the 17th century, and our church had been a station on the Underground Railroad. That was the common bond: the abolition of slavery and the desire for freedom and self-determination.
In 2001, with a $6,000 grant from the City of Detroit, I created the Underground Railroad Living Museum Flight to Freedom Tour. It’s an interactive “education through entertainment” experience simulating a 1,000-mile escape from slavery in Louisiana to freedom in Canada, and it takes place throughout the 50,000-square-foot cellar of the church.
On our first tour, we had 20 “passengers.” By now, we’ve had more than 10,000, including thousands of schoolchildren. The tour has healed our congregation, and its message of freedom has touched people from around the world.
I’ve since retired from the church. And I’ve returned to BABES World, a project that I helped to create at the National Council on Alcoholism in 1977. (BABES stands for Beginning Awareness Basic Education Studies.) It uses fictional stories, told by puppets, to build resilience among at-risk children, who are too often vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse, and to create the kind of safe, nurturing environment that many young people lack. We’ve trained more than 10,000 people in all 50 states and five countries to share BABES World with youngsters.
It’s especially gratifying to me now to meet adults who know BABES World from their own childhood. Here in Detroit, a man told me that he had had BABES when he was in kindergarten. He had developed an addiction in his late teens or early 20s. But he had kept one of those puppets – Recovering Reggie, the dog who is a recovering alcoholic – and now he’s in recovery, too.
I know it seems like, how could I go from being a chief executive officer to a minister, and from a minister to a worker with puppets? It all just sort of fits together, especially with a new BABES segment about the Underground Railroad, which grew out of my experiences at church. We added a new character, Belinda Bloodhound, and a new story, told from the perspective of this little bloodhound: She is a descendant of the hounds that used to chase runaway slaves, but as a favorite of the black man who cared for the hounds, she helped him escape to freedom.
The Underground Railroad Living Museum changed the perceptions about slavery for African-Americans and European-Americans alike. People got the opportunity to see slavery from a different perspective. BABES World is giving thousands of children of all races a new perspective, too, with its vision of a world where young people are supported and encouraged to develop, unencumbered by addictions and other destructive behaviors.
So today, I am still ecstatic.
• Lottie Hood is pastor emeritus of the First Congregational Church of Detroit.