A man with white hair and a matching mustache is the only person sitting in Calvary Evangelical United Brethren Church, a grand but faded red-brick building at Shaker Boulevard and Woodhill Avenue.
He doesn’t hear me and Seth enter, so we tap him on the shoulder and introduce ourselves. He smiles and tells us his name is Mr. Primm. He’s a block club leader from a nearby street in the Woodland Hills neighborhood - Buckeye’s immediate neighbor.
We’re here for the biweekly meeting of Buckeye Ministry in Missions Alliance (BMMA), a coalition of church leaders and block club presidents from the area around the church. Their goals are to fight crime in Buckeye and Woodland Hills and create connections between neighbors.
The rest of the attendees file in - including Earnest Fields, the pastor at Calvary and the leader of today’s meeting, and Victoria Dennis, community organizer for Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp., who invited us.
Mr. Primm leads a brief opening prayer, and then it’s on to the first official order of business: that weekend’s Hour of Power and shoe giveaway, to be held in Art & Soul of Buckeye Park one day after the Buckeye Safety Summit.
“Lord, is that this Friday already?” someone asks.
Pastor Fields laughs and nods. With reserved enthusiasm, he runs through the lineup of performers for the Hour of Power. They include gospel rapper Sellers Johnson, the Pride of Glenville Marching Band and a troupe of praise dancers.
The idea is to provide positive programming on a street where many neighbors are concerned about drug dealing and out-of-control motorbikes . After the performances, BMMA will hand out 300 pairs of shoes, mostly received through donations organized by Trinity Outreach Ministries.
The event will also serve as a kick-off for A Day of Reclaiming, a similar mix of faith community-driven cultural programming and neighborhood support in Glenville and St. Clair Superior the next day.
Later in the summer, BMMA will hold a Back to School Gospel Fest. Like the Hour of Power and shoe giveaway, it’ll mix community arts and programming with the provision of free supplies - in this case, notebooks, pens and pencils.
For the most part, despite a few grants from Neighborhood Connections, BMMA has flown under the radar. But there are plans to change that, with Victoria planning a newsletter to promote the group’s activities. It’ll come out by fall.
The meeting ends after each of the block club leaders talk about activities on their streets. Afterwards, Laurita Larue, who heads the Shale Avenue Block Club, stays to talk to Seth about her work and our project.
Laurita worked for the Cleveland Clinic for more than 30 years before retiring.
“I could live anywhere, but it’s important to me that I stay here and help out,” she says.
The club’s activities focus especially on the elderly - a large and growing demographic in Buckeye and Woodland Hills. For example, Shale Avenue recently received a Neighborhood Connections grant for purchasing tools (such as snowblowers) to assist seniors and people with disabilities in property maintenance.
She’s inspired by her own elders, including a now-deceased neighbor named Emma who organized annual Christmas toy giveaways.
“That gave me inspiration, coming up,” she says. “It made me want to get involved – to do my own part.”
When Reverend Al Sharpton was in town recently, she heard him say something that stuck with her: That in Cleveland, all the money seems to be going downtown. When, he asked, are the dollars coming to your city? She reiterates that point. “When are they coming to ours? Where are our tax dollars going?”
When Friday night rolls around, Art & Soul of Buckeye Park is packed. People of all ages sit on planters to watch the performances, which climax with a rousing set by Pride of Glenville Marching Band.
They get a bit of a late start because power in the park had been shut off. People hanging out in the park had been using the outlets to charge their cell phones.
D’Angelo is there, too, broadcasting his weekly radio show. He’s steering clear of hip-hop tonight and focusing on Motown classics - more appropriate given the religious tone of the event, he says.
He also turns the tables on me, interviewing me about my own experiences in Buckeye so far.
Once the shoe giveaway starts next door, the park clears out in seconds - testament to the high levels of economic need in surrounding blocks. And perhaps to the fact that this is not a very desirable place to be after dark.
Like so much else we’ve had the privilege to witness in our time here, the event conveys a mixed message: of resilience and hope, on the one hand, and everyday hardship on the other.